Many partners and parents these days report feeling rushed, pressured, stressed, and unable to do all they have to do. They have a hard time balancing the demands of their work and careers with those of their family and personal life. What does it mean to balance these demands, and why is this so hard to do? What do we know about how well it's working for most families? These questions are the subject of this PsychPage article.

What is Balance?

Voydanoff (2005) writes about the complexity of balancing "work" and "family" demands. Balancing means understanding the demands of both settings, the resources of both settings, the specific abilities of the individual parent or partner, and the fit between the three. For example, work may require additional hours at unexpected times in order to complete a project or task by a deadline. This is a demand, but it may also provide an additional resource such as overtime pay. However, determining the actual benefit of this resource may require subtracting the additional financial cost of additional child care. Even should the additional pay more than cover the cost of child care, the additional work may remain a cost for the relationship if the work is a poor match with the partner's abilities and feels exhausting, or if the work entails an emotional cost in terms of decreased absolute time with a partner or children.

Further, Voydanoff uses the concept of "boundary spanning" to capture the impact that meeting the demands of one setting has on the other setting. For example, bringing work home or traveling for work may require additional adjustments for the entire family, especially the parenting partner, which may or may not be welcomed and positively impact the relationship. Thus, determining what makes for "balance" between work and family requires assessing the settings, resources, and demands separately, and then assessing the tradeoffs individuals make between them, and the impact this has on the whole family.

Increased Work or the Perception of Increased Work?

There has been some debate about whether Americans actually are working more, or whether they just feel more pressured to productively use their time. Understanding family and work balance typically entails understanding in-home work, out-of-home work, and paid work. The way people typically talk about these issues, housework falls under the first category; providing childcare, meeting extended family obligations, and involvement in the church or community fall in the second category. Often these two categories are collapsed into one, but should be differentiated. Paid work providing family income falls in the third category.

Duties in and out of home
In the 1960's, women logged 41 hours per week in total unpaid work (housework, childcare, family, and other duties), compared to men's 11 hours per week of total unpaid work. For women, 32 hours of this was dedicated solely to in-home work, with men contributing 4 hours a week solely to in-home work. By the year 2000, women had decreased their housework to 19 hours a week, while men increased their housework to 10 hours a week (Bianchi and Raley, 2005 pg 31). Nonetheless, women still logged 42 hours a week in unpaid labor compared to men's 21 hours per week of unpaid labor (Bianchi and Raley, 2005 pg 39). This would amount to 21 hours more unpaid work per week for women. Interestingly, women may not resent this imbalance when they enjoy the work, and when they and their spouses feel they are especially competent at it (Grote, Naylor, and Clark, 2002). Grote and colleagues do cite past research indicating that this imbalance is likely to be seen as acceptable, but much more of an imbalance (the woman performs more that 66% or the man performs more than 36%) is likely to be seen by one of the partners as unfair.

The imbalance may be in part "real," but also in part the result of rating differences. While men and women agree that the man does less housework in their home, wives rate their husbands as contributing 33% to the total housework, while husbands rate themselves as contributing 42%. Differences in ratings depend on who reports the housework (husband for both, wife for both, or husband and wife individually report their own housework), what home activities are considered "housework" (such as yard and car maintenance, balancing the checkbook, and driving), whether thinking about housework and performing housework secondary to some other task is counted, and the method used to track housework (self-reported estimates lead to selective inflation of hours, especially for women) (Lee and Waite, 2005).

In the 1960's, women engaged in 15 hours per week of paid labor, compared to men's 46 hours per week. By the year 2000, women had increased their paid labor to an average of 23 hours per week, compared to men's 43 hours per week. This would amount to 20 hours more paid work per week for men. Interestingly, men may not resent this imbalance either, especially when they feel they are able to serve as good providers for their family. However, men frequently report feeling they have inadequate time with their children (see below), and do not feel completely free in their careers either. Carr (2005) sampled over 500 men in midlife; almost all felt they had missed key developmental stages of their children's youth, and almost all reported having made job and career choices primarily to serve as good providers, rather than for personal happiness or advancement.

