Sociology of Family: Balancing Work and Family

With more than 50% of married women working outside of the home the ongoing discussion of balancing work and family continues to rage on. The need for work-life balance has turned to consider fathers as well as we recognize the value of a father’s active participation in a child’s upbringing. In this paper we’ll consider the challenges are for families in managing work and family, how those challenges differ for women and men and what solutions are available for managing work and family. Lastly, we’ll look to real life examples to illustrate these difficulties families face in managing work and family and the potential solutions.

The first challenge met by dual income families is managing household labor. Even while both the husband and wife work, the house manages to get dirty, the cars and yard need maintained, and groceries are needed for meals that need to be made. If the family includes children, there is a whole additional slew of responsibilities from transport to and from daycare and school, preparation of lunches, after school activities and doctor’s appointments to name a few. Balancing work and family requires that someone fulfill all these responsibilities required to maintain a home, but if both partners work a full work week, who is left to do it? This particular challenge is one that differs based on gender. One of the most common challenges for women in balancing work and family is what is referred to as the “second shift” syndrome. The “second shift” refers to the period at the end of a long workday when men and women return home. (Strong, DeVault, Cohen pg. 392, 2005) Women return to a second job caring for the home and children, and men, well, to relax. It is suggested that this “second shift”, the disparity in the division of labor within the family household, calculates to an extra month of 24 hour days per year. Put another way, that’s more than 18 extra weeks of a 40 hour a week job!

Secondly, active participation in children’s lives and upbringing is an important part of a balanced work and family life, as well as in the raising of well adjusted and happy children. Studies have shown that when women work full time is when men’s participation in child care is at its greatest – at 30% of the care. Still this leaves 70% remaining. Again we see how a challenge differs based on gender. Women pick up 60% of the child care when working full time, and 75% if they only work part time outside of the home. (Hochschild, 1989) Again we see disparity when it comes to the division of labor, though both may work equal hours outside of home, in the home women pull more than their fair share of the weight when it comes to caring for the children.

A third challenge for husbands and wives balancing family and work are meeting the emotional needs of the relationship. Between the aforementioned responsibilities of housework and child care, a healthy relationship requires quality time for the husband and wife. As we’ve seen in our text the quality of a couple’s emotional relationship has a dramatic effect on marital satisfaction and the happiness and well being of the children. (Galinsky pg. ) With all the work to be done both inside and outside the home, little time is left to foster a romantic relationship. An additional complication in this matter is the state of equitable division of labor. As mentioned before, traditionally women take on far more of the household labor as well as the child care. This may lead women to harbor resentment against their spouses, which does not set the stage well for positive interactions in the relationship. This was shown in the experience of Nancy and Evan, where she withheld sexual relations in bargaining for equitable division of labor saying “I would not be this exhausted and asexual every night if I didn’t have so much to face every morning.” (Hochschild, Machung)

Clearly while both men and women face challenges in balancing family and work, women whose family structure leans with a bias to the traditional gender roles suffer a substantially heavier burden in this balancing act. This is why it seems more women struggle with role overload and, by extension, role conflict. Role overload is when the responsibilities a person juggles are more than any one person can handle, and a role conflict is when two different roles have responsibilities that conflict. (Strong, DeVault, Cohen pg. 382, 2005) This is where you’ll hear the American mom lament “I can’t be in two places at one time!” Put simply the sum of the parts is the greatest problem. Not only to you need to be able to manage the individual challenges of balancing work and family, but you have to manage the balancing act as a whole effectively.

Perhaps at this point you have a picture in your head of “Super mom”, as do I. Rightly so, and this leads us into what solutions are available for effectively managing work and family. First off when it comes to the equitable division of labor it is important for couples to have an upfront and non-confrontational conversation regarding the matter. Time and time again it arouse in the lessons that couples had differing perspectives on the definition of gender roles. You must first understand these often differing perspectives as the foundation of negotiating terms of equitable division of labor in the household. It seems as though a lot of confusion and frustration could be eliminated with this simple process of communication.

Secondly, when it comes to address the needs of child care, as with household duties, there needs to be a reality check on what is required in effectively doing the job. As mentioned in the text, feeding the baby also requires cleaning and sterilizing the bottles as well as preparing the formula. (Strong, DeVault, Cohen pg. 391, 2005)

Third, parents or even child-free couples need to have a mutual understanding of what they will do to actively keep their martial satisfaction at higher levels. Whether more of a romantic or a companionate relationship, what will they do to ensure that their marital relationship thrives? It takes time to buy out time to spend together, and both partners need to understanding when that time is, and how to be ‘physically and emotionally present’ for the occasion.

Let’s look at the example of Melvin and Arlene. Arlene was a widowed mother of three when she married Melvin. A few years later they brought that number to four when they had a baby together. After the youngest entered school Arlene opened her own business. As for the division of household labor the family was expected to pitch in and help. Since Arlene’s business was open on the weekends as well, the family had a housekeeper who came once a month to do the ‘deep cleaning’ that wasn’t attended to otherwise. It was the parent’s agreement that the housekeeper was a reasonable means to satisfy the need without overtaxing either of them with the task. Melvin would often cook dinner, as he really enjoyed barbequing, and the kids would clean the kitchen after. Arlene did most of the laundry, and would clean the house in the early morning before everyone else arouse for the day. Not necessarily an even division of labor, but a workable plan that included cooperation from all family members.

When it came to caring for the children, both Melvin and Arlene were actively involved. Duties were not clearly defined as being either parent’s, but were ‘load balanced’ between the two parents. The children road the buses to and from school and were dropped off in the afternoon at Arlene’s store where they had their own area for homework and play. Melvin saw to it that the children completed homework and had any assistance that they might need. Doctors and dentist appointments were split based on whose day was better suited. With balanced lunches available in school the unnecessary task of packing lunches was forgone.

As far as protecting their relationship goes, Arlene made it a point to kiss her husband at least 10 seconds on the mouth each night when he came home. When they specifically were talking together, the children were to respect their time, even the youngest who was given to interruptions as “Daddy’s girl”. Though they never had a date night per say, they would single time out for each other and inform the children.

As such, as far as I could tell, Arlene never suffered from role overload or role conflict. This was achieved through absolute cooperation from Melvin. His approval of her working and his doing ‘his fair share’ allowed Arlene to feel self-fulfilled both as a mother and as an entrepreneur. This also led to happy children who are now well adjusted adults.

In conclusion, the challenges of balancing work and family affect both husband and wife. Even so, historically this burden falls greater on the woman than the man. Women need not despair though! Open and honest communication is the key in laying a foundation for an egalitarian marriage and an equitable division of labor. The greater extent in which you are successful in doing that, the greater your success will be in effectively balancing work and family… and in having a happier and more satisfying marriage!


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