Cover Story

Add "single-earner families" to the list of endangered species.

In 1940, according to the Employment Policy Foundation's Center for Work and Family Balance, 66 percent of working households consisted of single-earner married couples. By 2000, that percentage had dropped to less than 25 percent. By 2030, the center estimates, a mere 17 percent of households will conform to the traditional "Ozzie and Harriet" model.

As the number of working parents continues to grow, psychologists note, so have the time pressures, housework battles and other struggles associated with juggling work and family obligations. Now psychologists are also identifying the many benefits of dual-earner couples and the strategies-ranging from striving for equitable partnerships to indulging in daily back rubs-they use to successfully manage the balancing act. They're sharing these and other tips with couples in their practices. And they're teaching the next generation of psychologists how to help couples negotiate this growing family norm.

"The work/family conflict literature focuses on how work conflicts with family and family conflicts with work," says psychologist Rosalind Chait Barnett, PhD, director of the Community, Families and Work Program and senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. "Now people are starting to talk about work/family enhancement."

A paradigm shift

According to the conventional wisdom, says Barnett, juggling work and family invariably leads to stress. That's just not true, she says.

"The dominant theory used to be that multiple roles were bad for women because women had only a limited amount of energy and engaging in multiple roles meant a net loss," says Barnett. "An alternative theory-the expansionist theory-says that having multiple roles actually produces a net gain. Even though you expend energy, you get back psychological, monetary and other rewards."

To find out which theory best reflected contemporary realities, Barnett launched the first large-scale study of two-earner couples. The National Institute of Mental Health-funded study of 300 couples collected data on both husbands and wives between 1989 and 1992. The title of the resulting book neatly summarizes the findings: "She Works/He Works: How Two-Income Families are Happier, Healthier and Better Off" (Harvard, 1998).

Barnett isn't the only one to discover benefits of dual-earner families. In a 2001 article in the American Psychologist (Vol. 56, No. 10, pages 781-796), she and a colleague reviewed two decades' worth of empirical data and confirmed that multiple roles bring psychological, physical and relationship benefits to men and women.

In fact, several studies they cite counter the often-idealized view of happy homemakers. One study, for instance, found that employed women who moved to part-time work or became homemakers became more depressed over the study's three-year period, while homemakers who joined the work force became less depressed. Another study found that while the presence of preschool-aged children in the home was associated with distress for all women, working moms were less distressed than stay-at-homes.

Of course, admits Barnett, there is an upper limit to the number of roles people can juggle without getting overloaded. A woman who's a wife, mother and president of a small business, and then adds caring for an elderly parent to the mix, may feel distressed. But in general, she says, multiple roles benefit the whole family.

But media images haven't caught up with these findings, says Toni S. Zimmerman, PhD, a human development and family studies professor and director of the marriage and family therapy program at Colorado State University.

"One image you see is the working mom with a cellphone in her ear, briefcase in her hand and no time for her kids," she says. "The other mom you see is the one who's home 24/7 baking cookies. You don't see a lot of moms in between, even though that's where most moms are."

Successful strategies

Zimmerman is taking a variety of approaches to counteract such polarized imagery.

In one position paper, she and colleague Ruth McBride enlisted child-care workers to battle inaccurate messages that result in guilt among working mothers. Noting that child-care workers themselves often believe these messages, the researchers suggested ways that child-care workers could share the research on child care's benefits and make the experience more positive for children and parents alike.

In addition to countering negative images, Zimmerman is determined to tell the story of successful dual-earner families.

Along with colleague Shelley Haddock, PhD, she used ads in newspapers, on the radio and other venues to identify couples who defined themselves as successful dual-earner families. The researchers then conducted intensive interviews with 47 couples and analyzed the resulting transcripts for recurring themes.

The couples had in common four main strategies for successfully balancing work and family:

  • Striving for a true partnership with equal responsibility for domestic chores and child care. "In our research, the partnership between mom and dad-their ability to work well together and have each one's job and time be as valuable as the other's-was foundational," says Zimmerman.

