Family workloads have increased a great deal from several decades ago. Millions of moms work outside the home by choice or necessity. How can families handle the juggling act?
It's 6:30 p.m. and Miranda Babcock, an information technology specialist, is totally exhausted. Her company's mainframe computer had crashed early in the morning, and all day long she was feeling the pressure to get the system up again.
She achieved success about 5:15 p.m.—and then immediately dashed out the door. She had stayed at work an hour later than normal. Thankfully her neighbor was able to pick up her 9-and 11-year-old sons from their after-school program, since she wasn't going to make it there in time.
But if that weren't bad enough, she was getting on the jam-packed Southern California freeways at the height of rush hour. It took her a 75-minute commute and a near collision before she finally pulled into her driveway. Frazzled and drained, she trudged through the back door, greeted her kids and sighed. Now that she was home, all she wanted to do was put her feet up and rest.
But there was dinner to make, the boys wanted help with homework and the dog desperately needed a walk—ideally before her husband was due home from work around 7:30 p.m. when the family would eat dinner together. After that, she would have kitchen cleanup, bills to pay, paperwork from the kids' school to go through, lunches to pack for tomorrow and a mountain of laundry needing attention. Whew!
"If I'm lucky," Babcock says, "I'll be done by 10 o'clock, so I can at least spend an hour relaxing . . . I really shouldn't stay up past 11; I have to get up tomorrow morning at 5:30 to get ready for work, and it'd be really great to get 6 1 / 2 hours of sleep."
All in all, it's a pretty typical day. True, she doesn't always have to work overtime. But even on normal days when she leaves work by 4:15 p.m., that gives her just enough time to make it to her sons' school before closing time. Once she's picked them up, there are often errands to run—to the grocery store, dry cleaners, bank, post office, etc.—before heading home to make dinner.
In the evenings and on weekends, there's always plenty to do, from visiting her aging mother and attending school events to an endless list of household chores.
The superwoman syndrome
Miranda Babcock is one busy woman! But as packed as her life seems to be, her story is not out of the ordinary. Millions of other women live the same kind of hectic lifestyle. They're scrambling to run two lives—one at home and one at work. They want to be good wives and mothers, but they also want to be intellectually stimulated by a challenging career or at least bring in a second income to help their households get by.
For some, it's a full, exciting life. Others feel overwhelmed with having so much to do, never feeling like they are doing any one thing really well.
In some ways it's an old story. Women have been juggling work and family responsibilities since the late 1960s and 1970s when large numbers of women started entering the workforce.
"Primarily these were middle-class mothers, who were taking jobs outside the home for the first time," notes Pamela Stone, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City and author of Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home (2008). In contrast, Stone says, low-income women had always had a tradition of working, usually doing a domestic job such as maid or nanny.
During the 1950s, no more than 20 to 30 percent of mothers (with children aged 18 or younger) were employed outside the home, and these were primarily poor women who needed to work to pay their bills. Very few middle and upper-class women worked then; they didn't have to.
By the late 1980s, however, 70 percent of American mothers were employed outside the home, either full or part-time. Since then, the numbers appear to have plateaued. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, three out of four households today have two working parents. The ratio is similar in most other industrialized nations.
Another statistic worth noting is that two thirds of married mothers with preschool-aged children are in the paid labor force. At least half of these women are going back to work within three to five months of giving birth. This is quite a shift from the 1970s and 1980s.
A generation ago most mothers waited until their children were in school before returning to work. Now most mothers of preschool-aged children work outside the home.
A heavier workload—for Mom and Dad
Once moms started going to work outside the home, their lives changed dramatically. Most found that although they were able to find fulfillment in their day job, they were still doing the majority of the housework and child care once they got home in the evenings. Still, men were starting to feel obligated to at least do some housework.
In his 1997 best seller Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time , University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson reported that American men were spending 17.4 hours per week on average doing housework and child care, while women spent 35.1. Many sociologists believe the gap hasn't changed much in recent years.
