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The art of juggling

The Lowdown

Born right smack dab in the middle of the ‘baby boom,’ I am a member of an all but extinct sub-group of American women – the stay-at-home-mom-by-choice. For a quarter of a century, built-in flexibility was ingrained in my daily routine. I set a morning alarm but never punched a time clock. Because of this, parental leave, paid sick leave, and the cost of childcare were not my issues. I immersed myself in the minutia of my children’s lives – relishing every part and piece. To afford this, my husband typically racked up 200,000 miles per year flying the ’friendly skies’ – becoming an onlooker in our two son’s lives so that I could enjoy the luxury of being an active participant. Not exactly no worries … but exponentially less worry than today’s parents encounter day-in and day-out trying to balance the responsibilities of work and family.

But, to quote the poet laureate of my generation, “the times they are a changing.”

The structure of the American family is undergoing a metamorphosis. Nowadays, only 22 percent of all children under 15 are raised in male-breadwinner and female-homemaker families. According to research compiled for the Council on Contemporary Families, kids today are being raised in a diverse assortment of family structures – living in homes with dual-income earning parents, divorced mothers, never-married mothers, single fathers, same-sex couples, grandparents, cohabitating adults, and a wide range of other configurations. To learn how these changes have come about, listen to this interview with Philip Cohen, the author of the study.

In a separate publication, Kimberly Howard and Richard Reeves acknowledge the diminishment of traditional marriage. Rooted in demographics and economics, their conclusions describe a widening gap between well-educated, dual income couples that marry before they have children and members of America’s lower and middle class that by-pass college, have children before marriage, struggle to make ends meet, and increasingly opt not to tie the knot.

In this earlier article from The Atlantic, a prelude to his joint research with Howard, Richard Reeves contends that marriages between social elites flourish because couples in this cohort focus on their children and learn to masterfully juggle the roles of child-raiser and moneymaker. He identifies well-educated professional women as the primary drivers behind this new model. Outside of this hub, in circumstances where parents are unmarried, he sees more families increasingly headed by single mothers and rising rates of poverty. Emily Badger’s analysis of the Reeves-Howard study, particularly on how these different types of marriages impact children, is a must read. For more on the married, educated class, read this reprint of Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks. For an informative essay on the retreat from marriage in Middle America, read this essay from The State of Our Unions.

Recently two articles surfaced that encapsulate the Reeves-Howard theory of the separate classes of families divided by ‘I do.’ Both articles revolve around the issue of childcare. In the first, Anything but 9 to 5, Jodi Kantor presents a glimpse into the chronic anxiety experienced by Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old single mother, whose erratic schedule at Starbucks makes it impossible to find childcare for her four year old son. In the second, Alexis Madrigal shares an account of how he and his wife, both editors at prestigious magazines, working in tandem, scrambled to find childcare when their one-year-old son unexpectedly became ill. Obviously, the paths to a satisfactory resolution available for Jannette and Alexis are radically different. But, when read in juxtaposition, their stories confirm that family-friendly workplace policies are not frills – they’re basic needs, needs that crisscross the entire social strata of the U.S. – impacting every member of a family.

Unfortunately, U.S. policy remains wedged in perceptions about a type of family that peaked in the 1960s, a time when only 20 percent of mothers worked, and only 18.5 percent were unmarried. Today, 71 percent of all U.S. mothers work outside the home, and in 34.4 million families with children under the age of 18, the share of married-couple families where both parents work is 59.1 percent. Since the days of Watergate, the number of American families without fathers has grown from 10.3 percent in 1970 to 24.6 percent in 2013, and women have become the sole or primary breadwinners in four out of 10 households with children. Still, despite the recent triumph of securing paid sick days for 6.5 million workers in California, reality and culture continue to clash in America. Fully 90 percent of American mothers and 95 percent of American fathers report work-family conflicts – confirming that the needs of today’s families largely remain unaddressed. For a list of policy reforms that would make it easier to work and raise kids, Wharton’s Stew Friedman gets into specifics here.

Interestingly, against this backdrop of America’s changing family structure, the media’s focus on Millennials and what makes them tick has reached a fevered pitch. It’s easy to understand why. 60 million Millennials were born between 1978 and 1991 and by 2025 it’s estimated they’ll comprise 75 percent of the available U.S. workforce. 10.8 million households with kids headed by parents between the ages 25-34 already exist and experts speculate this cohort’s mindset will permeate and transform the American workplace. Given this group’s well-documented feelings about work and family – they believe both parents should make a significant contribution to the household income and share equally in the daily household activities – my generation’s sons and daughters will require the skills of a veteran Barnum and Bailey juggler to balance their family life. 

As for their parents, we’re already falling in line to help provide childcare.

Quotes of the Week

Different families have different child-rearing challenges and needs, which means we are no longer well-served by policies that assume most children will be raised by married-couple families, especially ones where the mother stays home throughout the children’s early years.” Sociologist Philip Cohen, the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change.

Matrimony is flourishing among the rich but floundering among the poor, leading to a large, corresponding “marriage gap.”’ Richard Reeves from How to Save Marriage in America.

