Dual-income families show signs of strain

We parents know we're stressed out. Now researchers are documenting it. Social scientists from UCLA installed videocameras in the homes of 32 families, all middle class, with two earners and multiple children. The cameras recorded nearly every waking moment at home for a week. Writes the New York Times' Benedict Carey:

... the U.C.L.A. project was an effort to capture a relatively new sociological species: the dual-earner, multiple-child, middle-class American household. The investigators have just finished working through the 1,540 hours of videotape, coding and categorizing every hug, every tantrum, every soul-draining search for a missing soccer cleat....

Dual-earner households with children have existed for years, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. But the numbers have jumped in recent decades, to 46 percent of families with children in 2008 from 36 percent in 1975.

Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which financed the project, said parents learned on the fly — and it showed.

I think that if we parents could anticipate some of the challenges and decisions we have to make, we'd be better off. Almost no family I know is living in the same circumstances, years later, in which they started.

One family I know, for example, relocated several times between the cities of New York and Los Angeles -- only to discover that their two sons needed less regimentation than city living could provide. My brother Bill made a similar decision, moving from inside the Washington Beltway to rural Connecticut, where his in-laws have provided support and extended family connections.

Dan-my-husband and I have taken turns commuting to New York City, which is about an 80-minute trip, one way. One of us always works closer to home, in case we get one of those emergency calls from the school that our daughter is sick -- or even just to deliver a pair of sneakers in time for gym class.

Each decision to arrange one's life differently is a value judgment. I'm exploring these values for my book-in-progress, Rocket Science for Working Moms. One of my values is a desire for my children to feel safe and supported, even though I have a 40-hour-plus time commitment to my employer. Other parents have altered their lives so their kids can learn to entertain themselves imaginatively without tying them to a dead-bolted schedule.

Learning on the fly is common, but it isn't much fun -- as the researchers on the UCLA project discovered.

“The very purest form of birth control ever devised. Ever,” said one, Anthony P. Graesch, a postdoctoral fellow, about the experience.