Dual-Income Parents: The Exhausted American Middle

BlogHer Original Post

Woman turning off alarm clock

Back in the mythic 50s and 60s, housewives like Betty Friedan and Betty Draper were very bored. The Feminine Mystique opens with this description of an average housewife’s day: “Many women no longer left their homes, except to shop, chauffeur their children or attend a social engagement with their husbands.”

Contrast this to the average day of 2009’s Janice Ramos, featured in Joan Williams and Heather Boushey’s new study, "The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict.” 

Janice Ramos is a married, 30-year-old registered nurse who lives in a home she owns with her husband, a technician, and two children, an eight-year-old son and a 14-month- old baby. She works the night shift so she can be home with her kids during the day. Her husband, whose shift starts at 9:00 a.m., gets the children up and fed and takes 

the baby to a neighbor’s and the older child to school. Janice arrives home at 8:30 a.m. after they have already left. She sleeps for five hours, then picks up the baby and meets her son at the bus stop around 3:00 p.m. She spends a few hours helping with homework and playing with the baby, and then goes to sleep when her husband returns from work around 5:00 p.m. She sleeps until 9:00 p.m., when she leaves to arrive at the hospital at 10:00 p.m. 

Ramos is part of what Williams and Boushey call the “missing middle.” These parents, writes Lisa Belkin, are working “highly supervised jobs that often leave them one sick child away from being fired”; these are “Americans who are neither rich nor poor,” and “have a median annual income of $64,000, earning between $35,000 and about $110,000 a year. Their median income has fallen 13 percent since 1979 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).” 

The middle is 53 percent of Americans, but the authors say because they are not as vocal and visible as professionals, the infamous “opt-out” group, or as desperate as the poor, they receive the least attention and even less help.

Time is a finite resource. Think of our lives are pies: pieces are divided between work time, home and family time and personal time. Cali Yost explains that conflict arises when our work and home time demands become so great that we simply run out of time. This is the state of many Americans.

Reading the "Three Faces" report is eye-opening and extremely sad because work-life conflict among all income levels is so pronounced. I was most struck by the phenomenon of “tag-team” parents like Janice Ramos in our new two-worker norm. In the study, exhaustion is a common theme of life in the middle. One parent says, “My daughter always wants to do things with me, but I’m too exhausted.”

Are you a tag-team couple? What effects does it have on your relationship and sense of well-being?

Lisa Belkin wrote, “Is work-life balance a luxury? In many ways, yes. Only those with both financial security and some control over their work lives have the freedom to recalibrate it.” Williams and Boushey’s report makes it clear that for married couples, time together as a family is a luxury, much less time for oneself. They also note that tag-team couples are between three to six times more likely to divorce.

Which leads me to the political hypocrisy of our legislators (almost everything I read these days leads me there). The U.S. is hostile to creating federal legislation that supports family-friendly workplaces -- and it is this legislation that would help the tag-team parents, those caught in the middle. 

Legislation that does exist helps poor women with childcare subsidies. Wealthier women can make more choices about their work and family lives. In either instance, as Williams and Boushey note, “The problem is viewed as not the lack of adequate public policies but rather the personal choices of a small set of mothers who are in families that do not look like most U.S. families. Politicians have actively used these narratives to reject moving forward on a work-family agenda.” Meanwhile, the majority of U.S. families soldier on, with little money, time or breathing room to spare.

Even more ironic? 

Nearly 60 percent of mothers in the middle work full-time or more, but only 42 percent of low-income mothers do. Both parents work full-time or more in more than half -- or 51 percent -- of all middle-income families as compared with only 15 percent of poor ones. The percentage of full-time work is slightly higher in professional-managerial families —- 57 percent -— but they can do all kinds of things to make life more workable.”

I'm a lucky professional example: The more money I make, the more money I willingly spend to outsource as much as I possibly can.

Families in the middle also pay more, percentage-wise, for childcare than do poor families or those at the top: 

In March 2009 dollars, low-income families pay around $2,300 a year per child for childcare for children under age six —- about 14 percent of their income. Families in the middle average $3,500 a year —- six percent to nine percent of their income. Professional families pay about $4,800 a year —- three percent to seven percent of their income.

(Personally, I would be thrilled to only have to pay $4,800 a year for childcare -— I don’t know where that figure is from!)

The report concludes, “If one had to choose a single word to describe life in the middle, it might well be exhaustion.”

Exhaustion is no way to make America great again. The solution, says Williams, "is flexibility without retaliation" from employers. Carolyn Maloney has a bill before Congress: support her. Another key is culture change and recognition: Some hourly based companies with hourly workers DO use flexible work schedules. Working Mother Magazine, for the first time this year, is honoring them, as it has done for years with its "100 Best Companies" to work for.

PS: Listen to BlogHer’s Elisa Camahort Page interview Heather Boushey and Joan Williams.

Morra Aarons-Mele


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