Suzanne Bianchi, Social Scientist, Explored the Changing Landscape of Late-20th-Century American Families

Suzanne Bianchi, Social Scientist, Explored the Changing Landscape of Late-20th-Century America

Today’s email from NYTimes.com, which arrives in my inbox every morning, contained three pieces that I wanted to share which relate to families and raising children.  It was difficult for me to choose which one to link to here since they all spoke to me about being an entrepreneur, mother and woman in today’s day and age, always in the glow of the light of others who have gone before me as well as of those who now shine.  As evidenced above, I ended up choosing the obituary for Suzanne Bianchi, the social scientist who died on November 4 at age 61, but I will first air my thoughts on the other two.

There was an article titled “Toy Story,” written by op-ed columnist Bill Keller, that revealed the story of American entrepreneur Cheong Choon Ng, who invented the Rainbow Loom, a simple device that braids brightly colored rubber bands into bracelets.  According to Keller, the Rainbow Loom is “the hottest device not called iSomething” which middle schoolers and adults alike are enjoying as they unplug from the “mind-sucking Matrix in favor of projects that require focus and creativity.”  Keller uses Ng’s loom, originally a wooden tablet with a grid of pushpins which began as an attempt to score dad points with his craft-obsessed daughters, to point out American inventiveness.  Keller says,

The United States may not manufacture as much stuff as it used to, but we are still the world’s cradle of innovation. Inventiveness has been an American point of pride dating back to the days when the country was in its infancy. The Atlantic magazine, in one of those exercises that manages to be both arbitrary and fascinating, this month asked a panel of smart people to identify the greatest inventions since the wheel. If you discard breakthroughs made before the United States was up and running, an astonishing number of civilization-altering innovations — 16 of 30 on that list — were born here. Oil drilling. The telegraph. Refrigeration. Anesthesia. Electricity. The airplane. The Pill. The semiconductor. You might say that America itself is something of a civilization-altering innovation.        

Although Keller’s point is mainly to question whether or not America can keep up this reputation, as well as to point out reasons why our “innovative dynamism is diminishing,” I was inspired by Ng’s creative energy and desire to solve a problem related to his children.  He made something out of nothing in order to engage his children, to help them unplug, and to help them be creative.  Keller admits that American culture is one in which “entrepreneur” is to the academic achiever of today what “doctor” or “lawyer” were to his generation.  To prove his point, Keller offers us this quote from Bill Aulet, who runs a center for entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “It’s the cool thing.  I would say nationally we’re looking at 20 or 25 percent of the student population that wants to be entrepreneurs.”  To be sure, this is the culture in which the children of today are living and learning, and, so, I ask myself  “How can I, as an entrepreneur and mother, help my children succeed in today’s culture?.”  Asking that question today is only one of many times that I have asked it.

The second piece that got my wheels spinning was the obituary for Doris Lessing, the “uninhibited and outspoken novelist who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for a lifetime of writing that shattered convention, both social and artistic,” written by Helen Verongos.  Lessing died Sunday at her home in London at the age of 94. Verongos tells us that “Ms. Lessing produced dozens of novels, short stories, essays and poems, drawing on a childhood in the Central African bush, the teachings of Eastern mystics and involvement with grass-roots Communist groups,” but that Lessing’s best-known work was her breakthrough novel, “The Golden Notebook.” According to the Verongos:

The 1962 book was daring in its day for its frank exploration of the inner lives of women who, unencumbered by marriage, were free to raise children, or not, and pursue work and their sex lives as they chose. The book dealt openly with topics like menstruation and orgasm, as well as with the mechanics of emotional breakdown.

The obituary tells us that after having a son and a daughter, Ms. Lessing decided to leave her children, her husband and her home to pursue her ideals and life with her friends and comrades.  I couldn’t imagine ever taking Lessing’s action, although I freely admit to thinking about it, especially on my most challenging days as a worker, mother and woman with a deep need for creative expression.  Lessing’s words, that she “couldn’t stand that life” because “the business of giving all the time, day and night, trying to conform to something you hate,” fully explain her decision.  Verongos writes that, later in life, Lessing was a woman who “divorced herself from all “isms,” stridently expressing opinions that were often contentious.”  In looking at Lessing’s life choices, amazing gift for writing and creativity, and strong convictions, I ask myself “How well am I balancing life in terms of myself, my work and my children in order that everyone, myself included, is reaching his or her full potential as a human being?”

