A day for parental guilt

Two articles from the Washington Post reveal that the time parents spend with their children is increasing -- but so is their guilt.

Published March 20, 2007 10:29PM (EDT)

I'm going to make a bold move and declare today to be "Parental Guilt Day," a decision inspired by a pair of articles from the Washington Post. The pieces are based on a University of Maryland study, started in 1965, about how parents spend their time -- and have some interesting revelations. For example, the mother-focused piece, "Despite Mommy-Guilt, Time With Kids Increasing," reveals that most married moms today are actually spending slightly more time actively involved with their children than their counterparts were in 1965 -- 14.1 hours, up from 10.2. As for the guys, an article based on the same study, called "Fathers Are No Longer Glued to Their Recliners," says that their time spent with their kids and doing housework has increased nearly threefold since 1965. (Their numbers continue to lag way behind mothers', but still.) And apparently if you add up the time spent at home with time spent at paid jobs, men and women are about equal, averaging 65 hours a week for women and 64 for men.

The biggest message I'm taking away from these articles is that regardless of what either sex is doing, parenthood is still really, really hard. But there's some good news in there -- fathers are much more directly involved in children's lives than their fathers were (in one touching example in the dad article, a man admits to feeling lucky that, unlike his own father, he's had the joy of holding his baby on his chest as it slept). And mothers who have enough money have found one way to "do it all": outsource the housework -- a trend that's obviously not viable for people who can't afford a maid, but at least is helping some women balance their jobs and families in a way that doesn't scrimp too much on either.

One other interesting point about why mothers might still be feeling guilty: The article on mothers points out that while moms today are spending more "primary time" with their kids (defined as time in which they're actively engaged in doing something with their children) than before, there's no way to measure what researchers call "accessibility," described by the Post as "when a parent might be uninvolved but is around to be called on -- inside the house, for example, when the children are in the back yard." As William Doherty, a family studies professor at the University of Minnesota, said to the Post, that means that "you may get home from work at 4:30 and spend hours interacting with your child, but you may feel bad that you weren't around all day."

A 2005 poll by the Post showed that "74 percent of mothers nationally said motherhood was more demanding than it had been for the previous generation," but I can't help wondering whether motherhood itself is more demanding, or if mothers (and fathers, too) have become more demanding of themselves.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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