Time Shared

Article excerpt

How much time do working parents actually spend with their kids? The data collected by Professor W. Keith Bryant and University of Utah researcher Cathleen Zick disprove the notion that children of two-income families are neglected and unnurtured.

"Learn to share" is one of the first things that moms and dads teach their kids. That act of sharing, beginning with simple toys and later including everything from the car to vacation time to income and household labor and responsibility, may be the one quality most likely to define a sound and satisfying family life. A more sophisticated word for sharing is collaboration, and it's not a coincidence that an academic collaboration has led to significant research on how, when, and by whom household labor is shared (or not) by family members.

The sharing of household labor is a topic close to the heart of working women and their families. This generation of American women who flooded the labor force did so with certain expectations: that husbands and children would share household duties to help compensate for her hours spent in paid work, and that employers would help provide day care for children, or at least understand when time was missed from work because children were ill.

One thing women did not expect was to be blamed for becoming income earners. Yet there was considerable speculation in the media about whether those absent moms were really doing the right thing by their children. The entry of women into the work force opened a new area of family study that begged for facts rather than hyperbole and stone throwing, an area that W. Keith Bryant, professor and chair of the Department of Consumer Economics and Housing, was eager to research.

In 1988, when Bryant began planning his 1989 sabbatical leave, he chose the University of Utah as his research home away from home. The choice was not random: the university had a department similar to Cornell's Department of Consumer Economics and Housing with excellent scholars focusing their research on families and consumerism, and Cathleen D. Zick was there.

Zick and Bryant were not strangers. Zick, an associate professor at the University of Utah with research interests in household production, family structure, and family well-being, had earned her Ph.D. at Cornell in 1982 under Jennifer Gerner, professor of consumer economics and housing and now an assistant dean of the college. Zick had taken some of Bryant's classes and had conducted research with him. She, too, was interested in this new field of measuring and defining household labor and child care and how families balance paid and unpaid labor with child raising.

"Things came together very nicely," Bryant says of that time. "The conservative press and media were beginning a drumbeat about the negative effects of working mothers on the family. We saw married morns taking hits for working and not taking care of their kids. We saw much research on child day care but none on parental child care. The debate had descended to the level of dirty politics.

"In response, Cathy Zick and I began to do research with the goal of presenting the facts of the case: how much time do moms and dads actually spend in child care? How has it changed from the 'good old days?' Has the entry of women into the labor force caused a significant decline in the time moms spend in child care? To what extent have dads picked up the slack?"

Much of the data Zick and Bryant used to explore these questions were already available in the form of government surveys and studies. In fact, Bryant's and Zick's initial findings were based on information gathered from a 579-family study funded by the USDA in 1977-78.

"A lot of the data we needed had already been collected," Bryant says. "It saved time so that we could concentrate on interpreting rather than collecting data."

Government data sets were available for a twenty-year period, from 1965 to 1985. …