Despite 'Mommy Guilt,' Time With Kids Increasing

Cynthie Bush of Herndon squeezes in time with Lindsey, 4, and Carson, 7.
Cynthie Bush of Herndon squeezes in time with Lindsey, 4, and Carson, 7. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Cynthie Bush pulled on her coat and started to say goodbye. She and a friend were taking a night out -- three hours in all, for a quick dinner and a PTA event. It was not the kind of thing she did often, with two small children and a full-time job.

But before she could leave her Herndon home, her 4-year-old daughter began to cry for her. For a moment, Bush recalled, she wondered if she should cancel. Her days were already so full. She needed more hours with her children, not fewer.

That whisper of worry and regret is familiar to a generation of mothers who juggle homework and housework, sports practice and dance lessons, in days that often include paid jobs and traffic-snarled commutes.

But for all the rush of modern life, recent research suggests that mothers are actually doing a better job than they may think, at least by historical standards.

According to a University of Maryland study, today's mothers spend more hours focused on their children than their own mothers did 40 years ago, often imagined as the golden era of June Cleaver, television's ever-cheerful, cookie-baking mom.

In 1965, mothers spent 10.2 hours a week tending primarily to their children -- feeding them, reading with them or playing games, for example -- according to the study's analysis of detailed time diaries kept by thousands of Americans. That number dipped in the 1970s and 1980s, rose in the 1990s and now is higher than ever, at nearly 14.1 hours a week.

This is especially striking because it is at odds with how today's mothers view their own lives: Roughly half of those interviewed said they did not have enough time with their children.

"It's almost like it doesn't matter how much they do, they feel they do not do enough," said sociologist Suzanne M. Bianchi, the study's lead author.

The research offers a look into a generation of great change for mothers. Fewer women lead the kind of life romanticized in the 1950s and 1960s -- with a breadwinner father and homemaker mother. Yet while mothers' hours of direct time with children have increased, so, too, have their expectations.

They have given up hours in other parts of their lives to make more time with their children -- cutting back markedly on housework, which was down more than 40 percent over 38 years. They also trimmed their free time -- and to some extent their sleep -- as they increasingly multi-tasked. Multi-tasking hours roughly doubled.

"This is part of the burden of this generation of parents: enormously high expectations for how children develop, how they feel about themselves, how they achieve and how successful they are in the world," said William Doherty, a family studies professor at the University of Minnesota.

Noteworthy for both its conclusions and comprehensiveness, the time diaries also show dramatic changes for fathers, who have nearly tripled the hours they spend focused primarily on their children. "They're doing more but still dwarfed by what mothers are doing," said co-author Melissa A. Milkie.

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