Deprived of parent time? Not most kids

Houses may be messier and parents may be sleepier, but that's a good sign for kids.

Across America, time spent in the company of children has become the holy grail of working parents - and it appears to be well within their grasp. By curtailing everything from shut-eye to volunteer work to vacuuming, most moms and dads today are finding ways to put kids first, perhaps more consciously than in earlier eras.

"Anytime I'm not working, I'm with my kids," says Pamela Alexander, a manager at Ford Motor Co. in Deerborn, Mich. To have more hours with their two girls, she and her husband hire out the housecleaning and, instead of giving time to charities, "I write big checks," she says.

With dual-income families now the norm, spending time with children requires more creativity than it did during the days of "Ozzie and Harriet." Solutions vary - from staggered job schedules, to one parent quitting work for a time, to dads picking up more of the child-rearing responsibility.

"We're in the midst of an evolution, not a revolution," says James Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the Families and Work Institute in New York.

For all their efforts, most parents are managing to give kids enough attention. Almost 7 in 10 children ages 8 to 18 surveyed said they get enough time with their working parents, according to research by Ellen Galinsky in her book "Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents."

"It's often a given that it's very selfish, greedy parents who sacrifice their children at the altar of their own materialism," says Ms. Galinsky, who heads the Families and Work Institute. But parents' perceptions that they need more time with kids differs from what children actually think, she says.

Changes in technology and lifestyle patterns have certainly helped parents eke out more family time. Fast food and microwaves, for example, offer short cuts for meal preparation. Children are also home less often than they used to be, being pulled out for activities like preschool, summer camp, and swimming lessons. Couples today also have fewer children than did their counterparts of recent decades, allowing for more parental "face time" per child.

Thanks to such changes, mothers today spend about the same amount of time with their children as mothers did in the 1960s, according to new findings by Suzanne Bianchi, a sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park. In 1998, women spent 5.8 waking hours with their children each day, versus 5.6 hours for mothers in 1965. Fathers did even better - increasing their time from 2.7 hours per day in 1965 to 4 hours in 1998.

The father factor

Indeed, dads are the resource parents are drawing on most often to make up for the time women are spending at the office. Perhaps as a result, attitudes about men's role in the family are gradually changing.

"When fathers define success today, it's no longer just in terms of being a breadwinner. It means being involved with the kids as well," says Dr. Levine, author of "Working Fathers."

Many mothers say their husbands help with everything from folding laundry to picking up kids after school. Fathers' share of housework has increased in recent years, too, with men taking over some of the duties (although not half of them) from moms - both working and nonworking.

Luvie Myers, a stay-at-home mom in Winnetka, Ill., says her husband can more easily leave work for a family event than a father could have in her parents' era. "Spending time with family is an excuse at work that people are willing to accept," she says.

But workplaces vary dramatically in their tolerance of family needs - and parents must adapt accordingly. Ford's Ms. Alexander says she sees few couples like hers, in which both parents are in management and work full time.

She and her husband share the duties - and it's not a given that she'll be the one to take care of any crisis with the children.

Her husband, Paul Jakabcsin, says that he doesn't see himself as the family's breadwinner and that they work hard to balance their time with the children. They schedule carefully on weekends so they can work on home projects during their daughters' naps, for example.

Other working dads are more like Richard Hulme of Framingham, Mass. He helps out with his two young children mainly on weekends. His wife works several part-time jobs to help support the family and be available for the children during the week. "I wish I could do more," he says, adding it is not difficult to give up personal activities - like exercising and taking courses - for his kids.

The theme of self-sacrifice is the recurring one for today's parents. Couples today have less time alone together, less free time, and even less rest.

Judy Barker, a self-employed forester and mother of two in Missoula, Mont., gives up sleep to be with her kids. She gets up early to finish projects she puts off at night, when she is with her two children, ages 11 and 14.

The University of Maryland study included mothers who don't work outside the home, like Mrs. Myers - and it indicates they are not leading their mothers' lives. Parenting styles and lifestyles have changed too much.

In the 1960s, there were fewer organized activities, "no soccer classes, theater classes," says Myers. She recalls that she used to come home from school and play outside with friends.

Today there is "enormous pressure to have your child be successful and good at all different activities," she says.

A conscious choice

All of this means that parents - whether they are employed outside the home or not - are preoccupied with child-rearing. Whereas women in the 1960s stayed home because it was what people did, "a sign of middle-class status," now mothers stay home "to take care of the kids - housework is secondary," says Joan Williams, a professor at American University in Washington and author of the new book "Unbending Gender."

Although the University of Maryland study would indicate working parents are succeeding at spending time with children, it doesn't always feel that way to strapped moms and dads. A 1997 study by the Families and Work Institute showed that 70 percent of employed fathers and mothers do not feel they have enough time with their children.

Sometimes, couples decide it's just too hard - if not impossible - to juggle work and children.

Kelly Graves-Desai recently decided to leave her job as editorial director of the Harvard Education Letter in Cambridge, Mass., to be at home with her two children.

"Time and stress are the two reasons we decided to do this," she says. "It just got crazy. Neither one of us was giving enough time to our jobs or our kids."

Having a parent at home is advantageous, say some family advocates. "In general, we're beginning to see statistics that say more women are staying at home with kids," says Janet Parshall, spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a conservative group in Washington. "I'm liking that. I think it's a trend that bodes well for the future."

Other family advocates, however, say the amount of time parents spend with children isn't the only issue.

"Simply looking at hours spent doesn't tell us what is happening in that time," says Ms. Galinsky. "The debate about time obscures the issue of ... how we're connecting with kids."

Her research shows that 2 in 5 children ages 8 to 18 feel the time they spend with their employed mothers and fathers is rushed. Children want time to hang out with parents, she says, as well as time when mom and dad are focused on them.

"Critics of parents set up one right way to do things," she says. Instead, the focus of any debates needs to be on "obnoxious" parents in all groups, and not just on the idea that, "they work, and no one who works can be a good parent."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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