In short, combining these numbers, it appears that men and women working in unpaid and paid labor averaged 56-57 hours per week in 1965. By the year 2000, this number had risen to 64-65 hours per week on average (Bianchi and Raley, 2005 pg 39). This number obscures the gender differences, however. For men, paid labor hours decreased by 3 hours a week over this time, while in-home work increased by 6 hours per week. For women, in-home work decreased by 22 hours a week, while all unpaid work increased by 1 hour (indicating a shift from in-home work to out-of-home work), and paid labor hours increased by 8 hours per week. Regardless of the time differences between genders, some would argue this clearly means the work demands on families have increased by about eight hours per week. Specifically looking at dual breadwinner couples with children reveals a similar pattern, though the meaning of this pattern is less clear. For these couples, paid work hours decreased (about one less hour of paid work, per child, per week), and in-home and out-of-home unpaid work hours increased to compensate, such that the total work hours for these couples increased. However, theses figures again obscure the gender differences. In dual breadwinner families with three children, mothers engaged in about 5 hours fewer and fathers engaged in about 1.5 hours more paid work per week compared to their childless peers.

In contrast to the "more work" view, others would point out that the change in total work time amounts to less than an hour a day per partner (8 hours of work a week 2 people 7 days a week). They would also point to recent leisure time studies indicating increased leisure time in the last two decades. To these authors, the issue is not the average number of hours worked in the 1960's versus the year 2000, but rather the sense of pressure that work and family balance creates.

In 1950, there were 57 adults outside the labor force for every 100 adults in the labor force. This means every two paid workers shared one non-paid worker to provide back-up services for them. By the year 2000, this number had dropped from 57 to 28 (Bianchi and Raley, 2005 pg 23), meaning every four paid workers shared one non-paid worker for back-up services. What happened to the extra unpaid workers? Jacobs and Gerson (2001) report that in 1970, the average couple worked a combined 53 hours a week in paid labor, meaning one worked full-time and the other worked part-time. Only 36% of couples were dual-breadwinner families, with two full-time paid workers. The average dual-breadwinning couple worked 78 hours a week, and the number working a combined 100 or more hours a week comprised about 9% of the population. However, by 1997, the average couple worked a combined 63 hours a week in paid labor. The number of couples that were dual-breadwinner families had almost doubled to 60%. The average dual breadwinning couple worked 81 hours a week, and the number working a combined 100 or more hours a week had increased to 14%.

Thus, the work responsibilities for single partners may not have changed that much. However, more of the couple's joint time is devoted to paid work, and the non-paid work is now more stressful because it is split between two people with less available time. This results in a greater sense of time pressure.

Gender Differences in Work

Depending on how one looks at it, there may or may not be a gender imbalance in work. From one perspective, there is no imbalance, since the hours invested in additional work are equal, and in effect "cancel out" when viewing total hours worked in the week. From another perspective, however, there is a 10 - 20 hour imbalance in the division of duties, with women engaging in 10 - 20 more hours a week of non-paid work, and men engaging in 10 - 20 hours more a week of paid work.

One might ask why this gender gap continues. Fletcher (2005), as well as Smock and Noonan (2005), write about the assumptions that underlie the division of paid and unpaid labor.

First, the gender gap could be maintained by the assumption is that there is a public realm and a private realm, and that these realms are complimentary (one partner "brings home the bacon" and one partner does the cooking). Work policies often demand sacrifices from employee personal lives, rewarding those who make the work demands primary and punishing those who make them secondary. Thus, a relationship wherein one partner sacrifices work for family (66% of women report doing this compared to 20% of men) and the other sacrifices family for work (62% of men report doing this compared to 37% of women) may be complementary, but there is no reason why this must be so. Couples that live in this world, however, are faced with a choice. On the one hand, specializing so that men spend the most hours performing the paid work, and women spend the most hours performing the non-paid work, the couple adapts most effectively to the demands of the current society and maximizes financial resources. On the other hand, by doing so, they also reinforce the gendered nature of this division (Cooke, 2004).

Second, the gender gap could be maintained by the assumption that these realms are best divided by gender, and entail equal power and status. Interestingly, married men contribute less and married women contribute more to in-home work than their single peers, indicating some support for the view that society holds gendered expectations and that couples attempt to adhere to these expectations (Cooke, 2004). This assumption largely ignores several discrepancies, including a "second shift" of work performed by women, additional childcare responsibilities of women, and the emotional cost of this division of labor.

Hochschild (1989) originally discussed the term "the second shift" as relating to the work performed by women in the home after paid work. While estimates vary depending on whether childcare is included, Smock and Noonan report that in 1995, women performed about nine more hours of in-home work a week compared to men. Of note, discussions of the "second shift" often do not include discussion of the increased hours at paid work men contribute outside the home. Some authors divide the additional in-home work further, discussing a "third shift" as well. The third shift relates to the work of monitoring the family's functioning and gauging the family's response to these two shifts. For example, a father may take on additional paid work to save for a family vacation (first shift), while the mother takes on additional house and childcare work that was previously split between them (second shift). She may also then spend additional time noting how the children are reacting negatively to increased work hours and time away from the father, and consider responses to counter the negative reaction, evaluate them once attempted, or if they fail, raise the question of whether the pleasure of the vacation will offset the unhappiness that saving for it causes (third shift).

