Balancing work and family is a challenge that a majority of American parents experience. Traditionally, while men do offer support to their families, women do more in the home, even though both parents work. Better health is reported by both working men and women once their children enter school. In addition, women who are self-employed tend to feel their time is better balanced as their schedules are more flexible than women who work for someone else. Further, African American parents who work report worse health when compared to working white parents. College students' views of balancing work and family in the future are discussed, as are some solutions to the challenges parents face while raising young children and working.
Keywords Anxiety; Depression; Discrimination; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); Family and Medical Leave Act; Feminism; General Social Survey; National Health Interview Survey; Role Conflict; Stress; Work - family
According to the 2012 US Census, only a minority of married women were in stay-at-home mom roles, less than 25 percent moms in married-couple family groups. This is a drastic change from the status of mothers during the early 1900s, when only five percent of married women had jobs outside of the home (Kammeyer, Ritzer & Yetman, 1994, p. 381). At that time, staying at home was so expected of a woman that historians have dubbed the era the "cult of true womanhood" (Lerner, 1969; Wenter, 1966, as cited in Kammeyer, et al., 381). It is fair to say that a fight for voting rights, civil rights activism, and the women's liberation movement has changed the trend of the women's "cult" to encompass education, career, and motherhood. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of the Census reported that in 1991 "60 percent of mothers … were in the labor force" (1992f, as cited in Kammeyer et al., p. 382).
Judith Warner, author of the book "Perfect Madness," and a working mother of two, knows from experience that the work and home-life dichotomy causes an unfair struggle for parents. She explains that "middle class life is now so … expensive that in most families both parents must work gruelingly long hours just to make ends meet" (Warner, 2005, par. 20). She also notes that what Americans experience is not a universal condition. According to Warner, the workweek in the United States is one of the longest in the world; in 2005, fathers worked about fifty-one hours per week and mothers worked just over forty (Warner, 2005); however, the amount of hours both mothers and fathers work shifting dramatically. This data does not include the reasons why parents in the U.S. work so much more than in other countries, but it has to be inferred that practicality is an issue: they do it because they have to.
Several things need to be considered when addressing these issues. First, providing family income - now the responsibility of both parents - makes life very different than it was when previous generations were growing up. Moms are not always home when her children are released from school, and dads are not always home in time for dinner. Second, the time a parent spends away from his or her children causes conflict, either within the family structure itself or within the employment arrangement. Finally, children between the ages of infancy to six years (when they generally attend school) require more time from a care-taker than do children who go to school. As a result, conflicts stemming from the combination of care-giving and working outside of the home are at an increase during this time period.
<<still true??>>Men do experience stress when trying to balance work and family, yet their stress is often caused by spending so many hours at work and so few helping out at home; a woman's stress, on the other hand, is generally caused because she works, maintains the house, and cares for her children more than her husband (Kammeyer, et al., 1994, p. 383). Indeed, Kammeyer and colleagues point out that while husbands are making strides to decrease the work required of women in the home (by doing more housework), an imbalance still remains. <<seems outdated>>For example, "women still do about 80 percent of the laundry, shopping, and cooking and over 60 percent of the cleaning, dish washing and child care" (p. 383).
Warner's 2005 essay entitled, "Mommy Madness" was featured as the cover story in Newsweek magazine. While collecting data for the piece, Warner interviewed nearly 150 American women born between 1958 and the early 1970s. Most of the women in this generation, she writes, "grew up believing that we had fantastic, unlimited, freedom of choice" (par. 18). Somewhere in the midst of growing up with such freedom, however, a disconnect developed between a woman's expectations about her life and the reality of a being working mom. This disconnect turned out to be painful and conflicting, as Warner writes:
“You can continue to pursue your professional dreams at the cost of abandoning your children to long hours of inadequate child care. Or: You can stay at home with your baby and live in a state of virtual, crazy-making isolation because you can't afford a nanny, because there is no such thing as part-time day care, and because your husband doesn't come home until 8:30 at night … These are choices that don't feel like choices at all. They are the harsh realities of family life in a culture that has no structures in place to allow women--and men--to balance work and child-rearing” (Warner, 2005).