“…when you've got a sick kid, there's no sending him with the nanny or bundling him off to the daycare. Someone has got to take care of that kid, and if your family lives far away, that someone is going to be one of the parents.” Alexis Madrigal from Two Working Parents, One Sick Kid. 

We are in the midst of a revolution in gender roles, both at work and at home. And when it comes to having children, the outlook is very different for those embarking on adulthood’s journey now than it was for the men and women who graduated a generation ago.” Stew Friedman, founder of The Wharton Work/Life Integration Project.

In a typical last-minute scramble, Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old Starbucks barista and single mother, scraped together a plan for surviving the month of July without setting off family or financial disaster.” Jodi Kantor from Working Anything But 9 To 5: Scheduling Technology Leaves Low-Income Parents With Hours of Chaos.

Graph of the Day

Source: Council on Contemporary Families. Data from the 1960 US Census and the 2012 American Community Survey, with data from  September 4, 2014.

Additional Reading


The Changing American Family. Natalie Angier. New York Times. November 25, 2013.

The 'Leave It To Beaver' Family Has Been Left Behind. Tierney Sneed. U.S. News and World Report. September 2, 2014.

•REPORT. Family Diversity is the New Normal for America’s Children. Philip Cohen. Council on Contemporary Families. September 4, 2014. 

Unlike In The 1950s, There Is No ‘Typical’ U.S. Family Today. Brigid Schulte. Washington Post. September 4, 2014. 

To Bolster The American Family, We Need To Get A Grip On What It Is. Mary Sanchez. Kansas City Star. September 4, 2014. 

•AUDIO. Why There No Longer Is A ‘Typical’ American Family. Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson. Here and Now-90.9 WBUR Boston. September 9, 2014. 

•SOCIAL POLICY MEMO. The Marriage Effect: Money or Parenting? Kimberly Howard and Richard Reeves. Brookings. September 4, 2014

The Class Divide: Marriage As A ‘Luxury Good.’ Allison Lin. CNBC. October 26, 2013. 

Two Classes, Divided By ‘I Do.’ Jason DeParle. New York Times. July 14, 2012. 

How To Save Marriage In America. Richard Reeves. The Atlantic. February 13, 2014. 

Children With Married Parents Are Better Off – But Marriage Isn’t The Reason Why. Emily Badger. Washington Post. September 8, 2014. 

The Rise of the Educated Class-A Excerpt from Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks. KQED. 

When Marriage Disasppears: The Retreat From Marriage In The Middle Class. The State of Our Unions. 2012. 

Working Anything But 9 To 5. Jodi Kantor. New York Times. August 13, 2014. 

Two Working Parents, One Sick Kid. Alexis Madrigal. The Atlantic. August 12, 2014. 

Family-Friendly Workplace Policies Are Not Frills -- They're Basic Needs. David Hudson. The White House Blog. June 23, 2014.  

There Is No Longer Any Such Thing as a Typical Family. Belinda Luscombe. TIME. September 4, 2014. 

•PAPER. The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict. Joan Williams and Heather Boushey. CAP. January 25, 2010.

7 Key Findings About Stay-At-Home Moms. D’Vera Cohn and Andrea Caumont. Pew. April 8, 2014.

Employment Characteristics of Families Summary. Bureau of Labor Statistics. April 25, 2014. 

Manifesto Of The New Fatherhood.  Stephen Marche. Esquire. June 13, 2014. 

U.S. Women on the Rise as Family Breadwinner. Catherine Rampell. New York Times. May 23, 2013.

California Becomes The Second State Ever To Guarantee That Sick Workers Can Take A Paid Day Off. Bryce Covert. Think Progress. August 30, 2014.

•PAPER. The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict. Joan Williams and Heather Boushey. CAP. January 25, 2010.

•SURVEY. America Has Changed. Have Government And Business?  Dan Balz. Washington Post. January 12, 2014.

7 Policy Changes America Needs So People Can Work and Have Kids. Stew Friedman. Harvard Business Review Blog. Novmeber 11, 2013. 

Marketers Are Sizing Up The Millennials. Dionne Searcey. New York Times. August 21, 2014.  

In A Year's Worth Of Ny Times Articles, The Millennial Emerges. April 6, 2014. 

The Confident Generation: Millennial Women Are Changing What Work Looks Like. Laura Sessions Stepp. Washington Post. November 28, 2014. 

The Great Freelancer Movement: 8 Reasons Why Your Next Job Will Be A Project. Thomas Frey. August 10, 2013. 

The Millennial Generation Becomes Parents. Barkley Advertising. July 17, 2013.

Millennials In Adulthood. Pew. March 7, 2014.

11 Facts About The Millennial Generation. Fred Dews. Brookings Now. June 2, 2014.

•PODCAST. Episode 7 - Baby Bust, Millennials Opting-Out of Parenthood with Guest: Stew Friedman. NYC Dad’s Group. October 29, 2013.

Report Looks At Whether Millennial Moms Are More Traditional, Happier. Kelly Wallace. CNN. April 4, 2014.

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