A different portrait of a modern family

photo-427Last Thursday at 7 a.m., a visitor to my house would have seen this: me, standing over the waffle maker, making about a dozen waffles over the course of 20 minutes. I try to do up breakfast when the kids are all up with me. They ate the waffles and the baby nursed, and then they experienced one of those upsides of big family life, the instant playdate. All four of them played peaceably in the living room. I think it was a hodgepodge game of Pokemon characters, Avatar characters, and the baby exclaiming in delight as his siblings treated him as a real and honored member of the tribe. It would be a full day. I was headed into NYC for meetings. My husband was already there, and had been traveling for work internationally during the week. And yet I did not feel “stressed, tired, rushed” — to quote the headline on a recent New York Times trend piece offering “a portrait of modern family life.” Indeed, as the baby had slept through the night 5 nights in a row, I was feeling happy, rested, blessed.

In I Know How She Does It, I wrote that “life is stressful and life is wonderful.” I think often articles like the New York Times one frustrate me because they report just one side of this truth. All of the trends are based on real survey data (in this case, from the Pew Research Center). However, the data can be written about in many ways. Likewise, taking survey answers at face value means we often don’t question narratives that truly deserve to be questioned.

Here are some of the data points that the New York Times chose to amplify: In the U.S., in 46 percent of 2-parent households, both parents work full-time. This is up from 31 percent in 1970. Among working parents, 56 percent say it is difficult to balance work and family demands, including 60 percent of working mothers. The New York Times then illustrates this with quotes and anecdotes from two families with two working parents, both of whom have one very young child.

This is one way to write this story. Here are some other ways to look at the exact same Pew data. In more than half of 2-parent families, a parent either stays home or is only working part-time. Only 14 percent of working parents say it is “very difficult” to balance work and family (that 56 percent is a nice mash-up of the verys and the somewhats). While 40 percent of moms who are employed full-time say they feel like they are always rushing, 60 percent don’t. And in any case, 29 percent of stay-at-home moms say they are always rushing, so I’m not sure this is a large enough gap to make a huge deal of. More than 60 percent of moms who work full-time say they spend enough (or more than enough!) time with their kids. As for the anecdotes, I know from my own research that women with children under age 2 have significantly less leisure time than other women. Likewise, transitioning into parenthood itself is stressful, in that it involves being accountable for your time in a way that people haven’t always been before. The good news, though, is that the baby stage doesn’t last forever. They grow up, and you get better at leading this new life.

Could society ease some of the stresses of parenthood? Of course. But not all of them, which brings us to my second point, which is hinted at by this little chestnut in the New York Times article:

“College-educated parents and white parents were significantly more likely than other parents to say work-family balance is difficult.”

The Pew report itself has more: “Among working mothers with a college or post-graduate degree, 70% say it is difficult for them to balance work and family life; 52% of mothers without a college degree say the same. Similarly, among working fathers, 61% of college graduates say this is difficult for them, compared with 47% of non-college graduates. These differences hold even when controlling for the fact that college-educated parents are more likely to work full time.”

Call it the paradox of work/life angst. College-educated people tend to earn more than those with less education. They also generally have more control of their time. Yes, you may have to check email at night, or travel for work, but that is not the same thing as finding out 24 hours ahead of time if you’ll be working 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. I would likewise suspect that people of color experience stresses in a majority-white society that white parents do not understand. And yet non-white parents are more likely to say that balancing work and family is not difficult. People who claim it is not difficult are also more likely to enjoy parenting.

So why is it that people who are generally more privileged in society are claiming combining work and life is more difficult than other people? I don’t have a perfect answer for the work/life angst paradox, but I suspect that part of being in a more privileged position is believing that life shouldn’t be stressful. Then when it is stressful at times — because no one is entitled to a stress-free life — this is a cause for great consternation. We repeat the narrative that 2-income family life is stressed, rushed, harried. Once you have a thesis you look for evidence to support it. And then the narrative gets re-enforced.

But there are really worse things in life than having the opportunity to earn a living and to build a family. There will be low points, but any life has low points. I try to celebrate the wonderful points — sipping my coffee, watching the laughing brood — as well. It’s a different portrait, but it is no less real than the harried one.

29 thoughts on “A different portrait of a modern family

  1. Your viewpoint is consistent with the way you live your life and is refreshing among all of the “woe is us” narrative. I do see, however, a clear value in the way NY Times and other media outlets chose to portray the findings from the Pew Center, because social policies in the United States can and should be vastly improved to help those 14% who are “very stressed” by the dual responsibilities of childcare and full-time work. It does not need to be this way, and we should have power as citizens of a democratic society to build a better social and economic infrastructure for easing the transition.

