Who has the most difficult time balancing work and family? To read media coverage, you might think that it is blue-collar workers trying to find childcare while they juggle shifts at Starbucks. Oddly, though, the people who feel most stressed about finding enough time to make ends meet and spend time with their children are people with college degrees.
According to a new Pew survey: “Among working mothers with a college or post-graduate degree, 70% say it is difficult for them to balance work and family life; 52% of mothers without a college degree say the same. Similarly, among working fathers, 61% of college graduates say this is difficult for them, compared with 47% of non-college graduates. These differences hold even when controlling for the fact that college-educated parents are more likely to work full time.”
The reasons for this are varied. It’s true, as a New York Times article about the survey pointed out, that professionals are more likely to take their work home with them. They are going to be receiving emails from colleagues during what are supposed to be family dinners and phone calls during weekend soccer games. But it’s also true that educated Americans are the ones most likely to feel that they should be spending “quality time” with their children. They know the importance of reading to children, playing with them, being involved in their schooling, and getting them into a wide variety of organized activities. Educated parents feel pressure to give children more attention, lest they undermine their chances of academic and life success.
Even when middle-class families had a lot more chores to do during the day—cooking meals as opposed to buying prepared ones, laundry, cleaning, gardening, etc.—and even more children to tend to, parents didn’t feel quite the same pressures. As Jennifer Senior documents in All Joy and No Fun, parents today spend a lot more time directly overseeing children’s activities, as opposed to sending them out to play with friends and telling them to come home before dark. And it takes a toll on their mental health.
So are working parents doomed to feel this kind of constant stress? Well, it’s a vicious cycle. If you are a working parent and you’re not stressed, you might get the sense you’re doing something wrong. If you read the mommy blogs or listen to the conversations at school pickup, you’ll find that a surprising percentage of the talk is just people reciting lists of all the things they have to do, the different directions they’re being pulled in.
There are some elements of our lives that are more within our control than we think. In her book, The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life, Marie Winn interviews a lot of parents who are being driven crazy by the constant demands of their children. While they often resort to giving their kids screen time in order to give themselves a break, some try other methods. One mother described how she was always giving half her attention to the kids and half to something else. When she tried giving each child a few minutes of undivided attention, they were then much more willing to leave her alone for a while and play on their own.
One suspects that with our iPhones on all the time, we are much more likely to give children half our attention, resulting in more and more demands from them. And while some of that phone time is no doubt for work, a lot of it is just fiddling around. Laura Vanderkam, who has studied Americans’ time use diaries for many years, has found that many people—including many working parents—think they’re busier than they really are. Not only do we spend hours picking up clutter or checking emails when we could be focused either on work or on our children, we also waste a lot of time in front of the television. The average American adult watches almost three hours of television a day, and for those with a college degree, it’s more like two.
No doubt many stressed working parents would say that all they can do at the end of the day is collapse on the couch to watch Netflix or home improvement shows. If they went to bed early or spent an hour reading a novel, they’d probably feel significantly less stressed. But then what would they talk about with the other parents?