NEW YORK — In the latest entry in the great debate over quantity time vs. quality time, a team of Boston researchers has found that the quality of father-child relationships seems linked to a man's job satisfaction while the amount of time he spends depends on his wife's independence and self-worth.
Boston University psychologist Frances K. Grossman and her associates found that, at least in the case of first-born children, mothers "are the gatekeepers"--de facto determiners of how much time a father spends with his child.
The husbands of women who displayed the highest degree of what psychologists call "autonomy"--a sense of separateness and self-worth--tended to spend the least time on child-care duties, Grossman and her colleagues found, particularly with "obligatory" time involved in child-rearing.
A Strong Connection
But what they also discovered, Grossman said in a telephone interview, was a strong connection between the gratification and fulfillment men felt on the job and the degree of warmth and support they exhibited toward their offspring.
"That was interesting," Grossman said, speculating that the reason male job satisfaction played such a significant role in the quality of fathering is that "it's a mental health measure for men, a key factor in reflecting and enhancing men's mental health."
But there was also a Catch-22 in that aspect of her group's findings, Grossman said, in that "the more satisfied you are with the job, the more you're likely to be working a lot of hours a week, and therefore the less likely you are to have time for your family."
A further complexity came from the women's high autonomy factor. "These tend to be educated, energetic women," Grossman said. "When they put all their energies into child care, it somewhat excludes the father, making him automatically less involved.
"My own view," Grossman said, "is that that's not so good for the kids."
Often, the conundrum feeds into "an unspoken collusion" between father and mother about division of child-rearing labors. "Neither understands it, but they're both doing it," she said.
The Grossman team's study subjects fell largely under the heading of what she termed "new-traditional" marriages, working and upper middle-class couples in their late 20s. For the most part, the husbands were the primary wage earners, but most of the women said they planned to re-enter the work force at least part-time.
The fathering study, reported in the journal Developmental Psychology, involved 23 Boston-area couples in their first pregnancy. The couples in turn were part of a larger, longitudinal (or long-range, ongoing) look at how pregnancy affects family life.
Of 100 couples involved in the original, broader study, 59 were still active and eligible at the time of the study's five-year mark. Grossman's data analysis on fathering targeted only those with first-born children; hence the smaller number. Those couples were visited during the course of their first pregnancies, and again, 5 1/2 years later, during the pre-kindergarten "peak child-care year."
The Grossman group's research, now known as the Boston University Pregnancy Project, began informally in the mid 1970s when Grossman, trained as a clinical psychologist at Yale, and several of her graduate students all found themselves pregnant at the same time. Soon the five researchers were launching into the longitudinal study that has so far produced about 25 doctoral dissertations and at least one book, "Pregnancy and Parenthood: Adaptations of Mothers, Fathers and Children" (Josey Bass, 1980).
In its first decade of existence, the study also yielded "about 12 babies," Grossman said. "It got to be a joke in the department, 'Stay out of that research if you don't want a kid,' " she said.
As the group examined the data emerging from their research, "I got stuck with the fathers," Grossman said, "because most of the people working with me were women, and they were most interested in mothers and children."
But Grossman soon became fascinated with her findings.
"I think fathers are very important players in this business of running families in America, and nobody knows anything about them," she said.
In fact, Grossman said, "we know very little about how normal families function" in general.
"We think we know," she said. "We imagine it, because we have all lived in families, but we don't know."
As a consequence of that kind of complacency about families, Grossman said she and her colleagues were themselves unprepared for much of what they uncovered.
"First of all," she said, "we didn't like the data. As good, Northeastern feminist types we would have liked to have seen much more support for fathers."
Grossman said also her group was surprised by the extent of "the difference between quality time"--how much, in this case, "the father supported the child's closeness and the child's separateness"--and quantity, or the amount of time a father spent doing things with his child.
In their initial interviews "the men in the studies thought that they had learned to parent from their wives--they had told us that," Grossman said. Therefore her group also expected to find that the wives' characteristics would predict the quality of the parenting.
"Mostly it didn't," she said. "Mostly it was the psychological characteristics of the men themselves."
One further conclusion Grossman made, a finding she said was reflected also in other studies, is that "people's attitudes about what they think they want to do, or ought to do, in terms of fathering, mothering, equality, egalitarianism and so forth has very little to do with what actually happens."
Psychological makeup, she said, is what really determines how fathers and mothers will care for their children.