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Work/family researchers seek to disarm nostalgia trap

Mom in her apron, dad with his briefcase -- nostalgic visions may sell lemonade and apple pie, but they do nothing to support families the way they actually live and work in the United States.

"At a time when traditional values are being promoted louder than ever," says Jacquelyn James, director of Research at the Boston College Center for Work & Family, "the majority of women are in dual-earner couples, and current economic insecurities and increasing cost of living suggests that more and more...couples will be in such arrangements."

James was one of 11 researchers who presented data surrounding work and family at a May 2005 Work/Family Conference hosted by the Community, Families & Work Program at Brandeis and the College of Communication at Boston University. James says she is frustrated by narrow reports of parents in the workforce that seem to suggest that "everything would be better if women would just stay home and take care of their kids."

Whether life was better in the male-breadwinner families of the 1950s is irrelevant, researchers say. The reality is that the dual-earner families are the norm in the U.S. Consider:

  • A 2002 study found that 78 percent of couples were dual earners, compared with 66 percent in 1977.
  • In two-thirds of dual-income families, both parents work over 41 hours a week.
  • 45 percent of U.S. employees work outside of a 9-5 daytime work shift.

The studies that emerged at the two-day gathering point to the complex picture of how working families accomplish their economic goals. Work is not always in conflict with family -- dual incomes can provide greater financial stability and work can provide a sense of well-being and purpose that carries into family life -- but working conditions (long hours, lack of flexibility) may make life unduly stressful for some families, particularly for low-income parents. Antiquated gender role "ideals" that are out-of-sync with current roles men and women play as wage-earners and caregivers can promote unnecessary guilt, discrimination in the workplace and inflexible workplace policies.

"Feeling nostalgic or guilty is not constructive," says Stephanie Coontz, historian and author of Marriage, a History: from Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, "Lamenting the past doesn't help you solve the challenges of the present or future."

Good news about work and family

Work-family conflict gets a lot of press, but what about work-family facilitation? According to some researchers, work and family can have a very positive mix in modern life. Consider:

  • Work can facilitate home life and home life can facilitate work, says Wake Forest University researcher Julie Holliday-Wayne. Holliday-Wayne's study showed that more workers reported work-family, family-work facilitation than work-family conflict. She found this was especially true among people who described themselves as outgoing rather than introverted.
  • Increased parenting by fathers benefits children. Karen Gareis, program director for the Communities, Family & Work Program at Brandeis presented a study indicating that in families where wives work afternoon or evening shifts, and the father has a more active role in parenting, children show a trend toward better socio-emotional well-being (less depression, anxiety, aggressiveness, rule-breaking and risk-taking behaviors).
  • Acceptance of changing gender roles promotes emotional health. Jacquelyn James researched the extent to which husbands in dual-earner couples experience distress when their values about gender roles conflict with their dual-income marriage reality. James found that better mental health, particularly for men, could be predicted when the work of marriage partners at the office and at home is congruent with their attitudes and beliefs.

A lack of support

According to some researchers, the bad news is not that more moms are working, but that working families are generally not well supported in the United States. Policy-wise, experts say, the U.S. is like a Third World country when it comes to facilitating working families.
According to Jody Heymann, director of the Project on Global Working Families and an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and Medical School:

  • 164 countries guarantee paid leave to women in connection with childbirth; the U.S. does not.
  • 45 countries ensure that fathers receive either paid paternity leave or have a right to paid paternal care; the U.S. does not.
  • At least 74 countries protect a working women's right to breastfeed; the U.S. does not.
  • The U.S. is tied in 39th place (with Ecuador and Suriname) in enrollment in early childhood care and education for 3- to 5-year-olds.
  • Fifty-four nations have longer school years than the U.S.

Outside of paid work, Heymann reports that women bear more responsibility for care giving:

  • Women are more likely to be caregivers to others but are less likely than men to have paid vacation or sick leave or have access to flexible schedules.
  • Seventy-eight percent of women report that they do more of the household chores than their spouse or partner

Parents are clearly laboring under a host of pressures. So why isn't there more of a movement on the part of parents to call for changes in the workplace?

"No time," says Rosalind Chait Barnett, executive director of the Community Families & Work Program (www.bcfwp.org) at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. "It's hard to do all these things -- it's exhausting. With child care, long work days and the post-workday routine, there's no time for anything else."

Barnett, who banded together with other parents to build a before- and after-school care program in her community when her children were young, encourages parents not to think they have to tough it out on their own.

"Working moms are in the majority and many know lots of friends and family members in the same boat," Barnett says. "Talk to other people."

Rhonda Aronwald, a freelance writer, lives in Seattle with her husband and 7-year-old son.


Policy resources for parents

Working parents creating a unified voice can help influence policies that value families and are good for both work and home. Here are two organizations administering programs aimed at building consensus among working parents, policy-makers and business leaders, and demonstrating how family-friendly policies can create a competitive advantage for businesses:


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