Honey, I shrunk the family

Are men to blame for the disappearance of home life?

Published May 3, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"isn't it odd," sociologist Stephanie Coontz observes sarcastically in her new book, "The Way We Really Are," "how quickly a discussion of working parents becomes an indictment of Mommy?" That indictment seemed apparent in U.S. News and World Report's May 12 cover story, which blared, "Lies Parents Tell Themselves About Why They Work" accusingly from the newsstand. "When men (especially male politicians) talk about 'working parents' they really mean 'working women,'" the newsweekly averred -- and then proceeded to do exactly what it accused the politicians of doing.

Opening with a hapless 29-year-old professional woman's feeble defense of why she left her 10-week-old baby in day care while she worked -- "It's not the amount of time I spend with my daughter, but the quality of time ... Or maybe that's just me rationalizing" -- the article went on to enumerate five "lies" that parents tell themselves about why they're working. Of these, the first and most important "lie" -- "we both work because we need the money" -- was clearly aimed at yuppie moms. Pointing out that wealthier families are as likely to have both parents working as poorer ones, the article argued that such families don't really need the money. The real villain of the piece, lurking backstage, was the upper-middle-class mother who dumps her young kids in child care so she can buy a swimming pool.

Both the U.S. News article and Newsweek's simultaneous cover story, "The Myth of Quality Time," drew heavily on Arlie Russell Hochschild's much-talked-about new book, "The Time Bind." Hochschild's book presents a simple, startling thesis: For many Americans, including women, home is becoming work, a place to escape from, and work is becoming home, a seductive and stimulating environment. At the pseudonymous "Amerco," a Midwestern Fortune-500 company profiled by Hochschild, an entire program of "family-friendly" policies had been instituted to encourage their employees to carve out more family time, and yet the program attracted shockingly few takers. Only 53 of 21,070 employees opted for part-time work; a total of two men took paternity leave. Even the most popular program, flextime, attracted only a third of working parents.

The reasons why were various and mostly predictable: peer pressure, bottlenecking supervisors, financial need, fear of being labeled "uncommitted to the company." The surprise, though, was that women were just as likely as men to pass up "family-friendly" policies in order to keep working Amerco's long (an average of 47 hours per week) hours.

Stephanie Coontz doesn't see anything wrong with this. In "The Way We Really Are," a statistics-drenched analysis that defends American families against the doomsaying of "family values" propagandists, she argues that women who work do better than those who don't -- and that their children, by and large, don't suffer, either. She cites studies showing that women who work are "consistently healthier, less depressed, and less frustrated than women who do not," and says that a woman's satisfaction with her role, whether as worker, homemaker or spouse, "is one of the best predictors both of a good relationship with her child and of the child's own well-being."

Not surprisingly, Coontz takes exception to the way the media is spinning the time-crunch issue. "These cover stories, particularly the U.S. News & World Report one," she says, "are aimed right at the hearts of working women and implicitly endorse a stop-gap, short-term solution that is not family-friendly, one that will not help kids. That is the notion that women should quit work for a few years after childbirth." Although sales of her book are undoubtedly profiting by the hoopla, Hochschild also decries the newsweeklies' alarmist tone: "I guess I am a little bit worried ... That (article) really threw me back. I wrote a letter of protest to the editor. It introduced a very accusatory tone. I felt it was a woman-bashing tone."

In separate interviews, both Hochschild and Coontz point the finger of blame not at mommies, but at daddies. They argue that American men have made a career out of escaping from home for decades, and nobody has raised an eyebrow. Male flight not only allows men to indulge their morbid fear of housework, it places them in an environment where they are paid for their time, respected and recognized. Child-rearing and housework, on the other hand, are supposed to be their own rewards. For many women they are, but it shouldn't be surprising that women find the workplace as attractive as men do -- particularly when men aren't carrying their weight at home. In Hochschild's earlier book, "The Second Shift," which studied two-job families, she found that regardless of how many hours they work outside the home, women are forced to do most of the housework and child rearing; men simply don't do their share. According to a new book, "Time for Life," cited by Newsweek, men spend only 17.4 hours per week on housework, while women spend 35.1. (And men only put in seven more hours per week on the job -- no help, there, guys.) Granted, many men are far more involved in their children's lives than were, for example, their own fathers, but that doesn't excuse them from doing the laundry every other week.

Neither does touting "family-friendly" policies excuse employers from implementing them in a practical way. Amerco was ultimately unsuccessful in attaining more flexibility for its workers because it failed to clear the roadblocks -- uncooperative middle managers, corporate "evil eyes," sexist "mommy track" assumptions -- that prevented employees at every level from utilizing the programs the company had gone to great expense to develop. Both Coontz and Hochschild point out that women have entered a work culture that was created by men without regard to family needs. "Family-friendly benefits like flextime are mostly cosmetic," Coontz says, "and most workers know they are."

Both Hochschild and Coontz have concrete suggestions to improve the lot of working families. These include creating alternative work and school schedules, giving tax incentives for businesses and implementing federally regulated and mandated family benefits, the most important of which is high quality, affordable child care. Hochschild calls for a national dialogue about work and family, but clearly what she is really asking for is that men acknowledge their unequal share of power and relinquish it -- something less likely to happen in an overt way.

In analyzing who's to blame for the time-crunch predicament, no doubt Coontz and Hochschild are right to shift the emphasis from the evil yuppie mom -- that venerable figure of cultural abuse -- to the housework-avoiding dad. But in the end, the blame may rest less with either dads or moms than with the inexorable, seductive logic of America's late-capitalist commodity culture, which is increasingly making family life into an image of itself: high-speed, compartmentalized and rational. And the real issue is how this squeezed family life (Hochschild calls kids "time squatters") is going to affect children in the future. Despite the studies that Coontz cites in her book, which show that the children of mothers who work outside the home and the children of mothers who don't fare pretty much the same, it's hard not to believe that a childhood's worth of nine-hour days at preschool, or having an hour or two of earnestly believed-in "quality time" with one's parents before everyone collapses into bed, or shuttling between four different baby-sitters while the parents work back-to-back shifts, or coming home to the glow of TV and an eerily shadowed house every day after junior high, is going to affect a child's life. As comforting as it is to know that your kid isn't going to be any worse off than the kid of the housewife down the street, is that really all our children should be permitted to expect?

By Kate Moses

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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