March 24, 2013

Motherlode: Traditional parenting roles may no longer be norm

By KJ DELL'ANTONIA

A new survey from Pew Research shows mothers and fathers converging in the ways they spend their time, in the ways they want to spend their time -- and in what we say we want out of a balanced life.

Pew surveyed 2,511 adults nationwide, asking questions about things like what's important to them in a job, whether they prefer full- or part-time work, and whether it's difficult to balance work and family. Then Pew researchers analyzed data from the American Time Usage Survey to look at not just how we want to spend our time (or how we say we want to spend our time, which could be quite different), but how we actually spend it.

What they found was progress toward an equal overall distribution of paid work and work at home: Women, on average, spending more time working for pay (21 hours a week on average, up from 8 hours in 1965) and men, on average, spending more time engaged in housework and child care, and less time on paid work (fathers have tripled the amount of time they spend with their children since 1965, and doubled the time spent on housework).

But as some numbers reflect a gradual shift toward equality (which needn't mean pure equality in every household, but an overall societal balance in how fathers and mothers spend their time), one particular statistic stands out as inconsistent with that shift: 42 percent of the general public (45 percent of mothers and 41 percent of fathers) say the best thing for children is to have a mother who works part-time. Here's the question Pew asked:

"In your opinion, what is the ideal situation for young CHILDREN: mothers working full-time, mothers working part-time, or mothers not working at all outside the home?"

And here is the question they didn't ask: "In your opinion, what is the ideal situation for young CHILDREN in two-parent homes: both parents working full-time, one parent working part-time, or one parent not working at all outside the home?"

In a survey and a report on social trends looking at the question of increasing work and home equality, why not ask the question in an equal way?

"Partly because we had asked that question in the past," said Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project and one of the authors of the "Modern Parenthood" report. "We did ask new questions about what would be better for both men and women with young children -- working full-time or part-time or not at all. But we didn't frame the question about what would be best for young children in that way. I wish we had."

Without an answer to that broader question, Pew has inadvertently reinforced the standard trope that it's women, not men, who are ultimately responsible for children. (The Census Bureau even considers parenting, when done by men, to be a separate "child care arrangement.") That's the kind of language that tells women to step back if they expect to have a family -- because when it comes to "what's best for young children," moms are the ones we look to -- and blame.

But in this case, the linguistic effect isn't all that matters. Because Pew didn't ask the right question, we don't really have an answer. Do people -- mothers, fathers and everyone else -- really believe that children are better off with a mother who works part-time, or not at all, for gender-related reasons, or do those numbers also reflect a practical view of what it takes to raise young children in the United States, where many workers scramble for quality child care and lack access to paid leave, or to any leave at all? How much of that statistic reflects the lingering impact of years of relegating both women and men to their "traditional" roles, and how much has to do with our understanding that from ages 0 to 5 and then every day after 3, it's every family for themselves?

Until we reframe the question, we're going to keep getting the same inadequate answers. But Parker, a fellow working parent, is on it.

"Next time," she told me. "Next time."

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

 

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