But that may be because they generally see their mothers first. A look at the results of an in-depth study of 30 middle-class families.
Between 2001 and 2004, a team of UCLA researchers tracked the lives of 32 dual-earning middle-class families living in Los Angeles. The study's findings appear in the forthcoming book, Fast-Forward Family, from which the following post is excerpted.
The concept "coming home" is filled with sentimentality in American society, and adages that capture these feelings abound: home is where the heart is; home is where one belongs; homeward bound. Yet these adages are misleading in assuming that familiarity and belonging are rewards that naturally await homebound working adults and children. Rather, such rewards are the result of an interactional endeavor that begins the instant that family members arrive home. Seemingly trivial behaviors like greeting or noticing a returning family member turn out to be consequential for opening lines of communication and nourishing parent-child and couple relationships.
In our study, we focused on 30 families headed by a mother and father—21 with two children and nine with three children—to understand how the parents experienced reuniting with their children and partners at the end of the day. We focused on what happens in the first two minutes after mothers and fathers walk through the door from work. We asked the following questions: What kind of reception do working parents receive from their children and spouses? When working fathers arrive home, do they receive the same kind of welcome from their families as working mothers receive when they arrive home, or are fathers and mothers treated differently?
It struck us that the parent who returns home earlier (or first) might be having a different homecoming experience from that of the parent who returns home later (or second). The first parent to return home, for example, does not have the opportunity to be welcomed home by his or her partner (because he or she has not yet returned), while the second parent can enjoy this possibility. At the same time, the first parent to return home is also often the parent who has picked up the children after their school and extracurricular activities. The first parent home, therefore, may be more likely to encounter children who are more eager to greet positively and share news about their day.
The second parent returning home has to reckon with family members absorbed in a stream of ongoing activities. The children have homework, which usually involves supervision by the first parent. The first parent also has usually been preparing dinner and monitoring other household tasks. In some families the children may be absorbed by TV watching or other media activities. These conditions affect how the second parent is welcomed by his or her children and partner.
It probably will come as no surprise to those documenting the lives of working women that the 30 working mothers in the study had first contact with the children on 76 percent of the weekdays observed, whereas their spouses had first contact with the children on 20 percent of them, and a babysitter or grandparent had first contact on four percent of them. Typically, the second parent arrived home to the partner and children roughly two hours later. Of the two weekdays that we video-recorded during the workweek, mothers arrived home earlier 60 percent of the time, twice as often as did their spouses.
That mothers more often had first contact with their children and arrived home earlier than did their spouses makes sense when looking at the working hours of these mothers and fathers. Fathers worked about two hours a day longer than the mothers in the study.
These parental differences in picking up children and returning home are compatible with other findings that contemporary working mothers assume the lion's share of childcare responsibilities. But overlooked in other studies is the possible effect that these arrangements may have on the integration of fathers into family life when they arrive home after mothers and children have been together. Let us now turn to how the mothers and fathers in the study were integrated into the family when they returned home after work.
How did family members welcome home working mothers and fathers? To answer this question, we created five categories of welcoming behaviors exhibited by children and partners: positive behaviors, reports of information, logistic behaviors, negative behaviors, and distraction. Sometimes a reunion was characterized by just one kind of welcoming behavior, while in other reunions, a family member displayed two or more kinds of welcoming responses to the returning parent.
To find out how the study's working parents were welcomed home, we turn first to how couples welcomed each other and then to how children welcomed fathers and mothers.
How Couples Welcome Each Other
Husbands and wives generally welcomed their partners home positively but were also distracted, with wives being more distracted than husbands.
Now let's look at the numbers.
While mothers were frequently ignored, fathers were characteristically ignored by at least one of their children
Positive Behaviors. Recall that there were many fewer occasions in which the working mothers returned to family members already in the home relative to the working fathers. Yet five of the nine times (56 percent) that mothers returned and their husbands were already at home, the husbands behaved "positively"; that is, they greeted or showed affection. Mothers were positive to their returning husbands even more frequently, in 19 of 29 reunions (66 percent).
Information Reports. Husbands reported information about the day's events to returning wives on four occasions (44 percent). Wives delivered information to their returning husbands more frequently, on seventeen occasions (59 percent).
Logistic Behaviors. Husbands never asked their returning spouses for help or inquired about housework that needed to be done or their spouses' work obligations. Wives instead asked their husbands about such things in almost a third of the reunions (28 percent). This difference may appear to confirm the gender stereotype of men being more reluctant than women to elicit assistance. An alternative possibility, however, is that men may volunteer less to do housework and childcare, which may create a situation in which women feel compelled to take the lead and ask.
Negative Behaviors. Couples rarely expressed negative feelings when reuniting after work. We documented only one occasion (11 percent) of a husband acting negatively toward his returning wife and one occasion (3 percent) of a wife acting negatively to a husband.
Distraction. Husbands were distracted in 33 percent of the occasions when their wives returned home from work later than they did. Wives, however, were distracted even more often—45 percent of the occasions that their husbands returned home. Wives were not oblivious to their husbands' arrival. Rather, they were usually caught up in a swirl of tasks—monitoring children's homework, TV watching, and playtime, along with meals, laundry, and other household chores—that precluded giving their husbands their full attention. These activities were in full swing by the time working fathers walked in the door—well after the arrival home of the mothers. Preoccupation with housework and childcare and the later hour of fathers' arrival home cannot fully account for these observed levels of distraction, however. It takes only a few seconds to turn one's attention away from what one is doing to greet a returning partner, and fathers frequently were not granted even the briefest whiff of recognition.