The best Mother's Day gift: family time

Survey shows most Moms feel there isn't enough time in the day to get everything done.

This is the week when idealized images of motherhood proliferate. Newspaper ads and TV commercials feature serene, smiling women, sometimes with cherubic children, in Mother's Day pitches for jewelry, handbags, cellphones, and perfume. And on greeting-card racks, superlatives abound, praising Mom as "the greatest," "the best," "the most wonderful."

But those upbeat images and sweet sentiments may be at odds with reality. All is not rosy in the land of 21st-centurymotherhood. Nearly half of mothers responding to one survey described themselves as the least happy member of the family. Asked to identify the happiest person in the household, they cited the rest of the family – husbands, sons, and daughters.

These women attribute their unhappiness to the stresses they face as mothers. Two-thirds say there isn't enough time in the day to get everything done. More than half are worried about finances. Some say they are overworked and overwhelmed. Others think they're taken for granted by family members.

The survey by Shopzilla is relatively small – slightly more than a thousand mothers – and decidedly unscientific. But it hints at a challenge that deserves broader attention.

Anxiety has always gone with the territory of motherhood. Women have long been held accountable for whatever doesn't go right with child rearing. But lately mothers appear to be getting more than their share of criticism, directly or indirectly.

In recent months a guest columnist for The New York Times – a woman – criticized mothers for sexualizing the dress and style of their children. About the same time, a study of American child care found that preschoolers who spend a year or more in day care are slightly more likely to become disruptive in class later. The implicit message could be: If mothers didn't work, this wouldn't be an issue.

But mothers who stay home aren't off the hook, either. To them, Linda Hirshman, the author of "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World," poses a stern question: Why aren't you out there earning a paycheck and a pension? In an Op-Ed piece last month, she reminded mothers that participating in public life "allows women to use their talents and to powerfully affect society."

But isn't that also what good child rearing is all about, too?

Women who "opt out" of the workforce, Ms. Hirshman warned, usually can't regain their former income or status. It's a message echoed in another hotly debated book this spring, "The Feminine Mistake," in which author Leslie Bennetts argues that to ensure their economic security now and later, women can't afford to quit their jobs.

Opt out? Opt in? The answers aren't always easy. No wonder three-quarters of women think it's much harder to be a mother today, nurturing both family and career.

On the home front, other issues loom, such as the ever present question of housework – who does what, and how much. Although married men are far more involved in child care and housework than in past eras, studies show that mothers still do twice as much housework and child care as fathers do.

To all of this add caregiving for older members of the family, and it's probably little wonder that the old question, "How much is a homemaker worth?" now has a six-figure answer: $138,000 a year, according to Salary.com.

A recent study from the University of Maryland finds that parents today spend at least as much time caring for their children as mothers and fathers did four decades ago. But parents still feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children.

Lamenting this impossible quest for perfection and control, Ann Dunnewold, author of "Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box," has noted that in today's culture, mothers, "must always be loving, patient, kind, groomed, soft-spoken, and happy – rules that no human can really uphold all the time. Mothering today is hard. Women are running on empty."

As an alternative to what she calls the "mommy madness" of trying to be a perfect mother, Ms. Dunnewold suggests a new, more realistic model: the perfectly good mother.

Among the Mother's Day surveys popping up like dandelions this month, the question "What does Mom want for Mother's Day?" appears more than once. Women's most heartfelt wish in two different surveys is for more time – make that quality time – with the family.

This Sunday, as mothers revel in the pleasure of cards and flowers and gifts, perhaps even savoring burned toast in bed, it's time to declare a moratorium on all that parental guilt and worry. It's a day to clear the calendar and make room for that family time. A day to express the thanks that often go unspoken for small deeds and large, and a day to try to increase Mom's happiness quotient.

Whatever the challenges of child rearing, the holiday offers a chance to emphasize the pleasures and rewards of family life. It's a reminder that the best gifts of all – more time, more appreciation, perhaps more love – are free, carrying no price tag and needing no beribboned box.

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