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.