The freedom Warner describes comes with a great deal of responsibility. And those who are the most responsible often find fault with themselves when they can't meet their own expectations. And, rather than finding fault with employers who do not offer flex-time, or day-care providers that are inept, mothers blame themselves (Warner, 2005). In turn, they make career decisions that can be limiting. For example, Curtis (2004) notes that women hold 42 percent of the college and university faculty positions in the United States; the numbers have increased slightly in the subsequent years. However, while that number is substantial when compared to statistics from the 1980s, it denotes positions for women that do not compare in rank to male academics. Curtis reports that many women choose to accept positions in community colleges or in larger institutions without the possibility for tenure so that they do not have to put in the long hours required for higher ranks (2004).
Fathers Struggle Too
The conflict experienced by working mothers has been public for years. That is not the case for fathers who want to be involved in the lives of their children. In addition to juggling work and family, men also confront the issue of tradition, which has promoted fathers as the family breadwinner for generations. According to Reeves (2004), "[i]t is not just that most breadwinners are men, it is that, to be a man, you have to be a breadwinner" (p. 20). Moving away from this traditional role is a difficult task, especially when such expectations - that manhood equates to providing financial security for one's family - are ingrained in society; it is as though something is wrong with him (i.e.: a man is inadequate) if he chooses to stay at home rather than go to work. This may cause conflict for him in the workplace, either with a supervisor or with co-workers who have their own impressions of a working father's role.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees twelve weeks of unpaid time off per year to care for a child (birthed, adopted, or with a medical illness). It is easy to misunderstand this legislation. The Act assures that a person's position cannot be filled during the twelve weeks that he or she takes off. It does not ensure that an employer will be happy about that person being away from work for three months. In addition, an employee does not get paid during that time. For households that require the income of two people to run sufficiently, any unpaid time causes additional conflict, especially if it is time that requires a court battle to acquire. The Employee Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed several suits against employers who have denied fathers the time automatically given to women after the birth of a child. Those suits received mixed results in court (Armour, 2007), but the fact that they were filed at all demonstrates how different families have become.
Texas Instruments and Ernst & Young are large businesses that incorporated policies that offer men paid paternity leave and flexible schedules. In addition, Sun Microsystems adopted a program allowing employees to work "anywhere, anytime" so showing up at an office need not be a priority as long as work gets completed (Armour, 2007). In a survey conducted by Monster.com, 330 working fathers were asked about their preferred work arrangements when considering their families. Of those surveyed, seventy percent stated that if money was not an issue, they would consider being the parent who stays at home; in addition, seventy-one percent noted taking on flexible work schedules when their employers offered it (as cited in Armour, 2007). Indeed, traditional roles are changing, and many men would opt to remain at home, even on a part-time basis, if it were financially feasible to do so.
The increased involvement in family life is a trend that is not limited to men in the U.S. In fact, in Great Britain, "the amount of time fathers spend with their children has tripled in the past few decades," (Reeves, 2004, p. 20). It is possible that the increase is based on the fact that more than half of the "married or cohabiting [British] women with pre-school-age children" are currently in the workforce (Reeves, 2004, p. 20). With so many women in the workforce and so many couples sharing the responsibilities of both employment and child care, the British government is looking into a possible solution; paid family leave covering the second six months of an infant's life is currently being considered (Reeves, 2004, p. 21). Such a policy would ensure that each new baby born to working parents has one of those parents home for the first year of his or her life.
The Health of Working Parents
Unless working parents are healthy, the financial support they provide for their families is not necessarily a positive feature in a family's life; in fact, it may seem like a complete burden. Schnittker (2007) studied the health of working parents to determine if the work/family combination showed either a negative or positive effect on mothers and fathers. Using over twenty years of cumulative data from the General Social Survey in addition to ten years of data from the National Health Interview Survey, Schnittker documented the following conclusions with regard to the health of working American parents:
• Those [women] who go to college report higher levels of good health than women who do not (p. 222);
• Women who are employed, regardless of the number of hours they work or how they combine their work responsibilities with family obligations, report better health than those who are not employed. (p. 234);
• For women, having a child under age 6 reduces the health benefits of employment (p. 229);
• Mothers working 1 to 30 hours report better self-rated health than do mothers who are not...
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