July 27th, 2010 | 6:00 am

Dual Career Couples – Tips for Making It Work

filed under Work-Life

iStock_000000837540XSmallBy Gigi DeVault (Munich)

Have you seen Up in the Air? The camera cuts to the interior of a hotel bar. We see two women sitting over drinks. Worldly, successful, confident, Alex Goran has scooped up the pieces of the broken young Turk-ette, Natalie Keener, who has just received a “Dear Jane” text message from her boyfriend. Keener ticks off the desirable attributes of her dream husband. In turn, Goran advises the young woman: “You know, honestly by the time you’re 34, all the physical requirements just go out the window…Please let him earn more money than I do. You might not understand that now but believe me, you will one day—otherwise that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Suppose we take Mrs. Goran’s recipe for disaster and change out some of the ingredients: The basic recipe we want is intended to create the greatest measure of couple happiness. Starting at the top of the happiness scale, the couples who report the most happiness are upper-middle-class, two-career couples.

In fact, sociologist Paul Amato of Penn State reports that these couples are three times more contented in their marriages than couples in the group who rank next highest on the marital happiness scale—couples in working-class and middle-class families who hold to a traditional division of labor with only one breadwinner. This more than just a nod to 1950s aspirations—a chicken in every pot being stirred by a happy homemaker. What makes these mixes leaven, suggests Amato, is that these dual-career couples have egalitarian attitudes related to child care, household chores, and shared decision-making. But, according to the Penn State professors, an otherwise good recipe for marital happiness can be ruined when the wife adds too many working hours. Marital stability is shaken when the wife in egalitarian, dual-income families works outside the home more than 45 hours per week.

Yet, both men and women are working longer hours outside the home. About 66% of married couples had a spouse at home in 1970. Today, that number is closer to 40%. In 1970, the combined average number of hours worked by couples in a week was 52.4, compared to 63 hours a week in 2009. The new economy binds job security—terminology that has changed radically in the last few years—to longer working hours. Dual-income families are the norm for families in the United States (and readers of The Glass Hammer). A happy home environment means you’re better positioned to achieve more at work, shatter glass ceilings, and claim your seat at the table. Here are a few tips for making it work at home, so you can work better in the office.

Dueling Despite Dual Income

Some family counselors report that their entire practices are dedicated to couples who experience difficulty reconciling four conflicting and competing demands: Her job, his job, their kids, their relationship. Ellen Galisnsky, president of the Families and Work Institute and author of the book “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage,” told Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times that “The conflict is newer to men, and it feels bigger than the same amount of conflict might feel to a woman.” She continued, “Women have been doing it for a longer time, and they have more role models…You will get complaints about men exaggerating their conflict.”

In her New York Times article, Tara Parker-Pope quoted Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen College and a marriage historian, who will publish a new book next year titled, “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.” Dr. Coontz explained that, “Women consistently underestimate how much their husbands do…Women don’t necessarily give his contribution the same value as theirs. They don’t always recognize that what he does with the kids is a form of care, too.” That is all well and good, but according to the National Survey of Families and Households from the University of Wisconsin, women still spend about 28 hours each week on housework, while their husbands log about 16 hours. (You don’t even want to know how this plays out in Japan.) The perception gap persists in any discussion of childcare, with an 18% difference between the observations of fathers and mothers, and is wider still when considering cooking and housecleaning—more than 50% of the men claim most or half of the work, while 70% of the women report doing it all.

A study released June 18, 2010, from Boston College titled The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood within a Career Context [PDF], reports that fathers are struggling as much as mothers —perhaps more than mothers—to fulfill the gamut of responsibilities at home and at work. The traditional roles of parenthood no longer exist for most of these dual-career couples. As women have attained more advanced education and better paying jobs, their wage-earning status has moved to the forefront and, purportedly, their willingness to be accommodating spouses has decreased. The issues are not new—the players have shifted. According to a 2008 report from the Families and Work Institute’s National Study on the Changing Workplace in New York, work-life conflict was reported by 59% of the fathers and 39% of the mothers in a dual-earner household. In 1977, work-life conflict was reported by 35% for fathers and 34% for mothers.

Deflating the Duel:
Perhaps if couples approach the logistics of their relationships with the same verve they apply to a business merger, they’ll be able to address the four horsemen (her job, his job, their kids, their relationship). Interest-based negotiation can be a good approach to resolving the perceptual gap that couples often experience. What is his/her interest in making changes? “What’s in it for me” could be replaced by the old adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes. Perspective [read: perception gap] is a flexible concept that is highly dependent on vantage point. Try changing roles for a day or a week. He does the grocery shopping and washes out junior’s thermos and lunchbox. She hoses out the wading pool and plays the board games. Like any good manager, play to each other’s strengths—don’t feel bound by traditional divisions of labor. (You know how those scales tip.)

Fairway or Sand Trap

Navigating the new economy is like trying to make it to the turn without hitting into a sand trap. Sometimes we can see the sand or water traps ahead and try to set up our shots to avoid them. But other times the course is hilly, the terrain remains hidden—and the ball is hit right into a greenside bunker. The player who gets quickly out of the sand trap has typically put in quite a bit of pitch shot practice with a sand wedge. Perhaps this is why the degree to which women experience work-life conflict has not changed significantly in three decades: Lots of practice.

