May 12, 1997

U.S. News and World Report

Lies parents tell themselves about why they work


Few topics are as important--and involve as much self-deception and dishonesty--as finding the proper balance between child-rearing and work

The first time Kristin Garris, 29, dropped off her 10-week-old daughter, Bailey, at the day-care center, she says, "I cried the whole way to work." Garris, a marketer for one of the Big Three car manufacturers in Detroit, no longer weeps in her car but still finds it hard to leave her baby every morning. "I don't want to miss the firsts: the first steps, the first words," she says. "But I know, in my heart of hearts, I have too much education and too much ambition to be a full-time mom and go through an entire week without any adult stimulation. It's not the amount of time I spend with my daughter, but the quality of time. I know she gets attention when she's [at day care]."

"Or," she says, "maybe that's just me rationalizing."

When it comes to the question of how much parents work and why, it is often hard to disentangle rationalization from self-awareness, self-deception from reality. Listen to most men and women discussing work and family and one thing becomes clear: People are lying--to others, or to themselves.


Many parents say they both work because they "need" the money--yet better-off Americans are nearly as likely to say they work for "basic necessities" as those who live near the poverty line.

Most parents say they believe their own child's day care is good--yet studies show that in most cases they're wrong.

Most of us say we would spend more time with our families if only our employers were more flexible--yet family-friendly policies now in place are usually ignored, and in the new book The Time Bind, sociologist Arlie Hochschild details how working parents increasingly flee chaos at home for comfort and order at the office.

Few issues seem so fundamental to how Americans live yet are so laden with confusion and, yes, dishonesty. In an effort to profess evenhandedness, many men say they would be happy to stay home if only their wives earned enough money; in reality, few men ever seriously contemplate such a thing. Consequently, when men (especially male politicians) talk about "working parents" they really mean "working women." Working women, meanwhile, fear that if they admit they don't have to work--or that their day care is low quality--they will be labeled "bad mothers" for nonetheless having made the choice to work. Even if no one says it outright, women figure others must be thinking it because they themselves are fully aware of the strain on their families and they wonder if maybe--maybe--they have indeed made the wrong choice.

Yet it's not unreasonable for women to fear that an attempt at "honest" discussion is really an effort to take away personal independence and power. That certainly was the message last month when a Baptist church in Arkansas shut down its day-care facility, stating that working mothers "neglect their children, damage their marriages, and set a bad example." Individual women's fears about the vulnerability of their position are reinforced by a tendency of the political system to distort information into unrecognizable forms. A recent study on day care, which discussed both its strengths and its drawbacks, was said by the conservative Washington Times to send a "Cautionary Note to Mothers," while the liberal Washington Post stated that "Day Care Study Offers Reassurance to Working Parents." Same data; differing worldviews.

But the self-deceptions are self-destructive. The lies parents tell themselves--combined with the fraudulence of the public debate--make it difficult to devise reform or change attitudes in a way that might ease pressures on families.

Lie #1: We need the extra money

Ask parents why they both work and the answer is often simple: They have to. For instance, when that question was posted on the Women's Wire, an Internet bulletin board, 53 percent of the 944 women who responded said they worked to "pay those darn bills." According to a 1996 Yankelovich survey, people with high incomes were just as likely to say they worked for "basic necessities" as were those at the economic margins. Are most middle- and upper-middle-income families really working because they "need" the money?

For the bottom third to half of the work force, it is true that stagnating wages have increased pressure on both parents to get jobs. Over the past quarter century, earnings for men without college degrees have barely kept pace with inflation; high school dropouts have actually worked longer hours for less pay. Wives in the poorer half of U.S. households helped cushion the blow, typically working 40 percent more hours today than in 1979. "At the bottom," says economist Sheldon Danziger of the University of Michigan, two sources of income are "the difference between making ends meet and not making ends meet."

Yet families with bigger incomes are as likely to have both parents working as those from the bottom half, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Thirty-one percent of the families in which both parents work are making more than $70,000 in income. Many families have, in effect, defined "necessity" upward. When asked in a 1975 survey to define "the good life," a majority listed only a handful of things: a car, a lawn, and a home they owned; a happy marriage; an interesting job; and being able to afford college for their kids. Twenty years later, the Roper Starch Worldwide survey found that most respondents defined "the good life" to mean far more in material terms: a job that pays "much more than average," "a lot of money," a color TV. Four in 10 add "really nice clothes," a second car, a vacation home, travel abroad. Thirty-seven percent even mentioned a swimming pool.

