(Laura’s note: I’m taking the week off and revisiting some blog posts from years past. This post ran in spring of 2010).
Tara Parker-Pope’s Well blog over at the New York Times highlighted findings this week from economists Garey and Valerie Ramey that college-educated parents are spending lots more time with their kids than they did a generation ago. The Rameys studied time diaries kept during different periods from 1965 to 2007. They found that before 1995, mothers spent an average of 12 hours a week attending to their children. By 2007, that had risen to 21.2 hours for college-educated women, and 15.9 hours for women with less education. A different analysis from Betsey Stevenson and Dan Sacks at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that college-educated men had upped their game too, spending 9.6 hours per week tending to their children, up from 4.5 hours before 1995.
The headline on Parker-Pope’s piece deemed the findings “surprising” and she quotes Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute as saying that parents feel like they don’t have enough time with their children, and that is “a function of people working so hard… I’ve never found a group of parents who believe they are spending enough time with their kids.”
I really like Galinsky’s work, but we must not talk very often, because after analyzing my time for the past two years, I feel like I am in that elusive group of parents. My kids and I spend a lot of time together. Not just time eating meals, getting dressed, taking baths and rushing in the stroller to get somewhere. Relaxed interactive time. Earlier this week I knocked off work at 4pm to take Jasper to the ice cream shop; yesterday evening we went and hung out at a local fountain and pointed out all the colors of the flowers. Weekends feature even more of this kind of thing. Sunday was actually a 3-park day by the time we were done.
One thing that makes all this time possible is that my kids go to bed pretty late. But having interviewed tons of parents for 168 Hours, I know that my schedule isn’t particularly unique, which is why I don’t find this new study surprising at all. While Galinsky may be right that people are working hard, we are not necessarily working long. The average American work week is now down to 33 hours, and according to the American Time Use Survey, the average parent who works full time is logging somewhere between 36-44 hours per week. Of course, the college-educated folks who define our cultural narrative of the time crunch are likely working slightly longer weeks. But other time diary analysis studies have found that people claiming to work 70, 80, 90 or more hours per week are, on average, working less than 60. With 168 hours per week, that still leaves plenty of time to hang out with your kids.
And these days, parents really do seem to want to do that. Moms in particular go to amazing lengths to protect time with their children when they work outside the home as well. Moms who work in offices that require evening face time get up early and turn mornings into mommy-and-me time. Moms who don’t have the face time requirement but have high volumes of work leave the office at 5, hang out with the kids until their bed-time, and then do another 2-3 hour shift afterward. They’ll put in a half-day on a weekend while their kids are at karate practice, or trade off with their spouses, so the kids don’t lose any parental time, but each parent gets to log a few weekend work hours. Perhaps the most culturally interesting part of this is that fathers are starting to behave this way too.
The net result is that the time parents spend interacting with their kids has not fallen as women have entered the workforce. Indeed, as the culture of marriage has become more child-centric, it has risen. There may be some downsides to this (Lenore Skenazy, Paula Spencer and others have made careers of lampooning over-parenting). But there are plenty of upsides too. I mean, I feel so lucky to live in a time when not only do I get to spend lots of time playing with my kids, I can also channel my ambitions into building a career as well.
Of course, time is a zero sum game, so as the time women spend working, and with their kids, has risen, something has had to go down. The social science is pretty clear on what this thing has been: housework. As I argue in 168 Hours, I think this is a good thing. It means parents are largely focusing on the things they do best. I’m glad to see that social science research is backing all of this up.