Part of the responsibilities of this second shift includes childcare. Milkie et al (2004) report that in their data, mothers spend about 17 more hours a week with children than fathers, with fathers spending 33 hours a week and mothers spending 50 hours a week. Smock and Noonan report that in 2001, men spent 67% as much time with children during the work week as women, and 87% of as much time with children during the weekend as women. Women also engage in more multitasking of child care with other activities (though men engage in just as much multitasking, it is not as likely to be with childcare activities), and engage in more of the "kin keeping" work of the family. This entails remembering birthdays, caring for relatives, and maintaining family connections, work which is sometimes grouped into the "third shift" work.

Mattingly and Sayer (2006) report that there is an additional impact of second shift work for women. They note that women feel more of a time pressure. While additional leisure time decreases men's sense of being rushed (an 8% decrease per hour of free time), additional free time does not have this effect with women. This may be because women are more likely to spend their free time multitasking personal leisure with childcare, but may also result from women having less leisure time. Between 1975 and 1998, women appeared to lose a half hour of free time per day compared to men. However, even when the marital status, parental status, and time spent in home labor were matched for men and women, women continue to report more subjective feelings of time-pressure. Thus, free time has less of an impact on women which is not due to household duties, but rather to emotional costs associated with the imbalance. Some research ties increased housework with increased risk for depression, especially in unemployed mothers with young children, which would be very consistent with this finding.

Among many cohabitating couples considering marriage, women still view men in terms of their "breadwinning" ability (Smock, Manning, and Porter, 2005). However, the gender division may not be as pronounced for all families. Some of this is dependent on time availability. Presser (2005) reports that 28% of dual earner couples have at least one member working a non-standard shift, while 55% have a member working on the weekends. When women work hours that do not overlap with those of their male partners, men tend to contribute more to housework and childcare. Some of this gender role division is maintained by gender differences in pay. Perry-Jenkins (2005) reports that wives contribute 40-50% of the income in working class families (pg 456), and some research supports that as women contribute more to the total household income, they perform less housework (Sarkisian and Gerstel, 2004). Further, some women choose not to have children at all. Smock and Noonan report 20% of women in 2000 did not have children, but that this varied greatly by profession, with childless rates in some professionals rising to 50%.

Third, the gender gap could be maintained by the assumption that there is a skill base that makes one gender better at one realm or the other, and that skills appropriate in one realm are inappropriate in the other (competition is good in the work world, but not in the family). However, this assumption ignores discrepancies seen in work and home settings.

In work settings, companies may prioritize competency skills and knowledge. However, many jobs (especially management positions) require relationship skills, or the ability to motivate people, and assist them in job duties while maintaining oversight of their job functioning. These skills could be seen as being relevant to "the other work force" that functions in the home, but is just as applicable in work settings.

As for home settings, Smock and Noonan (2005) point out that in 2001, there were 11.7 million single parent families and 10% were single-father families, or families where the primary parent is male. Further, many fathers have part-time parenting responsibilities for more than one set of children, especially when they have children within one marriage, then divorce and remarry, and either have children a second time or partner with a woman who already has children. This situation actually may describe 50% of fathers (Manning, Stewart, Smock, 2003). Single mothers are more likely to be poor than single fathers, but they are able to manage the demands of work and parenting. Thus, many fathers show the skills assumed to be common in women, and many mothers show the skills assumed to be common in men. As a result, the idea of gender-divided skills supporting separation of in-home and out-of-home duties seems inconsistent with real life.

Intrusion of Work into Family and Family into Work

Some researchers discuss the issue of balancing work and family duties not so much in terms of the absolute number of duties to be performed, or the number of people to perform them, but rather in terms of the intrusion of each set of duties into the other. Work duties impact family functioning, while family duties impact work functioning. A range of cross-over issues have been discussed. Three of particular interest are scheduling, child-contact time, and work satisfaction. These three are interlinking to the extent that work schedules impact absolute number of hours available for family and child-contact time, and work satisfaction impacts "emotional availability" or "cognitive space" for family interactions at the end of a work day or week.

