Monday, May 14, 2001

Time for the kids

At last, miracle of miracles -- a report on the time children spend with their parents that doesn't beat up on working moms.

In fact, the study, conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, suggests that today's working mothers spend as much time with their kids as stay-at-home moms did 20 years ago.

Overall, parents are finding more time than ever: Kids studied in 1997 spent 31 hours a week with their moms, as opposed to 25 hours in 1981. Time spent with Dad increased more markedly, from 19 hours in 1981 to 23 in 1997. That average increase is impressive enough, but when you factor in that the number of working moms has increased, from 50 percent in 1981 to 63 percent in 1997, it's gratifying to note that far from their dragging down the average, the average has increased. Either those moms are making an effort to be there for their kids, or the 1997 stay-at-home moms were on top of their offspring every waking moment.

I'd guess the former, though many stay-at-home moms probably feel it's the latter. I've seen the debate flare up more times than I want to think about on e-mail lists, where either side can become wildly defensive at the merest turn of a phrase. I probably shouldn't even be bringing this up here. People are already probably preparing to write me mean e-mails for suggesting that working moms can spend the kind of time with their kids that stay-at-home moms can. Or vice versa.

The fact is, I feel like I have a foot in both camps. I've been lucky. When we adopted our kids back in 1994, I was able to work out a schedule with my employer by which I worked from home four days a week and went into the office only on my husband's day off. So although I was working, I was also a stay-at-home mom, able to interact with my developmentally delayed twosome and schlep them to early intervention and evaluations and doctors appointments and enrichment opportunities. What this mostly meant was that I wound up cramming my eight hours of work into the hours when they were sleeping and I should have been. But we spent time together.

My days in the office eventually expanded to two, necessitating a one-day-a-week in-home child-care person for my son one year and an after-school program the next; both of those, I think, were beneficial to him. Now that both kids are in school all day, I've taken a different job that lets me leave the office at 3 p.m. and finish my work at home. So as far as the kids are concerned, I might as well be a stay-at-home mom. I'm there before school and after school, and am usually available for things during school.
I'll admit, though, that while my kids have my time, they don't always have my mind. Work is undeniably a distraction. There are things I'd like to do for the kids that don't get done because I'm at work during the day, and because I can't really spend unterrupted alone time planning things out. Whether I'd actually do them if I had the opportunity is another matter entirely, but doesn't affect my capacity for guilt.

Actually, though, the more distracting thing about work is that I do it well. It's concrete, it's do-able, I know how to do it, and when it's done there is a feeling of satisfaction and competency. That is something that, day in and day out, it's very hard to get from parenting, especially special-needs parenting. With my kids, I'm constantly guessing and flailing for answers and worrying and wondering what I should be doing. Something that works one time is a disaster the next. Experts tell me different things, some of which I disagree with. There is nothing concrete. The outcome is a million times more important than anything I deal with at the office, and yet I don't feel competent to do the job at all.

And so, when the choice comes up between struggling through yet another homework assignment with my learning disabled daughter -- seeing again how impossible it is for her to do math word problems, or say what a story is about -- or gluing myself to the computer to do "my work," it's all too easy to slip into work mode. Work is so much easier.

Writing about my kids, in forums like this, is easier than dealing with them, too. So is reading books about kids that I'm sure will help me deal with them, but often give me an excuse not to deal with them. Does time spent thinking about your children count as quality time, or do you actually have to spend time with them?

Sometimes I feel guilty about all the distractions that come between me and my kids. And sometimes I feel those distractions are the things that let me keep my grip. Kids need parents to spend time with them, goodness knows, but everybody needs a time out now and again, some days more than others. I won’t judge your way of doing that, and I’ll try not to judge mine too harshly, either.

No comments: