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.
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.
How Children Welcome Parents
A Doonesbury cartoon strip a few years ago portrayed a father opening the door to his teenage son's room and asking if it is okay to come in. His son assures him, "Adults your age are invisible to us. You walk into a room of kids, no one will stand or acknowledge you in any way." After his father sighs, "Yeah, I hate that," his son continues, "I mean, unless you are holding a gun or a pizza or something." Is this how the study's children responded to their returning parents?
To address this question, we asked, "To what extent did each child display positive behavior, report information, engage in logistic talk, display negative behavior, or distraction toward their returning fathers and mothers?" Then we asked a different question: "To what extent did returning fathers and mothers receive positive behavior, report information, engage in logistic talk, display negative behavior, or distraction from at least one of their children?" This second question gives us a glimpse of the psychological experience of a parent returning home. For example, a positive reception from at least one member of the family may buffer a returning parent from feeling completely ignored.
The picture we found for reunions between working parents and their children, especially for working fathers, differs from what we saw form couples reuniting at the end of day. Here are the details.
Positive and Negative Behaviors. Children welcomed returning fathers differently from mothers on their arriving home from work. The children welcomed their fathers with positive behaviors—greeting, hugging, or otherwise demonstrating affection—in only 44 percent of the homecomings, compared to 59 percent of the homecomings of their mothers. When we looked at the possibility of fathers and mothers being welcomed positively by at least one child, however, it was comforting to find that both fathers and mothers were greeted positively by at least one of their children every time (100 percent) they returned home from work. Thus, while fathers did not experience positive attention from children more than half of the time they reentered the household, they could count on one of their children to greet them positively. Moreover, on the optimistic side, children very rarely acted in a negative manner to either returning fathers (four percent) or returning mothers (two percent).
Information Reports. Differences in how children welcomed home fathers and mothers showed up in other behaviors as well. Children gave reports of their day less often (39 percent) to returning fathers than to returning mothers, who received such reports on nearly half of the occasions (48 percent) they arrived home. This difference is even more striking when we look at the possibility that at least one child recounted events about their day to a returning parent. While working fathers heard reports about events from at least one child on 66 percent of occasions they arrived back home, mothers heard at least one child's report 93 percent of the time. These differences suggest that the children were more willing or perhaps more used to sharing their experiences with their mothers than with their fathers.
Logistic Behaviors. Although children infrequently brought up a logistical matter in the first moments of their parents' arrival home, it is striking that they engaged returning mothers in the logistics of homework assignments, lost belongings, items to purchase, and the like twice as often as they engaged father in such concerns (22 vs. 11 percent). Again this difference may indicate that the children had different expectations of their mothers and fathers or even of their relative pragmatic usefulness.
Alternatively, it could be that fathers' later arrival home meant that certain practical problems were handled earlier by the first parent in contact with the children (i.e., the working mother).
Distraction. The great American humorist Ogden Nash quipped, "Children aren't happy without something to ignore, and that's what parents were created for." Nash's witticism predates Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury caricature and attests to a long-standing cultural resignation about American children disregarding their parents. Given this American disposition, we were curious about the extent to which the CELF children were partly or completely distracted when their mothers and fathers returned home from work. Notably, our observations are concordant with Nash's and Trudeau's insights, but children's levels of distraction differed for mothers arriving home compared to fathers arriving home. When mothers arrived home from work children were distracted on 22 percent of the occasions. When fathers returned home, however, the children were distracted far more often, on 38 percent of the occasions.
Looking at the possibility that at least one child was distracted when a parent returned home, we found an even more striking difference for working mothers and fathers. Mothers were met by at least one distracted child on 44 percent of their homecomings, but fathers were met by at least one distracted child on 86 percent of their homecomings. In other words, while mothers were frequently ignored, fathers were characteristically ignored by at least one of their children. Based on these findings, Nash's witticism might be rewritten as, "Children aren't happy without something to ignore, and that's what fathers were created for." As argued for other differences we observed, the high degree of distraction toward working fathers may be partly an effect of the later time they return home, when children were preoccupied with other activities.
Good News, Bad News
This study conveys both good news and bad news regarding the fate of men and women who seek to reconnect with their partners and children when they return home from work. The good news is that the reunions between working parents and the rest of their family are more positive than popular media suggest. Over half of the reunions between the study's couples were positive. Moreover, returning parents always found that at least one of their children greeted, approached, or displayed affection to them. Despite the challenges inherent in the urban life worlds of our study's families—long hours of work-school separation and nuclear rather than extended family arrangements—they tried to capitalize on the brief opportunities embedded in the routine of the day to reconnect with one another and affirm family bonds.
On the flip side, we have to ask ourselves as researchers (and as parents) why partners and children did not display positive behaviors more often to welcome parents home. Given that across societies most people greet and convey positive sentiments when they reunite,14 it is striking that the middle-class American children in this study did not demonstrate such behaviors in 56 percent of the reunions with their fathers and 40 percent of the reunions with mothers returning home from work.
One explanation could be that working parents were unconcerned about whether or not their child or spouse said hello or gave them a sign of affection. Our video recordings indicate, however, that it mattered a great deal. Parents relished positive contact with their children when they arrived home and were disappointed when such attention was not forthcoming. Indeed, these small moments set the tone of subsequent interactions throughout the evening. Positive greetings gave way to smooth, rewarding social exchanges, while distraction disappointed the returning parent, which may have contributed to fathers spending less time with other family members on weekday evenings.
A major culprit hindering reconnecting as a family at the end of the day was distraction. In many homes, a returning parent had to compete for attention with ongoing involvements, and sometimes this was a losing battle. Fathers returning home were more invisible than were returning mothers. It is likely that fathers' relatively late arrival in the evening (working on average two hours longer than mothers) contributed to their less than compelling reentry into the family scene. Distraction, however, is not an entirely satisfactory explanation. After all, it takes less than a minute for a child or partner to produce a greeting. It may well be that sometimes middle-class American working parents were simply too exhausted or preoccupied with their own unfinished business to compete with distractions absorbing family members' attention. Some parents may have reconciled themselves to the disappointment of being ignored or being a secondary concern of their children or spouses when they walked through the door at the end of the day. Over time, these habits of disconnection can adversely affect the quality of family relationships.
This post is adapted from the forthcoming Fast-Forward Family, edited by Elinor Ochs and Tamar Kremer-Sadlik.