As for scheduling, in 1997, two-thirds of all Americans worked non-standard schedules meaning evenings or weekend work. When we look at all couples, 28% of couples have at least one partner working non standard hours. Of couples with a child under 14 years, 31% work nonstandard hours, and of couples with a child under 5 years, 34.4% work nonstandard hours. Among single mothers, 21% work nonstandard hours with 33% working weekends, compared to 16.4% of married mothers working nonstandard hours and 24% working weekends. When men work weekends, they tend to work about one hour more per week day, and spend 30 minutes less per day with their children (Crouter and McHale, 2005 pg 56). Thus, the difficulty overlapping work and school time in order to align schedules to maximize family time means that even two-parent families do not have much time together (Presser, 2005 pg 45-46). Outcomes of this kind of work schedule have generally been negative. Children with poor educational outcomes and behavioral problems are more likely to have parents working weekends and nights (Crouter and McHale, 2005 pg 54).

About two-thirds of employers allow for some "flex-time" to adjust work schedules to meet family responsibilities. Nonetheless, workers in 2000 reported commuting 50 minutes a day to and from work (Bookman 2005 pg 146-147), which would amount to 4 hours a week invested in a work-related activity that is unpaid and can not be reinvested in family time at will. Many businesses allow for employees to "work from home." While this may seem to be a significant concession for businesses to make, only about 3% of workers truly "work from home" and have a completely "mobile" job (Bookman 2005 pg 146-147). Further, only 10% of workers are self-employed as independent contractors through temporary agencies and the like (Holzer, 2005 pg 86). Thus, most workers are spending significant time each week in the work setting, or on the way to or from it, and have little control over that time.

The most common complaint from employers about single-mother workers is absenteeism. Single-mother workers tend to agree, with 60% reporting childcare as the largest problem they face, and 35% reporting health problems for themselves or their children being the next largest problem. Only 9% of employers provide child care at or near the workplace, making the single-mother's greater likelihood of nonstandard work hours more problematic. Added to this specifically is elder care, as more than 40% of the work force provides care to an aging relative (Holzer, 2005 pg 85). Women are more likely to provide additional care and aid not only to their own parents, but also to their partner's parents (Sarkisian and Gerstel, 2004). Given that this kind of "second shift" work is more likely to fall to women, balancing these kinds of responsibilities is more likely to fall to women. This, in turn, negatively impacts women's careers (and increases their sense of work and family pressures) while freeing time for men to advance their careers.

While flex-time, working from home and other settings, and work-sponsored child or elder care might seem to be goals to work toward in finding a balance between work and family, Kossek argues that decreased office hours and flexibility may lead to work-life intensification, or the need to do more work in less time. The cost of being on call, having work duties that span seven days a week, company demands for "face time" even when other job duties have been met, the lack of physical boundaries between work and personal life, the increased autonomy that work sometimes requires… must be weighed carefully, as these factors may not improve quantity of family time or quality of family life (Kossek, 2005 pg 108).

In regards to child-contact time, Jacobs and Gerson (2001) build on this, noting that 16% of dual-earner professional couples report working over 50 hours a week per partner, 40% arrive early or stay late to work, 54% feel pressured to bring work home, and 60% actually work at home part of the time. Such work responsibilities are very likely to cut into time spent on direct contact with family and especially children, or require "multitasking" of work and family obligations that impacts performance in both areas. Milkie, Mattingly, Nomaguchi, Bianchi, and Robinson (2004) report that 48% of parents feel they have too little time with their children. This varies by gender, child's age, and employment status however. They report 50-55% of fathers versus 38-42% of mothers report feeling they have too little time with their children; this gap widens for the youngest child, with about the same percentage of fathers (50-53%) but fewer mothers (31-34%) reporting that they feel they have too little time with the youngest child. As for employment, 12-23% of unemployed, 27-35% of part-time, and 51% of full-time parents report feeling they have too little time with their children.

Of course, this may or may not mean that parents have inadequate time with their children. Working- and middle-class two-parent families spend about the same amount of time per week together engaged in a single family activity. Working class families spend less time together because they have less free time due to parent work-schedules, while middle-class families spend less time together because they enroll their children in enriching extra-curricular activities (Crouter and McHale, 2005 pg 58). Crouter and McHale do discuss the difficulty in differentiating between inadequate time with children (by whatever objective standards one could create), and an increased sense that parenting responsibilities can not be satisfied within available time limits. This data does, however, complement information presented earlier. Women, working in the home more hours than men, report less of a feeling of inadequate time with their children. Men, working out of the home more hours than women, report more of a feeling of inadequate time with their children, regardless of which child is chosen for analysis.

