I never get to see my children. Head to your book club or boardroom meeting and you’ll probably hear numerous mothers echoing this refrain. And, sure, for some of us it’s true. But consider: Overall, mothers today spend more time with their kids than ever before. Since 1965, labor-force rates for women with kids under 18 have risen from 45 percent to 78 percent. Nonetheless, today’s mothers—both working and stay-at-home—are logging more child-care hours than the Betty Drapers of the past did: more than 14 hours a week in 2010, compared with a little more than 10 hours a week in 1965. This is the case even though married fathers have increased their child-care load more than fourfold in the same time period.
Why the increased focus on parenting? “Many moms are anxious that their children won’t be able to compete in a society where opportunities appear to be diminishing,” says Annette Lareau, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. These days mothers are supposed to do more than fill the traditional role of providing food, shelter, and bandages for skinned knees, she says. We are also expected to figure out how to maximize our kids’ skills.
That’s probably why 84 percent of mothers in our survey said that they bear the main responsibility for planning children’s activities. (And also why children are the commonest sources of interrupted free time.)
But lately there has been push-back on time-intensive parenting. One study suggested that children who are the center of their parents’ universes may grow up to become more neurotic adolescents. The Free Range Kids movement, started by author Lenore Skenazy, has gained traction by advocating for unstructured and less-supervised play. Elisabeth Badinter, author of The Conflict (due out in May, $16.50, amazon.com), suggests that motherhood need not be a full-time profession. “Some parents believe that a good mother puts her child’s needs before everything else—and that’s not healthy,” says Badinter. Nor does it make us the best role models. After all, if our ultimate goal is to have our kids find personal fulfillment, perhaps we should lead by example: By putting ourselves at the top of our own to-do lists.