  • Making family a priority without succumbing to what Zimmerman calls the "hyper-parenting model" so prevalent today. "Over and over, we heard parents say they didn't encourage their kids to be in six sports every semester or play seven instruments," says Zimmerman. They also lowered the bar on their to-do lists, she says, noting that these families "didn't feel like every dinner had to have 14 ingredients."

  • Spending time with their children, each other and alone. While being available and attentive to their kids, says Zimmerman, these couples also spent time as couples and individuals.

  • Drawing on the support of extended families and employers. In fact, the workplace environment played a key role in these families' success, emphasizes Zimmerman. Whether parents were bakers, sales clerks or CEOs, they responded to workplace flexibility and autonomy by working harder and feeling more loyal toward their employers. "They didn't tend to be chatters at work," she explains. "They tended to get real focused and get a lot done in a little bit of time."

It's not that successful dual-earners aren't tired or busy, adds Zimmerman. "But single college students are tired and busy," she says. "We have a darned busy culture."

In therapy offices

With that ever-busier culture, many psychologists report an increase in the number of dual-earner couples seeking help with balancing work and family.

Women beleaguered by their husbands' unwillingness to tackle their fair share of domestic burdens is one of the most common issues, says Peter Fraenkel, PhD, director of the Center for Time, Work and the Family at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York.

"The problem isn't about working," says Fraenkel. "It's about the longer and longer hours that partners are being asked to work. When you've got two people working, and they've got kids and a home to manage, there's just less and less time for those home activities."

And while technology has brought flexibility, he says, it has also erased the boundaries between work and family life. "Given a choice between intimacy and e-mail, unfortunately more and more people are choosing to check their e-mail," says Fraenkel, who's also an associate psychology professor at the City College of New York.

Fraenkel and other psychologists have developed a variety of strategies to help clients overcome such challenges:

  • Facilitating honest discussions about expectations regarding the division of labor. "Working women still pick up two to three times the amount of domestic chores and child care than do men," says Fraenkel. "That becomes a sore spot. Women, rightly so, feel unfairly burdened." Fraenkel has patients examine their beliefs about gender roles and devise plans for more equitable sharing of work. If all else fails, he shares research that finds that the more unfair women find the distribution of work, the less likely they are to desire sex.

  • Helping partners reconnect despite hectic schedules. An intervention Fraenkel calls "rhythms of relationships," for example, has couples establish regular couple or family time. In one intervention couples brainstorm ideas for pleasurable activities they can do with their partners in under a minute and then squeeze in six every day. Fraenkel also recommends that couples establish "decompression rituals" for the end of the work day, which, he notes, is the moment of highest stress. The ritual may combine some time for each partner alone-for instance, soaking in a hot bath or using an exercise machine-with time together to share events of the day, rub each other's shoulders or listen to music while cooking or doing mindless chores.

  • Helping partners develop better communication skills. For Jay Lebow, PhD, past-president of APA's Div. 43 (Family) and a clinical professor at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, these skills are especially important in discussions about who does what at home and with the children, he says. These discussions can descend into what Lebow calls "classic not-so-good arguments," where "messages get delivered with such overwhelming affect that the meaning is obscured."

Psychologists, says Lebow, can help patients remember the big picture, educate them that they're not alone in facing such issues and provide "a safe holding environment to really talk, hear each other and problem-solve."

Educating families and future psychologists about dual-earner families is critical, says Froma Walsh, PhD, co-director of the Chicago Center for Family Health and professor of social service administration and psychiatry at the University of Chicago.

"There's a nostalgia to return to a 1950s image of family life," says Walsh, also the editor of the third-edition book "Normal Family Processes" (Guilford, 2003). "But we forget that in the 1950s, when we had full-time homemakers, husbands were married to their jobs. Today we have both parents much more involved in family life than we did in that idealized past."

Psychologists need to understand the benefits of dual-earner situations and know how to help families balance multiple realms, she says. Most importantly, they need to recognize that such arrangements are no longer the exception. "They're the norm," she says.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.