Sandberg and Hofferth (2001) reviewed data from 1981 to 1998. They note that working mothers in 1981 spent about 3.5 hours less with their children per week than non-working mothers, and this number had increased to 5.5 hours per week by 1997. This would seem to indicate decreased parent-child time for children of working mothers in 1997. However, this assumes that mothers do not multitask their time with children, and that fathers do not alter their schedules to compensate. It also assumes that all mothers have the same number of children, and would spend the same amount of time with them.

What Sandberg and Hofferth report is that prior to 1940, the average woman would be expected to have three children. However, after 1940 this number decreased to two children. In the 1950s, about 5% of mothers were college educated, while this number had risen to 18% by 1990. College educated mothers tend to spend 3.4 more hours per week with their children engaging in stimulating activities than non-college educated mothers. The end result is that the average child spent 4.3 more hours in mother-child contact and 3.0 more hours in father-child contact in 1997 compared to 1981. This would total 28.6 hours a week in mother-care and 18.6 hours a week in father-care for the average child in 1997. This time difference in two-parent families was even larger, with 5.8 more hours in mother-child contact and 4.2 more hours in father-child contact in 1997 compared to 1981. The reason some research shows decreased parent-child contact time over this time period is because of the increase in single parent families, which results in small decreases in parent-child time with the working residential parent, and large decreases in time with the non-residential parent.

Regarding work satisfaction, Perry-Jenkins, Repetti, and Crouter (2000) reported that child outcomes were higher for both men and women in more complex and skilled jobs with greater autonomy, and that men in such jobs showed less authoritarian parenting. Parents with more complicated jobs and greater career satisfaction showed more warmth, responsiveness, and attentive parenting responses. The opposite was true of parents who felt more negatively about the work setting. High stress jobs are associated with greater reactivity to short-term stressors at home, and mothers who took shorter leaves after a child's birth were more irritable during feeding if they suffered from any post-partum depressive symptoms. Increased quality parent-child time seemed to mitigate the negative effects (Repetti, 2005 pg 249-250 252). Thus, there is a considerable body of research indicating that people more content in their jobs make for better parents. Much of this research has been focused on parents and children in general, but much has been focused on mothers and young children in particular. This is discussed in a separate section below.

Given these findings of decreased feelings of satisfaction with the amount of family time, how are employers and families adapting?

Work and Family Responses to Imbalance

Employers and business have tried to respond to these balance issues by creating a number of workplace policies designed to augment family life. Many are expensive, or difficult to implement, and create additional workplace burdens even if they do alleviate others. Many are also difficult to evaluate in terms of actual effectiveness to justify a return on the business and employee investments. For some businesses, this amounts to showing a clear increase in productivity and profit. For others, this amounts to showing a clear decrease in employee dissatisfaction and turnover, or an unclear increase in "employee morale" even in the presence of clear doubts about program's effectiveness. Kossek points out four issues that are relevant to determining the success of these policies.

First is universalism, or the degree to which a policy is available to everyone in the workforce. Offering a policy to one group of employees and not another may produce little tangible or clear benefit, and may lead to workers in the excluded group feeling devalued. Sometimes offered by politicians, for example, is FMLA or the Family Medical Leave Act. This act provides 12 weeks of unpaid and job-protected leave to employees working 12 months or more in a business of 50 employees or more. While this is often touted as a law that supports families, the reality is that compliance is only required of about 12% of businesses because of their size. While a third of businesses provide FMLA leave without being required to do so, the leave is still unpaid, and many families can not afford to give up pay for that long. Only 20-25% of workers receive some kind of paid leave (Ruhm, 2005 pg 316).

Following closely on this is Kossek's second issue, negotiability, or the extent to which the policies are simply available, versus available only after negotiation. For example, as noted above flex-time or part-time is sometimes offered as a way to balance work and family demands. However, when only a limited number of employees are able to use this option, or when employees must negotiate the loss of some other benefit in order to use this option, such as lower pay or the loss of health benefits, then the policy may not be one that most employees choose or are able to use, and the policy may do little to impact the work and family imbalance of the average employee.

Third is cultural integration, or the extent to which the policies are reflected in the company's core values and employees are supported in their use of work-life policies. In some companies, the benefits are there and supported "on paper" but not in practice. Kossek cites Thompson as reporting that employees taking a leave of absence in accord with company policies were 66% less likely to be promoted. In another example, a company might offer part-time positions, claiming such positions are a way to support families and parents. However, part-time hours are sometimes offered primarily as a way to avoid the cost of health benefits. While this saves the company money and to some families is acceptable, some working parents need the health benefits (Holzer, 2005 pg 88-89) and so the policy is of little benefit to them.

