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Jan. 31, 2006 Press Contact: William Harms
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Parents can learn how to balance work and family

Today’s parents are multitasking more than ever: juggling parental duties, working increasing hours and keeping up with household chores. But rather than feelings of efficiency, multitasking often produces stress and anxiety.

A new book based on University of Chicago research discusses how families with two working parents can cope with the stresses and demands of balancing work and family life. Being Together, Working Apart: Dual-Career Families and the Work-Life Balance is the culmination of eight years of research by the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work at the University of Chicago and the National Opinion Research Center.

The researchers learned of ways parents and children deal with the pressures of work on family life.

“Spending time together seems to be an antidote to these issues of stress,” said Barbara Schneider, who, along with Linda Waite is co-editor of the book and co-director of the Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work. “People’s sense of well-being is elevated when they spend time together as a family.”

Based on a study of 500 middle-class families with adolescent or preschool children, Being Together Working Apart offers tips on how to navigate the demands between work and family life—a conflict that is becoming more pronounced as parents increasingly report working more than 40 hours a week. More than 40 percent of working parents arrive at work early or stay late for three or more hours, and nearly 60 percent take work home with them as they try to conform with work expectations that often collide with and overpower family needs.

“Work plays a significant role in the lives of working families, not only in the amount of time they spend at work but also with their attitudes toward work and how these attitudes and expectations spill over to the home,” Schneider said. Although many parents find work to be a positive emotional experience providing them with an engaging cognitive challenge and sense of self not found in other situations. “Overworking is very pervasive, but parents don’t have the mechanisms to put the brakes on,” Schneider said.

Consequences of overwork include:

  • Work/home spillover: Researchers found that not only does work encroach on family time, but there is an emotional crossover between parents and adolescents.
  • Unequal division of household labor: While men are performing more chores than they did in the past, women often have to deal with child care issues and bear the burden of household management. Work and family conflicts are thus more pronounced for women.
  • Trade-offs and compromises, however, between family and work obligations appear unavoidable for many parents. Having to choose between undesirable alternatives often results in feelings of guilt and regret, especially for mothers. Many don’t want to be perceived as being on “the mommy track” because that could have negative career consequences.

“It isn’t just a problem of the employee, it’s a workplace problem that requires people to work together to make flex-time a real option that doesn’t have negative repercussions with respect to job security and promotion,” Schneider said. “Rearranging work schedules to make people’s lives more reasonable should be a desirable option.”

Researchers found several ways families cope with the work/life balance:

  • Sharing chores: Few emotional benefits are associated with housework, yet when the whole family engages in household tasks everyone is happier and more involved and more relaxed than if they do chores alone.
  • Religious participation: Parents and adolescents with strong personal faith experience greater happiness, have higher self-esteem, and feel substantially more caring toward others.
  • Making time to be together: Mothers who are highly stressed improve their state of mind by being with their families and fathers who have strong relationships with their children were much less likely to bring anger from the job home. Even watching television together can bring families closer.

Making these adjustments helps improve relationships between parents and children and can be beneficial as children grow up. Having working parents does not negatively influence children’s academic goals, well-being or their relationship with their parents. Although adolescents do not require the immediate care of young children, they do still need their parents, Schneider said.

“It’s changed considerably what it means to parent in the 21st century,” Schneider said. “They are making very important decision in their lives — applying to colleges, choosing courses and making friends. They really want to be with their parents.”

Adolescents are more forgiving of their mothers’ efforts at balancing work and family duties, but either parent’s work becomes an issue when parents miss activities in children’s lives. It’s important for families to simply communicate, talk over events of the day and share goals.

In addition to serving as co-director of the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work, Schneider is principal investigator for the new Data Research and Development Center at the National Opinion Research Center and the University of Chicago and holds the John A. Hannah Chair in the College of Education at Michigan State University.

Waite is the Lucy Flower Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and also is a senior social scientist at NORC and the University of Chicago, in addition to being co-director of the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work.
Last modified at 02:30 PM CST on Monday, February 12, 2007.

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