Last 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.