Fourth is boundary blurring, or the degree to which policies separate work and family life versus overlap them. As noted above, some work policies to relieve the stress of work and family imbalance may actually increase the intrusion of work into family life, and both increase stress and decrease effectiveness in both areas.

Mothers Returning to Work
How many women return to work after the birth of a child, and how many hours do they work? In 1990s, 78% of women worked prior to the birth of their first child, with about two-thirds working full-time and one-third working part-time. After the first birth, about 15% return to work within a month of the birth, and another 45% return within six months. Thus, a total of 60% return to work, again with about two-thirds working full-time (half of these working at the same full-time job where they worked before the birth) and one-third working part-time. Prior to the second birth, another 8% of women have returned to part-time work, and by this time about half work part-time and half work full-time positions. After the second birth, again about 60% return to work, with three-fourths returning to full time work (85% of them at the same job) (Leibowitz, 1999).

What about single parents? In 1965, 8.8% of families were single-mother families. About 45% of single mothers were employed and working on average 34 hours a week, with 50% of them working 50+ weeks a year. By 2000, 23.4% of families were single-mother families, comprised of 17% of White, 25% of Hispanic, and 52% of African-American women age 25-54 (Bianchi and Raley, 2005 pg 26-29). About 78% were employed and working on average 36 hours, with 77% of them working 50+ weeks a year. To place these numbers in context, in 2000, employed married women worked only about 3 hours per week less than single women (Bianchi and Raley, 2005 pg 26-29).

How do families respond to the imbalance? An issue that has received considerable attention and debate in the literature is that of mothers choosing to return to work after the birth of a child, thus placing the child in daycare where others partake in raising the child, versus choosing not to return to work after the birth, thus raising the child entirely within the family. The literature, however, is fraught with contradictory results, confounding variables, and lengthy debates about the meaning of findings largely because the variable "mother returns to work" is a compound variable, or one that entails a number of other processes.

Zaslow, Jekielek, and Gallagher (2005) note that summarizing the impact of maternal employment is very difficult. Overall, findings would seem to indicate that when a mother works more than 30 hours a week before the child has reached nine months, and places the child in some sort of child care, cognitive and social development may be delayed when the child starts school compared to other children.

Why would children be delayed as a result of the mother returning to work? This could result from decreased number of hours invested in child-contact time, decreased quality of time as a result of work stress regardless of the number of hours, or both possibly in the form of decreased supervision or decreased parental health (Major and Cleveland, 2005). Zaslow, Jekielek, and Gallagher (2005) note that mothers who worked 30 hours a week during the first year of the child's life were more likely to be less sensitive in parent-child interactions, and to have lower quality and more unstable child care for the child at 36 months. This could mean that when mothers worked, their relationship skills with their children were poorer because they had less time to hone and practice those skills. Alternately, when mothers worked, their relationship skills could be unimpaired, but work resulted in greater physical exhaustion as well as mental and emotional fatigue.

A further complication in drawing clear conclusions is the child care options used when mothers return to work. Variables that are hard to control here would include quality of the daycare, ranging from poor supervision and care to high supervision, stimulation, and socialization. Another variable would be quantity of care, ranging from a 1 to 5 hours a week to 20 or more hours a week. Another variable would be stability of care, ranging from a regular childcare time in a single setting, to unpredictable childcare time from week to week and care in more than one setting. Ruhm (2005) reports that the average family spends 5% of its income on childcare for preschool children, but the range is wide. About 65% of families have no childcare costs (meaning they do not use outside the home childcare sources, or that they have an arrangement for free care from a relative for example), while 10% of families spend 16% (over $600 a month). About 40% of this group is single mothers. While poorer parents may use cheaper childcare sources, single parents use 50% more child care than married parents (33 vs. 22 hours a week). Thus, even when childcare costs are the same, single parents must spend a larger portion of their income on childcare, and the loss of this income can create additional problems that mistakenly appear to be associated with maternal work.

Another complication in the research is area of investigation and developmental stage. Some research indicates risks for greater behavioral problems, but other research indicates better cognitive skills for children in day care. Some of these findings appear at certain developmental points, but not at others. It is possible that some discrepancy could be due to having parents versus childcare workers rate the children, but the confusion of findings persists even when parents and childcare workers agree in their child ratings.

Zaslow, Jekielek, and Gallagher (2005) note that mothers who work encourage greater autonomy in their children. On the one hand, if thoughtfully planned with adolescent abilities, this may facilitate autonomy at developmentally appropriate times. On the other hand, if not thoughtfully planned, this may press autonomy on an adolescent too soon, without parental monitoring, and create greater parent-child conflict. Data tends to support both possibilities, and the impact could vary also by child sex, with boys being more likely to respond negatively to a premature press for autonomy. Thus, maternal employment could have negative effects in one developmental phase but positive ones in the next, allowing the positive effects to outweigh the negative ones eventually.

