May 12, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 16

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    Book explores what works when balancing work, family

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Today, one experience of family life shared by most children under the age of 18 is that their fathers and mothers are both working. A new book, Being Together, Working Apart, based on a University research project, explores how these dual-earner families cope with the stresses and demands of balancing work and family life.

    The book draws on results from an innovative study of 500 typical American families that reveals how working parents are successfully managing their lives and promoting the well-being of their children.

    Researchers found that work plays a significant role in the lives of dual-career families; however, having working parents does not negatively influence children’s academic goals, well-being or their relationship with their parents.

    For most working parents, trade-offs and compromises between family and work obligations appear unavoidable. Having to choose between undesirable alternatives often results in feelings of guilt and regret, especially for mothers.

    But work is not an escape from household responsibilities; mothers and fathers are happier at home than at work.

    For parents, work also can be an especially positive emotional experience that provides an engaging cognitive challenge and a sense of self that is not found in other situations.

    Work becomes a problem for parents not because it is challenging, or even demanding, but because the expectations held for full-time workers collide with and overpower family needs. With cell phones and laptops in tow, working parents come in early, leave late and take work home. “Many parents find themselves conforming to the image of the unconditional worker,” said co-author Barbara Schneider, Professor in Sociology.

    While parents are sharing the bread-earner role, the burden of managing the home falls largely on the mothers. Few emotional benefits are associated with housework, yet when the whole family engages in household tasks, everyone is happier, more involved and more relaxed than if they had to do the chores alone. “When mothers find themselves highly stressed, spending time with family seems to be the best tonic for improving their emotional state,” said co-author Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology.

    Recognizing that time with family is important for achieving work-family balance, Being Together, Working Apart offers suggestions on how families can improve their own hectic lives. The book points out that bringing work and family into a reasonable alignment requires that both employers and employees address the urgent challenges that are undermining family life and worker productivity.

    Waite and Schneider are co-directors of the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work.