By Mimi Hecht
“The very purest form of birth control ever devised.”
These are the words of a researcher summing up the findings of a two year study in which social scientists from the University of California videotaped every waking, at-home moment in the lives of thirty-two dual-earning, multiple-child, middle class American families. Over 1, 540 hours of videotape were studied for researchers to examine and codify interactions – from every hug to every fuss – between parents and their kids. Scientists are calling it “the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world.”
After $9 million and endless hours of video-watching, the researchers handed over a discouraging picture of family-life. The families under scrutiny revealed an extremely high-stress lifestyle brimming with multi-tasking, arguing and severe disorganization. Offering a candid look into parents’ many roles, the study showcased parents as at-home teachers, enforcing homework deadlines; as coaches and personal trainers, sorting through piles of equipment; as camp directors, planning play dates and weekend family-time. Videographers reported being overwhelmed from recording the incessant coordination and problem-solving.
For everyone involved, witnessing today’s average family was dizzying. And that says nothing of what today’s American families are actually experiencing…
For parents reading the findings, it was “the story of my life.” With the unanimous results of this unique study, you can be sure that your dual-income neighbors are just as exhausted and defeated as you are. If you and your spouse both have a job and you have more than one child, you’re undoubtedly mirroring the stressed-out lives observed in this study. Every week, you’re in need of a deep massage, a few-day getaway and, of course, a session with your therapist. You’re not alone, and you’re not insane (but still, keep the therapist).
With an up-close encounter with parenthood revealing such an unappealing bottom line, the researcher quoted above is spot on: Why even have kids?
People who react to the study with fear of becoming a parent or, worse, disdain for having children, are missing the bigger picture. It’s not simply that having kids is stressful and insurmountable in itself. The new American family (represented by this study) is being brought to its knees crying because of our own inventions – namely, the dual-earning family. Societal and financial pressures are increasingly bringing mothers into the workforce – and this study is great proof that it has brought significant stress and mismanagement into our homes. Researchers observed that that parents’ flexibility in dividing labor only added to household tension. Child-care responsibilities were usually decided on the fly, instead of being pre-ordained, which intensified anxiety and led to significant decay in family functionality. On the contrary, couples with more rigidly defined responsibilities seemed to function with a lesser degree of anxiety. It seems obvious, then, that the health of our families is dependant on parents’ commitment to their traditional, defined responsibilities. But how could that work with two parents in the workforce? As it turns out, the “old fashioned” family we often mock is exactly the role-defined system we need to save us, before all the frantic multi-tasking and corroding borders eat our families alive.
But while women in the workforce was once seen as an exhilarating right and opportunity, today’s parents that want to return to more traditional roles don’t have the luxury to make a decision. Mothers are increasingly holding jobs out of necessity, not desire.
Perhaps the solution to all the at-home drama is a mere recognition of an ideal - simply acknowledging what worked a few decades ago. By recognizing the unique state of our current parental roles, we can begin to re-structure our homes. Only when we match the inside of our families to our current method can we reduce the pile of stress we have created.
Mothers working means two parents are together holding not one, not two but three jobs. But what has changed inside the home? In all these years, what adjustments have we made to match this new structure? For instance, do fathers reserve the right to be tired and on hiatus when they come home if their partner is equally exhausted from work? Should mothers still be spending 27 percent of their time on housework, compared to dad’s 18 percent?
It could be that the Women’s Rights Movement lacked some foresight. With great intentions (and many great results), they didn’t see the repercussions of failing to ensure that their home’s inner-workings adapted with the turning of the tide. In many ways, the damage has been done – but it’s not irreversible. The answer is not to pull every mother from the workforce. What we need is a movement that brings both parents’ efforts into the home in a defined way with clear divisions of labor. Parents must stop acting as if dual-earning families are the way it always was. We need to rework our household arrangement, each family deciding for themselves what they need to alleviate the mounting tension.
A nation of stressful families means a bleak future on every level, not to mention it’s clearly bad PR for having children altogether. And if we don’t create families, what do we have? Well, quite frankly, a disintegrating population of very busy lives, spinning in meaningless circles that nobody will even be around to remember.