Many dual-earner couples say that although they may not be working literally to put bread on the table they do need two earners to pay for the necessities of middle-class life. Janet Slemenda, a Boston architect, concedes that her family could live on one income but that "we wouldn't be able to visit our relatives out of state or travel on vacation."

The argument that middle-class families need two incomes usually rests on the soaring costs of housing and college tuition. Yet even those expenses have not risen fast enough to explain the massive entry of women into the work force. At $113,000, the median price of a single-family home rose by 25 percent more than the general inflation rate from 1970 to 1995. During the same years, earnings in one-income families were essentially flat. But that means that half the houses in the country sold for less than $113,000, and in dozens of cities the average is much less: San Antonio, $81,000; Tampa, $78,000; Pittsburgh, $82,000. In addition, today's higher prices simply buy more house. The average new home has 38 percent more square footage than in 1970. And based on the actual costs of carrying a mortgage--an amount affected dramatically by lower interest rates--houses are more affordable now than in 1975. (This is the other side of the widely noticed sag in the real-estate market.)

As for college education, tuition at Ivy League schools and their elite private brethren has soared at nearly twice the rate of inflation in the past two decades. But barely 1 percent of students face these frightening $20,000 tuition tabs. Nearly 80 percent attend public colleges; while tuition there has gone up, too, the average is only $2,800.

Further evidence that economics isn't the dominant factor for many families: One quarter of married couples with school-age kids--nearly 7 million families--choose to have one parent stay home. And those making this choice are not primarily the rich. The median income for two-earner families was about $56,000 in 1995, up 27 percent in real terms since 1970, as opposed to $32,000 for old-fashioned male-breadwinner homes (down 3 percent).

So why--and how--do these families do it? Ed and Leslie Verrilla live in a Pittsburgh suburb, where Leslie stays home with 4-year old Spencer and nearly 2-year-old James. Ed, 35, is a restaurant manager who makes $23,000 a year. Before the kids were born, Leslie, 27, made nearly $20,000; now she brings in just $2,400 a year through baby-sitting. "It's a big struggle for us financially, but I think it's the right thing to do," because, she says, only a stay-at-home mom can provide the stability a child needs to feel secure (and she doesn't have to miss a minute of their childhood). Their only car, a Chevy Cavalier, is 11 years old. Half the clothes she buys for Spencer are used; they will be handed down to James and then resold to consignment shops. The family lived with Leslie's mother for two years while they saved for a down payment for a $65,000 house. "It takes concentration," she says about stretching their limited income, "but it's not that hard."

Part of the reason such couples try to make it work, says Martha Bullen, herself an at-home mom near Chicago who writes on family issues, is that when you count up work-related expenses, the second earner often doesn't contribute as much as people think. Two thirds of the wife's typically lower salary can disappear to pay for extra costs of child care, commuting, a work wardrobe, meals out, dry cleaning--and of course taxes.

Lie #2: Day care is perfectly good

In 1990, more than half of American infants and toddlers were in the care of someone other than their parents. Parents who have made this choice want to believe it is the right one. Not surprisingly, in three separate studies, parents consistently expressed high levels of satisfaction with their child care.

By contrast, the most recent comprehensive study, conducted by researchers at four universities, found that while 15 percent of day-care facilities were excellent, 70 percent were "barely adequate," and 15 percent were abysmal. Children in that vast middle category were physically safe but received scant or inconsistent emotional support and little intellectual stimulation. Says Carolee Howes, a developmental psychologist at the University of California--Los Angeles and one of the authors of the study, "When I look at this data and I think about where I would want my child, it is not in this middle clump."

What explains the disconnect between parent perceptions of day-care quality and the reality? Howes sees two reasons. First, the typical parent cannot carefully assess day care. Some can't leave work during the day to drop in unannounced and observe their children and their caretakers. Other parents don't know precisely what they should be looking for in day care (box, Page 73). Most check to see that a site is clean and safe but fail to determine whether children receive sufficient emotional care and intellectual stimulation.

