Thursday, April 12, 2007

Multi-Tasking Mommy Guilt

A few weeks ago, there was a flurry of media coverage on a study released by the University of Maryland in which sociologist Suzanne Bianchi and her colleagues found that women are actually spending more time engaged in child-rearing now than did their counterparts in 1965. As I listened to the coverage on the Today Show and read stories and blog posts all over the Net, one particular aspect of the study caught my attention.

The researchers distinguished the types of time mothers spend with their children. In “primary” time, mothers focus solely on the children. Time spent multi-tasking, for example, helping with homework while cooking dinner, is considered “secondary” time. The third dimension is time just spent with children. In addition, there’s a type of time that the researchers called “accessibility” – being available for a consult while focusing on another activity; unfortunately, the researchers were not able to capture this type of time in the study.

It seems that we’re spending more time multi-tasking, so much, in fact, that this time isn’t really registering with us as time with our children. I’m not sure if this makes me feel better or worse. What I’ve learned working exclusively from home is that I never really stop working. Like my counterparts in offices, I check email all day and into the night. Unlike the office worker I once was, I don’t do that final document save until I’m in my jammies and ready for bed. I can always squeeze in that last fifteen minutes to write another paragraph for an article or tinker with a PowerPoint slide or two for that upcoming presentation. The line between work and home just isn’t.

What that means for my children is that most days, I’m there when they walk in the door from school. I can and do stop for hugs and their news of the day. I help with homework and mediate Webkinz time and host playdates, with an eye on my email and fingers on my keyboard. I couldn’t do this when I was in an office so they didn’t have the playdates they have now and homework was done while I cooked dinner. That’s a good thing, right?

I was beginning to lose faith in this arrangement. Even though I’m home more often, I started to wonder if this home time is as valuable as it was when I was there “after work.” Or am I fooling myself into thinking I was more engaged then? After all, I was cooking dinner and picking up stuff and going through junk mail and writing checks and . . . well, you get the picture.

This study has given me names to describe the time phenomenon that plagues my confidence in this working at home arrangement. I can now say that have more secondary time with my children, although I may not have more primary time. Maybe I do multi-task so much that I don’t feel as if I’m really here, but from the coverage and response to this study, that may be just fine. Time is time, right? I just wonder how much I’ll regret the time I spent answering email that I could have spent hearing about the latest Webkinz Daily Bonus Question.