    1. @sharon – sure, but I don’t think this is either/or. In any case, people have been talking about the difficulties of balancing work and life for years, and there hasn’t been much progress on the paid leave or childcare fronts. That suggests to me that these might be better approached from a different perspective — maybe economic development. I made a joke a few weeks ago about calling childcare subsidies “school vouchers for the under 5 set” but on some level I’m not kidding. I think the whole argument needs to be approached from a different direction, because it’s pretty clear that the powers that be don’t care enough about the stresses of parenthood to change public policy.

  2. One of the life lessons I’m trying to teach my kids:
    It’s usually the difficult things that are the ones worth doing
    the other is:
    With privilege comes responsibility

    It seems the NYT article is suggesting the opposite of both of these. Do we really think, “Privilege should mean we don’t have to be responsible for our choices on how we spend our time.” or “The important tasks of ones life (raising a family, doing meaningful work) shouldn’t be difficult.”
    I hope not.

  3. Hello Laura,
    First thank you so much for writing such a positive, realistic and thoughtful blog. I read it everyday. I find most mom blogs to be pessimistic, depressing and a bit boring, always depicting same horrible anecdotes where everyone is sick, vomit everywhere, and everyone is late…. As a mom with a 2-year old, I live days like that too, but I have pretty good days that things go fine too. Btw I just finished the I know how she does it in 2 days and really liked it.

    On a separate note, I just recently came across an article from NYTimes http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/magazine/the-opt-out-generation-wants-back-in.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    I am sure you already read it as the article 2 years old. I remember you writing about this Oracle top saleswoman who got a 500K paycheck and yet fought with her husband about the laundry. Your point was this is a much simpler problem to solve especially at that earning level. It was surprising to hear that she is now divorced and trying to get back into her profession albeit at a much lower pay-level.
    Thank you for all the level-headed advice.

    1. @Mina- yes, that was quite an article. If you read too many “women can’t have it all” stories you start to believe that a childcare issue, or fighting over the laundry, or missing X, Y or Z means you should quit your job. But there might be many other conclusions you could draw from these same situations. It’s just that having a big job is still seen as transgressive for mothers, and so we blame the job for all woes. That doesn’t seem right to me. After all, the Pew numbers on the women who work full time and who stay at home who are always rushing aren’t actually that far apart. No one has a stress free life…

  4. I really liked this post, and I think you have a great perspective on the balance between kids and the rest of life. A lot of the times, it’s just a matter of having a positive attitude and choosing not to get stressed/worried. (It’s like when I read complaints from Facebook friends about how visiting Pinterest makes them feel guilty/inadequate: for pete’s sake, just don’t visit Pinterest!)

  5. I just want to say that your philosophy, and the way you live it, is truly inspiring. As I adjust to life with my first child, I think about what you write about here a lot – days at home with my 3 month old have hard parts, but there are many amazing parts, too. and that’s what I choose to focus on and see as “the story” of my life. Yesterday she was overtired and had 3-4 meltdowns, but what I remember best is the 20 minutes she spent laughing at me saying “achoo” over and over again.

  6. I think you absolutely have a point. My guess is that people of privilege who are overwhelmed by “it all” are conflicted because they DO have choices about how to fix it – whether it’s reducing schedule, quitting, hiring more help, etc. If a person doesn’t have those options (single parents, low income, etc) they’re probably not going to spend a ton of time answering surveys/lamenting about it – that’s just the way it is and one finds ways to cope.

    I think the “always rushing” is orthogonal to whether one works or not and might just be a personality trait. Some people like to be busy and active with multiple “anchor events” for their weekends.

    Others just need life to be more chill. We fall squarely into that camp which is why neither hubby nor I have career “power” aspirations beyond doing challenging and interesting work that doesn’t interfere (much) with our hobbies and family stuff. We might have a couple business trips a year or a week or two worth of late nights before a product release, but we have deliberately arranged our work and our lives so we don’t feel like we’re rushing everywhere. (Getting slow small people to school on time 5x/week is plenty.) We are exceedingly lucky to be able to choose this for ourselves, of course.

    I think what I find so difficult about reading those articles is that they never discuss a resolution. Did the couple sit down and talk about what they want their daily lives to look like? Do they agree it’s just “a season” and when the kid is 2 or the promotion comes, it’ll probably be fine? It feels incomplete. I guess that’s why I love your books, because you get to the “solution” part 🙂

    1. ARC – my husband and I have set up our lives in a very similar way with fulfilling jobs that don’t require a lot of work (really, barely any) outside of 8-5 on weekdays and one or two low-key hobbies. As you say, dealing with the day-to-day schedule with young kids helps fulfill any desires I have for “busyness.” I think women sometimes put pressure on themselves to always be doing something, accomplishing some task, and feel guilty if they are not, but that just seems to be a recipe for misery and even more internet essays on “not having it all.”