The other reason parents overlook problems in their day-care setup, says Howes, is that "psychologically, they can't bear to tell you it's not good." This state of denial may become all the stiffer as a defense against the widespread belief that the ideal way to raise kids is with a parent, preferably Mom, at home. According to a 1997 Roper poll of 950 adults, 75 percent of respondents said that mothers who work outside the home and who have children under the age of 3 are threatening family values. In another 1997 Roper poll, 44 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that preschool-age children suffer if Mom works outside the home. Those who are judged by others to be "bad" parents have extra incentive to say it is not so.

While most day-care centers studied are "barely adequate," is there evidence that these conditions actually harm kids? Developmental psychologists have been trying to answer that question for the past 20 years, with conflicting results. A young child's emotional and intellectual development are influenced by myriad factors that include not only day care but also socioeconomic status, nutrition, and the mother's and father's emotional health. A crucial question is whether putting infants and toddlers into day care can damage the relationship between mother and child. Most psychologists agree that a child's attachment to his primary caretaker, usually his mother, and to a lesser degree to other close family members, forms the foundation for his emotional development. New research on the brain shows that the period from birth to 3 years is also critical to future intellectual growth. A comprehensive, $45 million study sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is tracking 1,300 children and may provide some answers. According to initial results, in cases where the mother-child relationship is already weak, placing a child in day care as an infant for more than 10 hours a week--especially poor-quality day care--can do real damage. The researchers found that such children were "insecurely attached" to their mothers at 12 months of age. Numerous studies have shown that this weaker bond puts kids at risk for later behavior problems, including overaggressiveness, disobedience, and an inability to learn in school or to feel compassion for others. Poor-quality day care can also hinder development of a child's language and cognitive skills at the ages of 2 and 3. There is also good news: High-quality day care can boost a 2- or 3-year-old's language and cognitive skills. In other words, attentive parents who send their kids to excellent day care are probably not doing their kids any harm. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of day-care centers fit into that category.

Lie #3: Inflexible companies are the key problem

On paper, most companies are plenty flexible. Seventy-two percent offer flextime; 64 percent permit part-time employment; 36 percent provide job-sharing; and 20 percent allow employees to work from home, according to a survey of 1,000 major U.S. companies released last month by Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm.

And yet a recent study of one Fortune 500 company reveals how little these programs actually are used. In The Time Bind, which profiles one unnamed company, sociologist Hochschild found that among eligible employees with children 13 and under, only 3 percent worked part time, 1 percent shared a job with another employee, and 1 percent took advantage of a program called "flexplace" allowing employees to do their work at home. Almost no fathers at the company took parental leave. Earlier studies of companies have shown similar results.

One reason is that taking advantage of such programs is lousy for your career. In a study conducted by the Ford Foundation, employees who used such programs as flextime, job sharing, telecommuting, and part-time work suffered career consequences, even though they were typically more efficient and productive than their colleagues. In one instance, a Xerox manager who supervised a team of engineers came up with an innovative plan that allowed her to work at home one day a week while improving her productivity. But during her performance review, the manager was downgraded for showing less than 100 percent commitment to her job. "What she did was not seen as an innovation that could help the company but as something she did only to help herself, " says Lotte Bailyn, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management and a researcher on the study.

Even employees who work full time but put in slightly less "face time" because of outside obligations may suffer. One study found that men with kids and employed spouses got pay raises that were 20 percent smaller on average over five years than did men whose wives stayed home. On average, the men in dual-earner families worked two hours less per week. "Although they were putting in somewhat less face time at the office, the real problem seemed to be one of perceptions," says Linda Stroh, an associate professor of human resources at Loyola University in Chicago, who conducted the study of 348 male managers. "These men were perceived as having a dual allegiance and were penalized for it," she says.

Lack of support from management, however, may not be the entire reason people shy away from flexible and part-time work arrangements. There could also be a more subtle, less talked about factor at work: Some parents want to spend more time at the office than at home. That is Hochschild's provocative conclusion. As she sees it, home life has become more like an efficiently run but joyless workplace, while the actual workplace, with its new emphasis on empowerment and teamwork, is more like a family. Among employees she observed, home had become a place filled with incessant demands from noisy children, endless piles of laundry, few tangible rewards, and little time to relax. At work, by contrast, people felt in control. They knew what was expected of them, and their hard work was appreciated by colleagues and supervisors.