In 1997, the percentage of women under 29 years of age, without children, who wanted jobs with more responsibility, fell to an all-time low in the history of the National Study of the Changing Workforce by the Families and Work Institute. From a high of 78% for this group in 1992, the percentage dropped precipitously to 53% in 1997. In 2008, only 66% of the young women surveyed were looking for jobs with more responsibility.

In this same year (1997), a landmark book titled “When Work Doesn’t Work Anymore: Women, Work, and Identity,” was published in 1997. Author Elizabeth Perle McKenna (she has since divorced and dropped the name McKenna) explained that the 1980s fantasy for working women was “money, power, position.” But by the 1990s, the fantasy had become “money, power, position, and balance.” That version still applies today, but “balance” is spelled with a capital “B” and the expectation applies to working fathers, too. At the time of her interview by Deirdre Donahue of USA Today, Perle said that the point of her book was “to give women the power to be enough. It’s this trying to be everything that’s making them unhappy…How do we make work work for people who have more responsibilities?”

Perle’s question is even more apt now than it was in 1997. What’s the current score? Responsibility is up; happiness is down. “For the first time,” according to the 2008 report on Gender and Generation at Work and at Home by the Families and Work Institute, “young women and young men don’t differ in their desire for jobs with more responsibility.” Millennial (people under 29 years of age) women are just as likely as millennial men to want jobs with greater responsibility. Of the Millennial group, those who are parents are spending more time with their children than their age counterparts did in 1977. Millennial mothers today are spending one half hour more each day with their children. In 2008, Millennial fathers were spending an average of 4.3 hours per work day with their children; their age counterparts in 1977 spent 2.4 hours each day with their children. This is a significant difference for young fathers and a remarkable increase of almost two hours per day.

Working fathers weren’t as unhappy as working mothers when Perle dropped out of the workforce to write her book and care for her 3 year old. Fathers weren’t typically helping with childcare and household chores at the same level they are today, and most families were not as dependent on two incomes. Today, 59% fathers in dual-career couples say that they experience some or a lot of work-life conflict; in 1977, the figure was 35%.

Are We There Yet?

Over the course of three years, Arlie Russell Hochschild, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, interviewed hundreds of Fortune 500 company employees known for their family friendly policies. Her goal was to see how these employees reconciled their home life and their work. In 1997, she published her findings in “The Time Bind” and the book became an instant bestseller.

Story after time-bound story relates extraordinarily long work days, followed by grueling sets of errands and household chores. Through all this, the lives of children are woven: Up before dawn to get ready to leave the house with mommy or daddy, ten hours spent in daycare, maybe grocery shopping on the way home, and a quick bedtime story after a late dinner. Even on the days when nothing went wrong, it seemed an unsustainable pace.

Hoschschild, who also wrote “The Second Shift” in the early 90s, learned that these employees rarely took parental leave or availed themselves of any of the flexible options their firms’ family-friendly policies offered. Instead, they would work overtime, spending ever longer evenings at work, even—they disclosed —when they didn’t really need the money. Some employers offered domestic enticements, such as free snacks, soft music, game rooms, that made the workplace more enjoyable—and the boundary between work and home even more permeable. Perhaps these amenities tended to obfuscate the dispassionate stance of corporations toward their employees, who could be so crisply detached without warning. Regardless, at work, these employees were taken seriously, were paid for their labors, and enjoyed interacting with colleagues—other grown-ups. At home, they felt taken for granted, overburdened by endless chores, and isolated. At the end of the day—literally—they chose work over home. “Work had become home, and home had become work.”

“Men and women in dual-earner families especially are facing challenges in managing the day-to-day realities of their lives in a highly pressured 24/7 environment. The current economic downturn adds to these pressures.” In a dual-earner family, the loss of one person’s job can put in motion a risky set of choices. In a study published in Research in the Sociology of Work, Stephen Sweet of Ithaca College examined how the loss of job protections and predictable structures has contributed to a striking increase in two-income families. Sweet, the lead author of the study, Dual Earners in Double Jeopardy: Preparing for Job Loss in the New Risk Economy, explains that the thin job market may cause families to relocate under very tenuous arrangements. Should one spouse find a replacement job, the trailing spouse may also have to leave their current position and move to the location of their spouse’s new employment. The trailing spouse may or may not be able to find work. The origin of “double jeopardy” is readily apparent.

Play with a Different Club: How can dual-career couples be happy while being overworked, overbooked, and overlooked? Many times, something has got to give. Dual-career couples can evaluate if the reality of their lives is closely aligned with their expectations and attitudes. “When there is a disconnect between expectations and realities, conflict and tension typically ensue.” Consider those first lessons on how to putt, when beginning golfers may be shown how to roll a golf ball toward the hole in order to reveal how the putted ball will play. What looks to be a smooth, flat green will often give up secret slopes that could result in an unwelcome surprise. With more information about the turf, it becomes easier to choose the right club and to play lower than the handicap. Likewise, as dual-career couples explore the challenges they face, home and family systems can be retooled for a better fit. Taking a lesson from dual-centric people who consider job priorities and family life / personal priorities to be equivalent, couples can work at allocating time differently across the days of the week. In effect, they give the most attention where it is needed on what amounts to a roughly-hewn rotation. And they try not to keep score.

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