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The Fractured Family

By Carol Mithers

Published Jul 1, 2006 12:00 AM

When an interdisciplinary team of UCLA faculty and graduate students began a study of 32 Los Angeles households nearly five years ago, they scrutinized their subjects as if the family members were a newly discovered pack of exotic animals.

The work was done for the university's Center on the Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), one of six similar projects sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. It meant excruciatingly detailed observation of the subjects, all middle-class, dual-income families. Moms, dads and their school-age kids were videotaped for several months from the moment they woke until they left for work or school, then again later in the day, until the kids' bedtime. Everything was fair game for interpretation —meals, errands, interactions with the world and each other. Even the families’ homes were studied, mapped and measured, with families shooting their own video tours; up to 1,000 photos were taken of rooms, furniture and "artifacts."

The approach is not as farfetched as it may seem at first blush. After all, says Elinor Ochs, CELF director and UCLA professor of anthropology, "We can tell a lot about beavers by looking at the dams they build."

The question to be answered here was basic: How was this particular pack of two-legged animals doing? With both parents working "and working a lot," says Ochs, "how do families manage?"

The answer seems to be "not so well." CELF data collection completed in 2005 has fueled a series of articles, and the center's staff hopes to have a book manuscript completed by next spring. Findings suggest that family life endures in the 21st century, but it's different than it used to be, and neither our social institutions nor our expectations and fantasies have adapted. The result is struggle and stress.

No one who seriously studies the family would suggest we look to the historical blip that was the 1950s for an archetype, but still, family life has "been through a revolution," says Evergreen State College's Stephanie Coontz, who serves as director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. “The first phase came 200 years ago with the idea that men and women should choose their own mates on the basis of love. The second came in the 1970s and 1980s when women went to work."

"The median age for first marriage has risen to an all-time high of 25 for women and 27 for men," says Megan Sweeney, an associate professor in UCLA's sociology department who studies family-related issues. "The divorce rate has stabilized, but it's still very high; as many as a third of all young people will live in a stepfamily at some point in their lives."

Add to these numbers the growing percentage of same-sex couples raising children and it's not surprising that in the 2000 census, the traditional nuclear family represented only 24 percent of American households. These changes aren’t breaking news, of course. What's startling is how little we’ve dealt with or adapted to them.

Take chores, for example. Even though two-thirds of mothers with kids under 18 are working, husbands and wives still fight about housework. CELF fellow and postdoc scholar Carolina Izquierdo '94, M.A. '95, Ph.D. '01, who has previously studied families of the Peruvian Amazon, noted that "in that region, there’s a cultural expectation of what each person does, so things get done." By contrast, in the CELF households, "there was a lack of clear division of labor and understanding of what tasks couples should do and how to do them."

Also unresolved: how to manage the dual-career family time crunch. In fact, in that arena, we've gone backwards, taking on more to do in less time, with research showing that dual-income parents now work more than 90 hours a week combined.

San Jose State University anthropologist Chuck Darrah has pointed out that parents are expected to be far more involved in their children's lives than in the past. It's not just the endless round of distant soccer games, the weekly ballet and flute lessons, and the helping with hours of homework each night, but also considering, selecting and managing school choices, an option that either didn't exist a generation or two ago, or that middle-class parents didn’t consider.

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.