Clearly, Hochschild's thesis applies mainly to those who have jobs they like and are employed by companies that allow them a good deal of control over their work. But there is a broader message in her thesis that confounds deep beliefs about the meaning of family and work. Women are discovering what men have always known: Work can be a haven. "What is going on is a cultural reversal in how we view work and family," says Hochschild. "It is something we need to start talking about honestly."

Lie #4: Dads would gladly stay home

Joe Leone, a lawyer in Bethesda, Md., finally had the opportunity to stay home with the kids full time when a blizzard last year kept him housebound. After four days of watching Barney, making meals, and playing with a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old, Leone came to a surprising conclusion: "If I won the lottery, I'd come up with a reason to go to work every day. It's not that I don't love them. It's that the attention they require is constant and regular, and that they're irrational."

Men may say they are willing to stay home and be the househusband, but when given the chance, few actually do. For 31 percent of dual-earner couples, the wife is the principal breadwinner--yet only a tiny fraction of fathers (about 2 million) stay at home with the kids. The reasons are less financial than psychological. According to the Yankelovich Monitor Survey, men and women define "masculinity" not in terms of athletic or sexual prowess but by the ability to be a "good provider for his family." The definition of femininity was (according to women) the ability to juggle work and family and (according to men) about female sexuality. These surveys confirm academic research showing that for men, identity is strongly connected to occupation.

Tim Collins, 44, works part time manufacturing specialized farm equipment so he can stay home with his sons, 8-year-old Galen and 3-year-old Carlin. His neighbors in Santa Barbara, Calif., consider him a pioneer for being a stay-at-home dad, he says, but "when I'm in a more traditional place like Ohio, people say, `Oh, you poor sap.' " Collins wrestles with many of the same feelings that women do: "If we made some changes in lifestyle we could live comfortably if I [completely] stopped working." But if he did so, he says, his wife would "stop looking at me with a certain level of respect."

As much as women say they wish their mates would take over the house and the kids, some may subconsciously wish that their husbands kept working to preserve the traditional roles. A few cutting comments about how the husband burps the baby improperly can make him want to turn the child back over to Mom. Heidi Villanueva, 30, a welfare caseworker in York, Pa., admits that her husband, Rosendo, is more patient with their three children than she is. But she suggests that if Rosendo stayed home full time he would not measure up to these "feminine" tasks. "He can't do the wash," she says. "This morning, there was my daughter's underwear in my drawer." William S. Pollack, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and coauthor of a book about notions of masculinity, says he often hears men complain that when they have tried to play a greater role taking care of the kids, their wives criticized them: "No matter how many women say, `I'd like to have a househusband,' many would be sorely disappointed because he couldn't fulfill their view of what a masculine man is."

For other women, having a husband at home would provoke jealousy over time their husbands got to spend with the kids. "My husband kids me every so often saying `I'd love to be Mr. Mom and stay home,' " says Mary Beth Backof, a partner with Price Waterhouse LLP, who is quoted in I Work Too, by Cathy Feldman. But she insists: "We both work or no one works. I couldn't handle all the extra fun [he'd] be having. I don't know if I could deal with me being the only one who worked."

Lie #5: High taxes force both of us to work

When 86 percent of parents in a survey last year said that cutting taxes would make it easier to raise their kids, Republican strategists smiled. As hard-pressed voters come to connect tax burdens with "family values," the GOP sees an opportunity to recast the fiscal debate on its own terms. At least that's what rising Republican star and budget chief John Kasich hopes as the budget wars heat up. He is determined to link balanced budgets and tax cuts more directly with flesh-and-blood family concerns.

As Kasich, who increasingly shows grander ambitions than being the nation's bookkeeper in chief, puts it, "The single biggest problem we have in the country today [is that] you've got to have two people working, and this has had the most profound impact on our culture." As an answer, the GOP is working to bring back the days when two-earner couples were an option, not a necessity. Rep. Peter Hoekstra makes the connection to taxes. Thanks to "reckless" Democratic spending, he says, "one person is going to work to support the family, the other person has to work to support government." Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson thinks the two-earner lament can bridge the GOP's factions, appealing to social conservatives who want moms to stay home and to antitax supply-siders. "There's an emotional reaction to this whenever we test it," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. The biggest reaction comes from married women, which suggests that this pitch could help narrow the GOP's infamous gender gap.

