At least, that’s how it must look to researchers at UCLA who have come up with a landmark video picture of what work-life balance really means to today’s frantic families. The picture? Not so pretty.
On the surface, it’s more than a little bit creepy: Thirty-two families that allowed social scientists from UCLA to videotape every waking moment of their post-June Cleaver family lives. Reality TV, no edits. Ew.
Get past the voyeur factor, however, and what you find is life like yours. After coding and analyzing 1540 hours of video tape that chronicled everything from hugs to meltdowns, the researchers have come up with the first picture of what the New York Times reporter Benedict Carey calls “a relatively new sociological species: the dual-earner, multiple-child, middle-class American household:”
“This is the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world,” said Thomas S. Weisner, a professor of anthropology at U.C.L.A. who was not involved in the research. “What it does is hold up a mirror to people. They laugh. They cringe. It shows us life as it is actually lived.”
After more than $9 million and untold thousands of hours of video watching, [the researchers] have found that, well, life in these trenches is exactly what it looks like: a fire shower of stress, multitasking and mutual nitpicking. And the researchers found plenty to nitpick themselves.
What you find is that, when it comes to so-called work-life balance, there’s not a whole lot that isn’t work. The study found:
Crunch the numbers, and you have to wonder where the life comes in, as in having one. Leisure defined as “breathers”, as in a few minutes here, a few minutes there? Doesn’t anyone just play cards? Back to Carey’s story:
“I call it the new math,” said Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which financed the project. “Two people. Three full-time jobs.” Parents learned on the fly, she said — and it showed.
The study also measured stress levels, via saliva that participants spit into small vials at routine intervals, allowing the researchers to track cortisol (the stress hormone) four times a day. Not a lot of good news there, either:
These cortisol profiles provided biological backing for a familiar frustration in many marriages. The more that women engaged with their husbands in the evening, talking about the day, the faster their cortisol dropped. But the men’s levels tapered more slowly when talking with a spouse. (A previous generation’s solution: “cocktail hour”)
Frankly, who wouldn’t want a cocktail? Or ten? Carey’s story notes the reaction of the field workers to all the household chaos:
“The very purest form of birth control ever devised. Ever,” said one [of the researchers], Anthony P. Graesch, a postdoctoral fellow, about the experience. (Dr. Graesch and his wife have just had their second child.)
And therein lies the rub. Even a researcher with a camera trained on the good, the bad and the ugly of modern family life has chosen to reproduce. There’s no doubt that even given what we know many of us still choose to raise families. There’s also little doubt that, especially in this economy, many women will stay at home with them. And yet. As the study shows, there’s something broken in the way it all comes down. There’s work at work. There’s work at home.
Maybe that’s balance. But should we really call it life?