Currie (2005) notes a further area of confusion. Mothers returning to work may alter their parenting styles from the style they would have used had they remained at home. This may be to promote greater autonomy and independence from the parent, or to allow more one-on-one interaction and dependence to compensate for decreased parent-contact. Currie notes too that fathers confound the situation, as they may alter their parenting styles from the style they would have used had the mother remained at home. They may increase their time in parenting to compensate for the working mother's decreased parenting time; Sandberg and Hofferth (2001) report that fathers in dual-breadwinner families spent six more hours per week with their children in 1997 than in 1981. Fathers might also work alternating shifts from the mother; about one third of fathers and mothers do this to assure parental care for preschool children (Sandberg and Hofferth, 2001).

This presents two additional confounds; if day care were harmful, fathers increasing their home care activities could mitigate or cancel the negative impact of day care. If home care were most beneficial, the positive effects for the children could be mitigated or canceled by the negative effects associated with increased strain to the parental relationship that working opposite shifts can cause. Further, the father's greater involvement in in-home work increases the chances of a second child. It is possible that couples balance parenting and work responsibilities after the first child differently than they do after the second child, adding another confound (Cooke, 2004).

All of this literature, however, is confounded by socio-economic status (Zaslow, Jekielek, and Gallagher, 2005). Use of greater quantity, quality, and stable child care is closely tied to higher income. Thus, some benefits to the child may stem from the childcare itself, while other benefits may stem from generally higher economic resources. Thus, if childcare were beneficial, the impact could be overestimated in a sample of high SES parents. On the other hand, some mothers return to work not out of choice, but out of necessity. The effects of unstable childcare could be negative, but the increased family income could mitigate or cancel these effects. Alternately, some mothers remain home with the child not from choice, but due to a poor job market. The effects of childcare could be positive, but the decreased family income could mitigate or cancel these effects. Thus, childcare could be beneficial or harmful, but the impact could be missed completely due to economic issues such as parental SES.

Zaslow, Jekielek, and Gallagher (2005) note that studies do support that cognitive deficits and behavioral problems were found in children of Caucasian mothers who worked more than 21 hours a week during the first year of the child's life. However, when a Hispanic or African American mother returned to work within the first year, this was as not associated with a decrement in the child's cognitive functioning. They also note that studies do indicate that when social programs provide funding for day care centers with professional care, children tend to perform better. When there are structured programs to supervise children's behavior, children tend to adjust better, especially in more dangerous neighborhoods. Thus, parental income level is not the only aspect of economics to consider.

Changing Family Lifestyles

One change in family lifestyle that has impacted the work and family balance is cohabitation. Half of US marriages in 2000 were preceded by cohabitation, and the average age of first marriage went from 23 to 27 for men and 20 to 25 for women between 1960 and 2000. From the 1970s to 1990s, the percentage of men and women 16-24 working full-time decreased from 66% to 60% for men and 56% to 49% for women. This would seem to indicate that men and women experiment with other kinds of living arrangements besides married family life, and take longer to enter the full-time work force (Bianchi and Raley, 2005 pg 24-25). Why would marriage be related to work?

The Marriage Premium explains the link between these two issues. Smock and Noonan (2005) note that studies from the 1990s indicated that men seem to be paid a "marriage premium" or an increase in pay of 5-30% for being married. The premium is less clear for women, as married African American women are paid 2.8% more, while married Caucasian women are paid 4.4% less than their single peers. Examining this by child, women tend to earn 2-10% less after one child and 5-13% less after two children, while men tend to earn 3-5% more after having at least one child. Waite and Gallagher (2000) argue that men make more money when married because they work more hours, take their careers more seriously (for example missing fewer days of work due to illness), and desire promotions and pay raises to reach financial goals more than their single peers. Since "likelihood to marry" is a good predictor of career success before marriage even happens, the traits impacting the self-selection into marriage likely lead to increases in income separate from the traits associated with marriage itself. Women, however, perform the "second shift" and "third shift" duties, and as Waite and Gallagher explain, engage in further work to support their male partner's improved diet, physical health, and safer habits. They thus augment the men's ability to manage a home and family life with minimal interference in career development.

