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Mothers who work outside the home may be spending almost as much time interacting with their children as mothers who are home all day.

According to a new analysis by time-use experts, mothers at home do spend more time in child care: helping with buttons and bathing and brushing of hair. However, mothers in the paid work force spend more time eating with children, doing housework with children and just plain playing with their children.In 1977, Cathleen Zick of the University of Utah and Keith Bryant of Cornell began their first study of how families use time. They updated that study in 1981. Since then, Zick and Bryant have been analyzing and re-analyzing the data.

The new analysis "helps dispel the notion that the employment of mothers outside the home reduces the time parents spend with their children," says Bryant.

"It may be that employed moms are trying to dovetail activities, trying to involve the child in setting the table while they make dinner," says Zick. Perhaps a mother who has already spent time with the child that day is willing to let him go play outside while she sets the table and cooks dinner.

The duo also learned that older mothers, better-educated mothers and mothers who make more money spend more time with children than other working mothers who are younger, less well-educated and earn less. Most people are interested in the research because it points up differences in the way employed and at-home mothers spend their time. However, "I think these income effects are equally interesting," says Bryant.

Since there are a finite number of hours in a day, the mother who spends more time in leisure or housework with her child tends to spend less time in the solitary pursuit of leisure or housework. Mothers who earn more money spend less time alone than mothers who earn less money.

Other findings include these:

- Of the 62 percent of mothers who spend any leisure time with children on a given day, the average amount of shared leisure time was 75 minutes per day. Of the 50 percent of fathers who spent any time in recreational or leisure activities with children, the average time spent was 72 minutes a day.

- Not much has changed in 50 years. In 1981, married women spent five minutes more per day in child care than did married women in 1931.

- Between 1975 and 1981, husbands of employed-outside-the-home wives increased the time they spent caring for children. Husbands of wives who didn't work outside the home didn't increase the time spent caring for children.

Zick explains that the working mothers they studied in the 1970s and '80s consisted of a sample from two-parent, two-child families. In their study, 42 percent of employed mothers were working 35 hours or more per week.

Zick and Bryant plan to keep on studying family time. "The ultimate question is this: Does the total amount of time a parent spends with a child affect the child's outcome?" says Zick.

She and Bryant plan to study the children, now. What are their grades in school? Do their teachers think they are well-behaved?

Zick says the only other such intensive family-time study she knows of is under way at the University of Wisconsin, where a team of researchers is looking at the number of years a mother has worked outside the home and trying to correlate that with how her children are doing in school.

Think of the Wisconsin study as a macro-study, and the Utah/Cornell study as a micro-study, Zick says. The others are studying the effect of years, while she and her partner plan to continue to measure the minutes of a family's life.