"Working moms are still doing most of the housework," says University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, Ph.D. However, she adds, "It's not as bad as it sounds—not when you take into account that men are working longer hours on their jobs than women are."
In her 2003 nationwide study of middle-class families, she found that husbands were working 48 hours a week in paid employment, and wives on average worked 37. Women also tend to take jobs closer to home, so they generally have shorter commutes—husbands averaging 45 minutes each way, wives 15 minutes one way.
Just looking at the averages reported by the studies mentioned here, when housework and child care hours are added to time spent on jobs and commutes, American husbands and wives are each working 70-plus hours a week—quite a jump from the 1950s when most husbands and wives had just one full-time "occupation" each.
Workloads of European parents have increased, too. In 2007, researchers at Cambridge University surveyed working couples in the European Union and found the average working week for a woman in full-time employment to be 68 hours (including commuting, domestic work and child care). The average workweek for a man is 55 hours (including commute time and domestic work).
Today's mothers and fathers have to share the work of stay-at-home mom between them, and do that on top of their regular paid jobs.
Consider a typical American couple's work schedules in the 1950s. Back then, the husband probably had a 40-hour workweek, which was the norm during the 1950s and 1960s. Add to that the time the man spent commuting to work (which was about a third to half of today's commute times), home and car maintenance, yard work, errands, etc., and he still wasn't working more than 50 to 55 hours a week total. He wasn't also typically having to pitch in with the cooking and cleaning.
The stay-at-home mother, even if she was doing a lot of cooking and sewing, probably wasn't averaging more than 45 hours of work a week (although it is true that a mother's work is never done—it has always been a 24/7 on-call job).
This is not to say that the 1950s were the ideal necessarily; it only serves as a comparison to show how much more women—and men—are working today.
A factor that's added to the problem in recent years (and made mothers' busy workloads not just "the same old story") is that children's schedules have gotten busier too. Most middle-class parents have their children involved in a whole range of outside activities such as music and sports. This has impacted parents—and mothers in particular—in a big way.
This is quite a contrast from growing up just a generation ago, when children weren't involved in a lot of outside activities and families had more downtime, observes William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of Putting Family First (2002). "Now parents are busy all weekend shuffling their kids to all the different sporting events they're involved with," he says. "That's in addition to running errands or catching up on housework that didn't get done during the week."
What are the pluses?
But as stressful as it can be for a woman to work outside the home, many women find a lot of pluses. Most working women see their careers as personally fulfilling, or at least that's the kind of jobs they hope for. Women want to be able to help and serve others, be productive, solve problems, use their creativity, meet challenges and learn new concepts and skills. Even though a lot of these things can be achieved at home, having some additional growth opportunities outside the family unit can be much appreciated.
Stephanie Miller is a middle-school teacher in Wheaton, Illinois, and a mother of two children, ages 8 and 10. She gains a great deal of personal satisfaction from her work. "I love being around the students, helping them and encouraging them to do their best," Miller says.
While she works full-time during the school year, she doesn't feel her job interferes with family life. "I have basically the same workday schedule and days off as my kids do at their school, so I'm able to be home when they're home," she says. Even if she has papers to grade in the evening, she'll do it next to her kids at the kitchen table while they're doing their homework, so they're still "hanging out" together.
Leslie Crossman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with the Houston Independent School District and mother of three. Like Miller, her job allows her to be home when her kids are home. Ideally, she would have preferred to work in private practice, but she took the job with the school district so that she would have summer vacations free with her children.
Still, she's thrilled with her job. "My work is part of who I am," says Crossman, who is also a licensed marriage and family therapist. "My children are always going to be my top priority. But if at all possible, I wanted to be able to keep working even after I became a mother. I wanted to use the degree I worked so hard to attain."
Women who give priority to their family and spiritual life and who are still able to use and develop their other talents can remind you of the superwoman described in Proverbs 31. That biblical chapter shows a talented, industrious, innovative wife putting her God-given talents to use as a productive member of society, with support from her husband.