There is only one problem with this analysis: The charge that liberals have taxed mothers into the workplace doesn't stand up. The share of married women (with and without children) who work has soared, but mostly, experts say, this is because of better opportunities, pay, and schooling. The total tax bite on the average family has changed little in 20 years; income tax rates have gone down, but payroll taxes have gone up.

The biggest tax change, in fact, was the drop in marginal rates facing wealthy stay-at-home wives in the 1980s, whose first dollar of earnings had been taxed on top of their husband's 50 percent or higher rate. But, as University of Southern California Prof. Edward McCaffery explains in Taxing Women, the tax cut sent well-off wives rushing into the job market--exactly the effect that supply-side economists would have predicted, and exactly the opposite effect of what social conservatives had hoped for.

Meanwhile, neither party is close to cutting spending on a scale that would permit tax cuts deep enough to offset the loss of income if one parent stopped working. Eliminating the Commerce Department, for example, as many Republicans have urged, would give the average taxpayer an extra dime a day. Vaporizing the bureaucrats at the Department of Education frees up another penny.

Ironically, to the extent any economic policy is keeping mothers at work, it's in an area the GOP is loath to address: the lack of universal health coverage. Thirty-one-year-old Amy Krueger, for instance, of Medford, Mass., never dreamed of giving up her travel-agency job when her daughter was born. Her husband was self-employed; she knew they needed the health insurance her job provided. Phyllis Schlafly of the conservative Eagle Forum says that if Republicans really cared about women staying home, they would focus on what U.S. News estimates are the 4 million to 5 million women now locked unhappily in full-time jobs only for the sake of health benefits.

If most women who work full time do so not because they absolutely have to, and not because they have been taxed out of their home, and not because their bosses refuse to consider part-time work, then why do they do it? Mostly for the same reasons men do. Increasingly, the identification between occupational success and self-worth is as strong for women as for men. Maintaining one's skills and earning power helps maintain a sense of independence. Caseworker Villanueva, who was separated from her husband for a time, did not have a job during the separation, leaving her in a terrifying scramble to support her family. The couple later reconciled--but she kept the job, she says, "just in case." Couples counselors regularly observe that each spouse's job achievement and salary affect the balance of power within the relationship. To some extent, women go to the office to level the playing field back home. As the Hochschild study shows, women are increasingly discovering that the workplace can be a sanctuary. And, of course, some people work because money can buy not only power and independence but things.

There's no question that more money can mean a better lifestyle not only for yourself but for your kids. They may be able to go to a finer school, have educational computer software, even better health care. Recent studies also confirm that a child whose father or mother stays home and resents it is worse off than if the parents go to work.

Working entails tradeoffs, and it would be easier not to have to face them. That's why parents cling to false explanations that have an end-of-discussion quality. If a mother is convinced that she really needs the money, for instance, the tradeoff becomes obvious: a marginal increase in time with the kids vs. survival of the family. The good parent chooses work. But if it's marginal economic improvement vs. spending a lot of time with children, the scale tilts back. It's easy to state the options in a way that justifies whatever course you have chosen. "The thought of retiring for 10 years to raise children--I couldn't do that," says Cinzia Liambo, 34, a rising Boston bank executive with a 2-year-old daughter (and a son on the way). "I'd be a dinosaur." Of course, the choice isn't between working full time and retiring for 10 years. Consider this fact: Despite the rush of women into paid work in recent years, two thirds of moms with school-age kids do not work full time. Fathers, too, could choose to stay home.

Self-deceptions make it harder to devise solutions. If the assumption is that most people work for necessities, the door is opened to the argument that a $500 tax credit will solve the problem. If the assumption is that day care is fine, then there is no need to forgo buying a new car or to push business and government to improve it. And if couples expand the definitions of "necessity," and build big mortgages and car payments into their 10-year plans, they deprive themselves of the ability to make more flexible decisions. "I frown on people who say `I work because I don't have a choice,' " says working mom Kristin Garris of Detroit. "It is a choice." Honestly.

With Susannah Fox, Amy Saltzman, Brendan I. Koerner, and Jason Vest