Not everyone agrees with the idea of the Marriage Premium, however, as some research tends to indicate that it is not as large or as influential as once thought. Cohen (2002) argues that the increase in cohabitation clouds our understanding of the marriage premium. Over the last 35 years, married Caucasian men earned anywhere between 10-40% more income (depending on the study) than their equally educated never-married peers, with much smaller increased earnings more common in the last 10-20 years. For African American men, the premium appears to have peaked at about the same level, at 38%. For most (Caucasian) women, however, as noted above there is a decrease in earnings after marrying, especially after having children. This difference may arise because today women work more outside the home. They are less able to "augment" the men's work effectiveness by taking on more childcare duties and minimizing their own career success. Cohen notes that men increased work hours outside the home 8% between 1976 and 1999, while women increased their work hours outside the home by 39%. As women work more outside the home, they may expect more work from men in the home. This would mean that men no longer have the augmenting benefit of women, and have begun to experience some of the same detriments that childcare entails, and so their own work effectiveness has also declined. This would explain the overall trend for decreasing returns for men after marriage.

Cohabitators confuse the trend, however. When included in the "nonmarried" group, they bring with them some of the benefits of being in a relationship (such as increased support when sick, assistance with bills, help reaching financial goals…), and as a result minimize the difference between the married and unmarried. On the other hand, when included in the "married" group, they bring with them a different perspective on gendered division of home labor. Cohabitators are more likely to divide the in-home duties equally, and more likely to maintain this more equal division once married. Thus, compared to married adults, cohabitating men would be less likely to find their career progression to be augmented by their female partners, and cohabitating women would be less likely to find their career progression to be sacrificed for that of their male partners. As a result, including cohabitators (or even married people who previously cohabitated) in the "married" group means including a group of couples who are less likely to include the gendered behaviors that support the marriage premium (though some have disagreed with this, see Sanchez, Manning, and Smock, 1998).

Examining the impact of cohabitation could explain the decrease in the marriage premium. However, also noted above was an ethnic discrepancy, in that Caucasian women are paid 4.4% less after marrying, but African American women are paid 2.8% more after marrying. Does the impact of cohabitation tell us anything about this?

In general, studies support that the split of in-home and paid work responsibilities seems more balanced for African-American couples (Raley, Mattingly, and Bianchi, 2006), although African-American women still perform slightly more than half of the in-home work (Orbuch and Eyster, 1997). Cohen (2002) argues that perhaps when African American men perform more of the in-home work, they augment their African American female partner's career. This could be the case especially when male employment is less stable than female employment (Cooke, 2004). Thus, the pay differences between African American and Caucasian married women may indicate greater gender equality in African American relationships.


In summary, determining the impact of work and family life on each other, and thus understanding the balance between them, is very difficult for several reasons. One way of understanding these difficulties is to evaluate the balance of work and family lives along the lines of several questions:

  • What are work and family responsibilities? "Work" typically refers to paid employment, and can mean full- or part-time work arranged in convenient or inconvenient schedules. "Family life" typically refers to unpaid activities, but this includes both in-home and out-of-home work (sometimes referred to as second and third shift work respectively).
  • Who is trying to balance them? The amount of paid and unpaid work performed appears to vary by gender, adherence to social roles, and reporting method. Some argue there is a gender imbalance, pointing to the greater investment in second and third shift work by women, and a greater investment in paid work by men. However, in comparing results across the last few decades, it also appears that women and men invest the same amount of time in family life, but invest it differently.
  • What makes for a family? Couples without children tend to have some difficulties balancing the demands of work and their relationships (looking at the number of hours they work and the divorce rate), and whether they are married or cohabitating seems to play a role in how they divide work and family responsibility. Parenting complicates the issue further, as "mother returning to work" is a "package variable," including mother's work history and schedule, family economic resources, child's gender and age at the time of mother's return to work, the quality of child care used while mother is working, and father's involvement in parenting. Further, the impact on children varies in part according to when and how the impact of mother's return to work is assessed.
  • What does it mean to balance work and family responsibilities? Family and work responsibilities each intrude into the other's realm on a regular basis these days. Interestingly, this has been acknowledged in the courts, as well as by businesses that attempt to adopt "family friendly policies" and pay more to married men and less to married (Caucasian) women. The particular work or family responsibilities a couple or family must balance, the resources they have available, and the match of those specific resources for that couple to those specific demands all play an important part in determining how the specific couple or family will balance work and family life.
  • What determines a "good" and a "bad" balance of work and family responsibilities? We have no "golden rule" that determines exactly how much time couples and families need together (and how much of that should be adult-focused and how much should be child-focused), or how much time is "right" to invest in your career. Given this, even if all of the above variables and confounds could be controlled and we could say some definitive, whether it was a "good" thing or a "bad" thing might vary as well.