Guest Column

What’s Not Wrong With the American Family

by Darcie Vandegrift

Remember those Army commercials in which soldiers do more before 8 a.m. than most people do all day? OK, admit it. As a parent, how many of you saw those ads and thought, “Oh yeah? Well, come on over to my house!”

The happy chaos of my two hours before work includes waking up two or three people, brushing at least one additional set of teeth besides my own, running peacekeeping talks that might impress Jimmy Carter and perhaps supervising spelling words or piano practice. My partner gets the intravenous coffee drip ready, makes three breakfasts and one lunch, walks the dog and shepherds the brood out the door to school. Sometimes if we have an extra minute, we also may get crazy and start a load of laundry and empty the dishwasher.

The evenings from 5 to 8:30 share a similar busyness. Yet I also have time to sit quietly every day with each child when we might talk about anything from chapter books to what happens after we die to how beets turn your tongue purple. Together, the work and chaos and love and the rush out the door blend to contribute to the rhythm of our lives.

Right-Wing Rhetoric
So when I read commentaries blaming every social ill known to the United States on parental employment or disconnected parents, I am struck by the disconnect between these facile condemnations and the actual families I know. Conservative rhetoric often implies that working parents (and let’s face it, it really means mothers) are disinterested in kids and spending their time elsewhere.

I hear the lavish praise of “traditional families” often in popular media, as well as from college students in the classroom. The untested assumption is that employed parents prioritize work over children. This assumption is used to explain all kinds of problems — increased juvenile crime, teen-age pregnancy and childhood obesity. The parental time deficit seems like a reasonable theory. The more hours parents work outside the home, the less time they have to spend with their children, right?

As someone who strongly believes that parents make a difference, this would concern me if it were true. But it’s not. Single and partnered parents spend more time with their children than parents of 40 years ago. This includes dads, too.

Researchers, led by sociologist Suzanne M. Bianchi of the University of Maryland, recently analyzed more than a thousand family time-diaries chronicling daily activities. (I imagine how this might have looked at my house: 7:45, brushed daughter’s teeth, 7:48, changed into new set of drool-free work clothes ... .).

In 1965, according to the new research, mothers spent approximately 10 hours per week on child care, while fathers spent three. In this decade, the time-diary study found that while mothers spend almost three times the hours in paid work than their 1960s counterparts, they actually spend 13 hours a week on average in child care. There was no difference between working and stay-at-home mothers. Dads on average spend seven hours per week on child care (more than double the time of the 1960s), but work on average more than moms outside of the home.

Housework Suffers
But something’s gotta give. How can families work more, spend more time with kids and still live a 24-hour day? Working parents can probably predict the findings. The total number of hours spent on housework dropped by 20 percent between 1960 and 2003. Mothers employed outside the home work more total hours, watch less television and sleep fewer hours than mothers who aren’t. Employed spouses also spend less time with each other than homes where one parent was not employed for pay.

We have some serious issues that concerned citizens, with children or without, must tackle. But to solve them, we have to be clear about what the problem is not. Longing for a bygone era is mostly nostalgia. Parents in all kinds of families are prioritizing children now more than any time in the past 40 years.

Darcie Vandegrift is an assistant professor of sociology at Drake University, 2515 University Ave., Des Moines, IA 50311. E-mail: Darcie.Vandergrift@drake.edu. This column originally appeared in the Des Moines Register.