      1. Cool! I hadn’t thought about it that way – that all of the “stuff” that goes with having young kids “counts” as activities and keeping busy but, duh, of course 🙂

        To this point, I have a SAHM friend whose life would have been exhausting for me – she had 2 activities to take her toddler son to each day – one in the am and one in the afternoon. Between those was trying to squeeze in lunch and getting him to nap. I was tired just hearing about it 🙂 But they were people who just could not loll about at home with “nothing” to do. They needed a schedule and activities each day and it worked for them.

        I just finished reading Amy Poehler’s book and the one part that I loved was her motto for moms – “good for her! It’s not for me.” 🙂

  7. Love this post. Especially the part about the paradox of work-life angst. I think so much of the commentary is a) repeating what we are hearing/reading so much about and b) a conscious choice. If you choose to have your children in 373 activities and are going to stress about every aspect of family life/child-rearing, then yes it will feel difficult and stressful. But that is a choice . . .

  8. I think that college educated middle and upper class whites may find it difficult to balance work and family because they have a choice in many cases whether or not to work. When working is an option rather than an economic necessity there can be a feeling of guilt over time not spent with the family.
    In fatherless lower income homes working one or two jobs means survival for the family. It’s not a matter of working for fulfillment and career advancement, it’s a matter of working to eat and pay rent.

    1. @Hope – there’s been some interesting work on this paradox of choice. When something is just the way it is, there’s less angst over it. Whereas if you feel you’ve chosen it, then there is. My guess is that fathers generally believe that “a good father works” whereas women in the upper/middle class we’re discussing here do not broadly believe that “a good mother works.”

      1. yeah, worrying about whether or not to work definitely seems to be a “rich people problem”! If you need that income to pay rent and put food on the table, all the angst about how its affecting your “parenting” falls away.

  9. Nice post! It’s great to have a full life. It’s better to be stretched too thin than not stretched at all. I have a great family and a great job, and sometimes one pulls harder, sometimes the other. There are no static solutions; you get to feel joyful and you get to feel overwhelmed, but I would say that whether or not you have a balanced life is what you feel on average, not what you feel at your crappiest.

    1. And I hate the feeling of being “stretched too thin”, so I make choices to avoid that feeling as much as possible, while also realizing that periods of overwhelm are inevitable and do not last forever. Thinking about my life as a composite of choices I made is so much more empowering than thinking of it as a random assortment of things that “happened to me”. And YES its about “what you feel on average, not what you feel at your crappiest”.

  10. Echoing previous commenters to say that this is an intriguing and important point you’ve raised, even if we still don’t have a perfect grasp on why this weird paradox exists. (All the more reason to write a book about it, hint hint!) It always occurs to me when confronting this type of stuff to ask who benefits by women being sidelined from careers by motherhood. I think there are some powerful forces who do benefit every time a woman steps back because she thinks she’s crossing a line by “having it all.” Why the New York Times is so devoted to serving that cause though, is a mystery to me. Their “work and family” (read, women’s issues) coverage just makes me want to scream.

    1. @Michelle- Perhaps the NYT is carrying water for the patriarchy, who knows. I imagine the author of the article probably felt she was creating more of an argument for social policy changes to help working families, rather than considering how else it might be construed. But I do know this steers coverage: The NYT is read by upper middle class white people, and the woes of upper middle class white people are a source of endless fascination to upper middle class white people. So there’s that.

  11. I like your portrait too. I think part of getting to where you are ( rather than the harried state depicted by the nyt) is having the mindset that yes, things ARE going to pop up to throw off your day. All the time. And no, it’s never going to stop being that way. So, you may as well embrace the insanity, and if it’s really untenable try to change your life so it’s not anymore. On really difficult days I tell myself that where I work may seem all powerful, but it cannot stop the world from turning, and this too shall pass.

  12. I wonder if one reason whites are more stressed is that we may be less likely to share child rearing responsibilities with extended family.

  13. I suspect that the more privileged find balance more difficult because they often add further responsibilities to the mix. They are not focused on merely getting by, instead there is pressure to be “successful.” They are the ones who are active on boards, writing to obtain exposure, attending networking events, and doing all of those extra things to climb the proverbial ladder.

  14. I know my stress comes because I feel like I *should* be able to do more, given how privileged I am. And a great deal of guilt about using my resources to outsource tasks that others can’t outsource.

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