Of course, the extra paycheck for the family is also a huge motivator for wives to work. For some it may be to buy "wants" rather than "needs." But these days, many households feel the need for two incomes just to get by financially. The costs of a home, utilities, taxes, car expenses, food, clothing and educational expenses are beyond the income ability of the typical one-income family.
And women at the lower end of the economic spectrum often cannot find a full-time job, so they work multiple part-time, unskilled jobs.
What about the minuses?
The main challenge working mothers face is getting so busy, worn-out and burned-out that they let more important priorities slide.
Says one working mother of two: "I have so much to do—my job as dental hygienist, a class one night a week, a household to run, meals to cook, I'm secretary for our parent-teacher association, and my husband and sons need my time too.
"I'm always staying up late every night trying to get everything done, which makes it that much harder to get up early in the morning when the alarm clock goes off. Lately, I'll hit the snooze button, sometimes a couple of times, and there goes my prayer time for that morning! My days are so hectic that I'm often completely wiped out by bedtime, and so it's hard for me to pray then too."
Relationships with one's spouse and children can suffer as well. Dual-income couples typically have less time together, which reduces the happiness and satisfaction of a marriage. These couples often don't have enough focused time where they can talk and give each other their undivided attention. When they are together, it's often when they're rushing out the door to get to soccer meets or appointments—definitely not quality time.
Marital tension can result if the wife (or husband or both) feels like she's doing more than her share of the housework. Regina of Easton, Pennsylvania, explains her situation: "My husband works in mid-town Manhattan and has a two-hour commute each way by bus. He leaves the house at 6 a.m. and gets home close to 7:30 p.m. It's a long commute, but he's on the bus and can read and relax.
"I don't leave for my job until 8:30, and get home by 5:30. So I'm the lone adult in the house during the two busiest times of the day—the morning rush to get the kids ready for school, and the after-school rush when the kids are hungry and cranky, and dinner needs to be made. All this extra work falls on me because I'm the only parent who's home during these times. Yet I put in a full day at work too!"
Overwork may also leave mothers (and fathers) with limited time, attention or energy for their children. "Increasingly in our fast-paced society there's just not enough of consistent, quality, interactive face time between parents and kids," notes Gary Hill, Ph.D., director of Clinical Services for the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. "Yet that's what kids today crave most."
He links the "parenting deficit" to a variety of problems plaguing the country's youth: moral decline, drug and alcohol use, promiscuity, anxiety, depression and teen suicide.
When it comes to children not yet of school age, there are particular issues with mothers working. That is, if you have to send them to day care so you can go to work, you are giving up precious time with them that you will never be able to reclaim.
True, there are low-income mothers who need to work to make ends meet. They may have no choice but to put their children in child care, because they have to work to pay the rent. But if at all possible, it's best if mothers can stay home with their children when they are babies and preschoolers.
"Try to wait until your kids are in school before you return to work," urges Isabelle Fox, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist in Sherman Oaks, California, and author of Being There: The Benefits of a Stay-at-Home Parent (1996). Countless studies have been done showing that very young children need this extra bonding time with their mothers.
"There is so much to miss out on if you are not 'there' to see your children on a daily basis at this young age," Fox says. Many working mothers have bemoaned the fact that they missed out on seeing their baby's first steps or hearing their first words—because they were at work while their child was at day care.
Relates one former working mom: "I used to drop my two girls, ages 1 and 3, off at day care at 7 a.m. and pick them up at 6 p.m. every weekday. We would get home around 6:30, I would make dinner and they would go to sleep about 8 o'clock. I started thinking, 'Hey, I'm only seeing my girls for two hours a day. If that's all I was going to see them, then why did I even have kids in the first place?' So I quit my job and put my career on hold. I'll have plenty of time to work once my girls are older."