Finally, I look at Suzanne Bianchi’s short, work-filled, successful life in her obituary written by Paul Vitello.  Vitello shares that Bianchi, a wife and mother of three (in addition to being a social scientist), “explored the changing landscape of late-20th-century American families, tracing how divorce, the shrinking gender gap and women’s careers affected children, parents and their households (“Is Anyone Doing the Housework?” was the title of one of her papers).”  According to Vitello:

Professor Bianchi, who was on the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles, was best known among demographers for mining “time use” surveys — data on how, where and with whom people spend time — to study how parents balance the demands of work and family.        

Her most influential finding — that working mothers of the 1990s spent as much time with their children, or more, as stay-at-home mothers of the 1960s did — upended conventional wisdom suggesting that women with careers were shortchanging their children.

Working mothers clocked an average of 30 hours a week on the job, but managed somehow to match the ’60s-era homemakers’ average weekly total of hands-on, close-contact time with their children: 12 hours.        

Professor Bianchi took the time (pun intended) to ask “How could the time allocation of our family caregivers, women, change so dramatically without a negative effect on the time mothers spend with children?”  What she found was that “they got less sleep, and did less housekeeping, worked flexible hours, turned down promotions, were more likely to take the children to work when the babysitter did not show up, cut back on exercise and entertainment, watched less TV, and gave less personal attention to their partners.” She also found that although “fathers of the ’90s spent more time with their children and did more housework than fathers of the previous generation,” the women “did more of the work in the house and most of the schedule juggling.”  Vitello writes:

In “Balancing Act: Motherhood, Marriage and Employment Among American Women” (1996), Professor Bianchi traced the effect of the birth control pill, the women’s movement and an explosion in career opportunities on women’s traditional roles as wife and mother. Among many effects, she said, a boom in single parenthood was one of the most profound.    

In 2007, Professor Bianchi’s time-use studies on child-rearing produced “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life,” with John P. Robinson and Melissa A. Milkie. Besides findings about working mothers and their children, the authors reported that, on average, working husbands and working wives contributed roughly equal hours of labor to the family enterprise — counting paid work outside the home and unpaid work like child care, chauffeuring, housekeeping, laundering and cooking.

In the time-use surveys, which asked participants for periodic soundings about emotions, men and women also showed themselves equal in feeling “harried,” and in their sense of “having no time” for themselves, Professor Bianchi said.        

 Interviewed in 2007 on National Public Radio about her time-use research, Professor Bianchi reviewed the various ways working parents made time for their children: staggering work shifts, dining on takeout, giving them the full-court press of parental attention on weekends.

The interviewer brought up another strategy, which Professor Bianchi had described in a 2000 paper, “Is Anyone Doing the Housework? Trends in the Gender Division of Household Labor.”  Professor Bianchi confirmed, “There’s just a lot less housework being done.  Houses may be dirtier.”   

With Bianchi’s findings and words in mind, I ask myself how well I’m doing as an about-to-be-divorced, working mother, how well my children without a father at home 80% of the time are doing with a mom who works, and how quickly my speech therapy clients are progressing with a therapist who is also a mother of five children.  I consider how I use my time during the work week as well as on the weekend, which includes having five hours of speech therapy clients every Saturday.  I think about how I have paused my blogging countless times this morning to meet my 3-year old’s needs since he is home with me on his “day off” from daycare (I only have a  full days of clients on Tuesdays through Fridays having purposely left my Mondays “client-free” until 4:00 P.M. so I could spend more time with him, my 6-year old who has a half-day every Monday, and my two high schoolers who are home by 2:00 P.M.).  Fortunately, the one question I don’t need to ask (and quite possibly will never ask again!) is “Should I clean my house right now versus doing XYZ?”

Thank you, Professor/Ms. Bianchi.  Everlasting be your memory.  Rest in peace.

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