National Network for Child Care's Connections Newsletter
Maureen Perry-Jenkins, Ph.D.
Human Development and Family Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
If I asked you what the most important aspect of your life was, what would you say? When this question is asked as part of the General Social Survey conducted annually in the United States, the most popular answer for both women and men is, "my family." The second most common answer is "my work." It is troubling, however, that the two most important aspects of Americans' lives are often the two arenas that are in the most direct conflict. In 1991, 58% of women with children under the age of six were employed. Because the dual-earner lifestyle is becoming the norm in the United States, it is important to examine how work and family life are related (Ahlburg & DeVita, 1992).
A great deal of research has addressed the issue of how work affects family life. One consistent finding is that stress, anxiety, and fatigue experienced at work is linked to more negative marital interactions, parent-child interactions, and personal well-being (Repetti, 1989; Crouter, Perry-Jenkins, Huston, & Crawford, 1989; Spitze, 1988). It appears, however, that men and women tend to cope with their work stress in different ways when they come home. Men more often withdraw from interactions at home by reading the paper, watching TV, or making themselves unavailable for a certain period of time. In contrast, women remain involved in family activities and interactions, but often report increased negativity in their interactions, especially when they first arrive home. This is hardly surprising since usually upon returning home from work, women contend with children who want attention, get dinner on the table, and try to connect with a husband who, if he has had a tough day, wants to be disconnected. So, what are the implications of these findings for working families?
First, it is critical to be aware that your daily experiences on the job do have an effect on you and your family. Many workers believe they can separate their work and family experiences, as if one has little or no effect on the other. Contrary to this common belief, however, research suggests that we are not very good at separating these two worlds. It is important to acknowledge that the shift from one role to another takes a little time. Some ways to ease the transition from work to family life include:
- Give yourself some "down time" between the shift from being "on the job" to being "home." Even 15 minutes helps. Put off starting dinner right away, have a snack to hold everyone over until dinner. Sit on the couch together and read a short book, or listen to a favorite tape together. Whatever ritual you establish, it will help to mark the end of the work day and the beginning of the family evening.
- Change your clothes. Sometimes the act of changing clothes and getting comfortable helps to mark the end of one part of the day and the beginning of another.
- Talk to your spouse about ways to give you both the chance to unwind while giving the children the attention they need. For some parents, having each partner take a 15-minute "shift" with the kids while the other has some alone time can help. Obviously, in single-parent families this strategy would not apply. Some single mothers have worked out creative ways to share meals and "time-out" with other single-mothers or with extended kin or friends.
This research also holds implications for how providers and parents interact at the end of their work days. Usually parents come to pick up their children on their way home from work. If they have experienced a particularly stressful day, or if their job is generally stressful, the interaction between the parent and child care provider may be quick and frustrating. The provider may be ready to fill the parent in on their child's day while the parent seems distracted or uninterested. At these times it is important to remember that it is often difficult for parents to make the quick shift from focusing on work to focusing on their child's day. There are a few strategies that might help make this short interaction between parent and care provider a more positive experience.
- Jot down a note for the parent about the child's day. List highlights and/or concerns that they can refer to later that night when they may be more focused. You can then discuss these issues the next morning.
- Ask them about their work day or something else about which you may know. You might get an immediate clue about how "ready" they are to talk about other things.
- Acknowledge that it is often hard to make the shift from the world of work to the world of family life. After a particularly stressful day for the working parent and the provider, sometimes both need a pat on the back. A simple show of support works wonders.
- Help the parent and child have a departure that is as smooth and as reassuring as possible.
Ahlburg, D.A., & DeVita, C.J. (1992). New realities of
the American family. *Population Bulletin*, 47(2), Washington,
DC: Population Reference Bureau, Inc.
Crouter, A.C., Perry-Jenkins, M., Huston, T.L., & Crawford, D.W. (1989). The influence of work-induced psychological states on behavior at home. *Basic and Applied Social Psychology*, 10, 273-292.
Repetti, R.L. (1989). The effects of daily workload on subsequent behavior during marital interaction: The roles of social withdrawal and spouse support. *Journal of Personality and Social Psychology*, 57, 651-659.
Spitze, G. (1988). Women's employment and family relations: A review. *Journal of Marriage and the Family*, 50, 595-618.