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The Fractured Family


By Carol Mithers

Published Jul 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Everyday People Spotlight and Video
Follow the cameras of the UCLA Center of the Everyday Lives of Families into the homes of its subjects. Hear CELF director Elinor Ochs talk about what they've found, what it means, and why it matters.

Rising expectations for parenting put additional pressure on inner-city families who face not only a time crunch but a "spatial bind," says Alesia Montgomery, assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University. "If you're a low-income parent, trapped in your neighborhood, you must engage in frequent surveillance and monitoring of your child. If you're a middle-class family living in a low-income area — and the black middle class tends to live in areas with twice the level of poverty than the white middle class — you can get out, but you may have to drive your children to a distant school or park in order to feel they’re safe."

With all that, togetherness is almost impossible to come by. The CELF team used video cameras to see how often families actually shared space while at home. The discouraging result, says CELF fellow and UCLA anthropology graduate student Anthony Graesch '97, M.A. '00, was that "family members were all together in the same room only 14 percent of the time." Parents spent even less time with each other. Jeanne Arnold, UCLA professor of anthropology and member of the CELF team, found that a similar pattern held outside. The CELF families "maintained very nice private yards," she says, and during their self-narrated video tours showed off built-in pools, play sets, batting cages, patios, decks and flower beds. "We're out here all the time playing," men and women would say. "We eat out here, too."

Finally, the irony of pervasive technology is that it makes it easier for family members to keep in touch when they're away from each other, but pushes them apart at home. Says Aimée Dorr, dean of UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, "The Internet and cell phones give young people much greater independence and secrecy. In the past, you couldn’t just jump out your window into the outside world all the time or even talk privately on the phone, which was in the kitchen."

The good news is that families still care — and care very much — about being families. A 2001 study by Rutgers University and the University of Connecticut reported that 90 percent of working adults were concerned that they didn't spend enough time with their families. And CELF researchers found numerous daily moves toward togetherness within the fragmented lives they observed. In some households, says Wendy Klein, couples "had thought about housework a great deal and had explicit understandings as to who did what, which tasks to collaborate on, and which to split. They had noticeably less tension, and it was impressive how well they ran." In many homes, children routinely shunned their bedroom desks to do homework near the kitchen, just so they could be close to a parent. In addition, while few families ate together every night, most managed to do so at least once a week.