NEW YORK — Do working mothers invest significantly less time in their children than at-home mothers? That is the question University of Maryland sociologist Suzanne Bianchi recently posed in an address to the Population Association of America. In a provocative analysis of the recent social science research, Ms. Bianchi came to the startling conclusion that America's working moms are doing almost as well as their nonworking counterparts - on the average, spending only four hours less per week with their kids.
One might quibble a bit with this finding. It lumps part-time and full-time working women into one basket, obscuring the fact that, according to one study cited by Bianchi, full-time working women are actually accessible to their children a full six hours less per week than either part-time or nonworking mothers.
Though Bianchi seems to have minimized the hardships of full-time versus part-time maternal employment, she's on solid ground with her assertion that the amount of time the average mother spends with each child has since the 1920s remained surprisingly stable, even increased some. How is this possible? Eighty years ago, women spent many hours on household tasks and other unpaid labor. They also had more children; thus, they did not enjoy much time to engage with each one. Today, the burdens of housework are lighter, and families are smaller. While many more women with children work outside the home, these women tend to choose part-time employment. Only half of all women between the ages of 25 and 54 were employed full time in 1998. And only slightly more than a third of mothers of preschoolers had full-time jobs.
Findings like these should help put to rest a disturbing tendency among social scientists and social policy pundits to frame the debate on the future well-being of America's children by pitting employed mothers against at-home mothers, arguing acrimoniously over who is doing a better job raising kids. The answer to that question is that the majority of women are doing a decent enough job because they have made a conscious decision, as Bianchi puts it, to organize their lives in ways that enable them to "retain control" of their children.
Still, there may be something of a gap between the amount of time the average mother would ideally spend with kids versus the amount of time she actually spends. Despite our unparalleled prosperity as a society, giving undivided attention to children is almost as great a luxury now as it was nearly a century ago. It is not only that a host of work pressures cause even part-time employed mothers to squeeze precious hours from sleep and leisure in order to free up time for kids.
At-home mothers find themselves under increasing social pressure to relinquish even pre-school children to nonmaternal care for many hours a week. In fact, the reason at-home mothers are not necessarily any more engaged with their preschool children than mothers who work part time is that at-home moms enroll these children in educational programs and other out-of-home activities with nearly the same frequency.
Should we worry that in America increasing wealth has not resulted in more face-to-face time with kids? Maybe. In comparison with the 1920s, today's barriers to family time are far more insidious. Where once maternal engagement was hampered only by the burdens of critical subsistence tasks, today the principal thief of time is a fast-moving market economy offering a cafeteria of ever-changing, often senseless temptations.
In talks with hundreds of mothers over the past 10 years, I've heard them fret repeatedly over the driving treadmill they fear is warping their children's values, a treadmill of ever-bigger homes, ever-expanding closets, and ever-more purchased entertainments and activities. Mommy, they insist, may not be spelled m-o-n-e-y, but you wouldn't know it to live 21st-century America.
Indeed, all too many children today are on the verge of confusing parents with paychecks. In a 1999 study on work and family life, Ellen Galinsky, author of "Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents," asked kids "to make a wish that would change the way their parents' work affects their lives."
The answer given by most children? They wished Dad and Mom brought home more money.
What's missing in that picture? Everything meaningful about the job of parenting. Parenting, after all, is not about a purse. It is about a vocation and a mission - about an obligation to bring up children as loving people with strong inner resources. If, in an age of ever-more serious youth malaise, moms (and dads, too) are to be effectively encouraged to do a better job than they are presently doing, the scale of judgment must weigh more than simply the measure of their continued investment of a certain steady number of hours with children. The scale of judgment must weigh their commitment, even at the sacrifice of far more time, to counter the consumer pressures and materialism of contemporary culture.
How about an alternative rule of thumb in setting standards for "good enough" parenting: If a couple's combined hours in the labor force exceed 60 per week, one parent should resolve to cut down on work in order to spend more time with the kids. It need not necessarily be Mom; it can be Dad. But someone should be there for the kids.
Dana Mack is the author of 'The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family' (Encounter Books) and the editor of a forthcoming source-reader on marriage, 'The Book of Marriage: The Wisest Answers to the Toughest Questions' (Eerdmann's).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society