Why the Fuck Are Middle-Class Parents This Overwhelmed? 


New research has found that educated, middle-class white people with kids—you know, the people TV wants you to model your life after—are reporting being stressed as hell trying to balance it all. Let’s investigate.

The New York Times’ Upshot blog reports that according to a new Pew Research Center study, in over half of today’s two-parent families, both of the parents are now working full time. Yet as we’ve been discussing, in spite of this dramatic change in the family portrait, workplaces, policies and general notions about how to facilitate this have simply not caught up. As a result, parents surveyed feel that both work and home life suffer, and everyone is running around tearing their hair out.

Claire Cain Miller speaks with Aimee Barnes and Jakub Zielkiewicz, a couple in their early 30s who are both employed full-time by the California Environmental Protection Agency. They have a 15-month-old son, flexible work schedules, and family nearby—which is about as good as it gets these days in terms of being supported to raise a kid.

“You basically just always feel like you’re doing a horrible job at everything,” Aimee Barnes told Miller. “You’re not spending as much time with your baby as you want, you’re not doing the job you want to be doing at work, you’re not seeing your friends hardly ever.”

According to Pew, that is in line with how 56 percent of working parents feel these days—and the Times notes that “college-educated parents and white parents were significantly more likely than other parents to say work-family balance is difficult.” Not only that is it too difficult to strike a happy balance managing childrearing demands, working life, relationships, and leisure time, but they are also, Miller says, “more likely to say that parenting is tiring and stressful, and less likely to find it always enjoyable and rewarding.”

Of full-time working parents, 39 percent of mothers and 50 percent of fathers say they feel as if they spend too little time with their children. Fifty-nine percent of full-time working mothers say they don’t have enough leisure time, and more than half of working fathers say the same.

While I would like to speak directly to the 41 percent of full-time working mothers who do have leisure time to determine how, exactly, they get it, I’m more interested in why this is happening to the people who, American Dream-style, have the most means and flexibility to shape their lives as they wish within middle class goals.

Here are some possible theories:

Men Think Doing Some Work Means Equal Work, But They’re Wrong

Dudes: Trying to step it up; getting so close! But not closing this deal yet, I’m afraid. Miller notes that women “still do the majority of the child care and housework—particularly managing the mental checklists of children’s schedules and needs—even when both parents work full time.” Although parents are more likely to split chores, discipline, and playtime with kids, fathers think they are pitching in equally overall.

This might be in part because women do all that invisible work men don’t do—scheduling appointments, keeping track of everything, planning ahead, sending out reminders, and so on. So men don’t notice what they don’t notice. Also, men might feel they are doing more than their fathers did around the house, which they then quantify as “a lot.” I’d say this anecdote from Miller pretty much sums it up:

Asked about the division of household chores, Sean O’Malley, 37, a biotech consultant and father of Fiona, 11 months, said: “I think we’re dividing pretty equally. And if it’s not equal, then we certainly want it to be.”
“I’d say I do more,” said his wife, Anne Mercogliano, 33, a marketing executive at Twitter.

Yes, Sean O’Malley, we certainly want it to be.

Middle Class White People Are Ultra Aspirational and Doing This to Themselves

I grew up in a working class family, but now find myself squarely in the middle class, and there is a difference—in both good ways and bad—in how child-rearing is approached.

The middle class families I see up close here in Venice, CA—generally with two working parents and one child—do seem stretched for time, but they also tend to try to make everything in their child’s life an “epic” experience, whether it’s lunch (Pinterest-worthy lunch boxes), volunteering (I have to spend every Friday at school to help out or I’m a bad mother!), vacations (every three months!), holidays (Must. Be. Magical. Or. Else!), weekends (museums, parks, science center, multiple playdates, sometimes back to back, constant exposure to something cultured!), and of course, having “things”—nicer clothes, better toys, whatever everyone else has so they know we understand how to be middle class, too.

Some of it is part of providing a decent childhood, to be sure—I want my kid to get her culture on, read books, see the world, and enjoy her life. But some of it is purely fitting in with a specific lifestyle, which means working all the time to provide the sometimes meaningless symbols of said lifestyle. I’m not even talking about helicoptering, or being overly obsessed with your child—I’m simply talking about a heavily orchestrated “lifestyle childhood” which involves this very identifiable magazine-borrowed image of what childhood should be.

I’m not advocating we put kids in labor camps just so they understand the world is a bit fucked, but I do think most toys are bullshit. Holidays should be nice and warm and fun, but they don’t have to feel like they were produced by Steven Spielberg. Personal anecdote: Every house we hit here for Halloween was produced within an inch of its life—just in case any child in the county didn’t feel completely specifically, personally catered to. Yes, it’s fun, it’s also ridiculous.

If middle-class parents stopped chasing the idea that they have to be “on” 100% of the time for their kid to thrive, I bet they’d give themselves back a couple hours a week to unwind from all that epic parenting. Seriously! Try it. It doesn’t make you a jerk. It makes you a regular person.

Women Don’t Demand Leisure Time for Themselves Like Men Do

Unless you were a nun, writes Brigid Schulte in a piece earlier this year for Daily Life about time management for women, “women have never had a history or culture of leisure.” Historically, it was high-status men who were free from the drudgery of working and could focus on art, philosophy, science, literature. As a result, women now often feel they don’t even deserve leisure. “Instead, they felt they had to earn time to themselves by getting to the end of a very long To Do list,” she says. “Which, let’s face it, never ends.”

“Time,” she says, “is a feminist issue.”

Schulte, an author and mother of two, faced the same dearth of free time the Times piece explores. She eventually let a time expert comb through a diary she kept, and when he told her she had 30 hours a week of leisure time, she balked. Sure, he showed her bits of time here and there, she says, including earmarking time she spent getting out of bed in the morning, or waiting by the road for a tow truck. But that “wasn’t time,” she concluded. It was “time confetti.”


What I didn’t know at the time was that this is what time is like for most women: fragmented, interrupted by child care and housework. Whatever leisure time they have is often devoted to what others want to do – particularly the kids – and making sure everyone else is happy doing it. Often women are so preoccupied by all the other stuff that needs doing – worrying about the carpool, whether there’s anything in the fridge to cook for dinner – that the time itself is what sociologists call “contaminated.”

Back at the Times piece, Miller notes a few other theories as to why middle-class, educated parents feel so stressed. One is that white-collar jobs may be more flexible, making it easier to work from home or go in late or shift the workday to the weekend, but it often also means working all the time, being tethered to the digital world.

Another theory is that with women doing more to engage in childrearing, they’re less likely to succeed at work; studies show men have on average benefited from a 6 percent raise per child, while women take a 4 percent hit per child. For women, at least, the work doubles, but the payoff shrinks.

Where all this leaves us is this: Truly egalitarian parenting, even among our great white hope, Millennial dads, still eludes us. (Part of it, it must always be said, is that predicting happiness after children is a gamble in itself. People who want kids tend to be happier with them, but that’s not always the case, and many marriages suffer after kids enter the picture).

But a big reason we might hear more (by 10 percentage points in the Pew study) about white middle class parents struggling is that they probably feel more entitled to complain. They may be most likely to vocalize discontent, because they acutely feel they should represent and benefit most from the American Dream. So two (white) educated parents working hard and both pitching in ought to have the best of all possible worlds and show us the way to enlightenment, right?

As shitty as it is that this is the demographic painted as mattering most when other families struggle much more to achieve much less, one fact remains: it’s incredibly troubling that it’s this difficult, even for families who are supposedly hitting all the marks, to carve out a happy life.

Image via FOX/Malcolm in the Middle.

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