Other "minuses" relating to a mom working relate to her own physical and emotional health. A woman who is overwhelmed with job pressures and household responsibilities may not have time for friends, leisure activities or even just some quiet time to rest and reflect. These are all things that help women rejuvenate themselves and regain some emotional peace. "Without downtime, stressors can get the better of us," Crossman says.
Research shows that working mothers are more prone to stress-related ailments than stay-at-home moms. That's because many working mothers try to cram too much into their schedules and do not have enough time to relax. Stress can weaken a woman's immune system, making her more susceptible to illness. Working mothers typically do not get enough sleep either—and that is certainly something everyone needs.
Striking a balance
Considering all these factors, each family must make its own decision. Whether working outside the home is the right choice depends on the individual woman, how it's impacting her family and what is required of her to do the job. What works for one woman might not for another.
But even the "Superwoman" types can't truly do it all—have a successful career and do everything that a full-time homemaker would be able to accomplish. "You have to lower your expectations about what you're going to be able to do," Crossman says. "When you're working and you have a family too, something is always on the back burner in terms of getting neglected."
If Mom has to work late, she may have to miss her son's baseball game. If she's unable to stay late at work because of her daughter's concert, she may feel like she's letting down her employer. Mom may be thrilled about her raise, but feel frustrated that her house is a mess or she hasn't had time to get caught up on many things.
There are going to be tradeoffs with Mom working. If the worst is that she may not have time to clean her house as well as she'd like, or she's serving her family spaghetti sauce from a jar rather than homemade, that's probably okay. But if Mom has to be away from home 12 hours a day to take that job promotion, or send her toddler to day care so she can climb the career ladder, those are trade-offs she probably shouldn't make.
It's also important to consider Dad's perspective in all this. If Mom's going back to work, Dad's going to have to pick up some of the slack at home. She needs to know how much of the household responsibilities he's willing—and able—to take on.
Some men are already working 50+ hours a week and may not have a lot of extra time to help out around the house. Other husbands really like cooking and maybe they're high-energy people themselves, so they'll jump right in and take on a lot of the domestic duties—without being nagged.
You have to know how much you and your family can handle. Chances are, even the Proverbs 31 woman knew her limits. While she did have outside business pursuits, she didn't let things hinder her spiritual life or physical health or let her family responsibilities slide. She probably wasn't gone from home 50 or 60 hours a week, either. Keep in mind, too, that she had servants to help out with the housework, which most middle- and lower-income women today do not have.
For many mothers, the ideal in terms of working is probably part-time. This is enough to provide some outside fulfillment and boost the household income, but it's not so much that it takes away from the family or a woman's personal life.
A 2007 study by the Washington, D.C. based Pew Research Center shows that 60 percent of working mothers say part-time work would be their ideal. Similar results were found in a 2006 survey conducted by the United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics. They surveyed working mothers and found that half wanted to combine bringing up their children with a part-time job. Only 6 percent wanted to work full-time.
However, desirable part-time jobs that offer decent pay are not easy to find. So while many women would like to work part-time, they are basically "forced" to work full-time because they need a job that pays decently and provides health insurance. And if you want to work in one of the professions like business management, law, finance or medicine, not only is it difficult to find part-time work in these fields, it's also hard to find positions where you aren't expected to work 50 or 60 hours a week.
All this creates a huge burden on women who are trying to find a way to balance a career with family responsibilities. Much could be done to make things easier for families, such as job sharing (where two professionals fill one position), health benefits for part-time workers (especially a problem for low-income workers, who may only be able to get part-time jobs), telecommuting and paid family leave.
So what does a woman do if she either needs or would like to work? Can a woman combine a career and family and not short-change either? With the right job opportunity and a supportive husband and children, a woman may be able to manage quite well with a full-time job and still have a smooth-running household.
With time becoming ever more precious and family finances getting tighter and tighter, it's important to keep your priorities straight and pray that God will help you make the right decisions about how you use your time. Your family is counting on you to make wise decisions! GN