Families' every moment captured

Families' every moment captured


“Get your jacket.” The boy stalls more, and Dad’s mouth tightens.
“Get. Your. Jacket.”

The boy loses it. “You’re always acting like a control freak!” he cries, turning to throw himself on the couch. “I’m not calling you names or anything, but you’re a control freak.”
At a conference here this month, more than 70 social scientists gathered to bring to a close one of the most unusual, and oddly voyeuristic, anthropological studies ever conceived. The U C L A project was an effort to capture a relatively new sociological species: the dual-earner, multiple-child, middle-class American household.

A deeper insight
“This is the richest, most detailed, most complete database of middle-class family living in the world,” said Thomas S Weisner, a professor of anthropology at U C L A who was not involved in the research.

The study captured a thin slice of Los Angeles’s diversity, including two black families, one Latino, one Japanese, and some ethnically mixed couples, as well as two households with gay, male parents.

After more than $9 million and untold thousands of hours of video watching, they have found that, well, life in these trenches is a fire shower of stress, multitasking and mutual nitpicking. Mothers still do most of the housework, spending 27 percent of their time on it, on average, compared with 18 percent for fathers and 3 percent for children.
Husbands and wives were together alone in the house only about 10 percent of their waking time, on average, and the entire family was gathered in one room about 14 percent of the time. Stress levels soared — yet families spent very little time in the most soothing area of the home, the yard. “I call it the new math,” said Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, which financed the project.

Lyn Repath-Martos and her husband, Antonio, know all about it. With two children, ages 5 and 8, two full-time jobs outside the house and a mortgage, they qualified for the study in 2002.

One researcher roamed the house with a handheld computer, noting each family member’s location and activities at 10-minute intervals.
“I was in the kitchen making kids lunches, the cameras were rolling, and I thought, ‘O.K., observe how this is done.” said another study participant, Aaron Spicker, a businessman who lives in Redondo Beach with his wife, Merrill and two daughters.

The findings
In weekly meetings, the researchers discussed what they were witnessing.
“Every time we met, I felt like I was on the defensive,” said Tamar Kremer-Sadlik, the research director, who herself has two children and a working husband. Parents generally were so flexible in dividing up chores and child-care responsibilities  that many boundaries were left unclear, adding to the stress.

The couples who reported the least stress tended to have rigid divisions of labor, whether equal or not. “The coordination it takes, it’s more complicated than a theatre production,” said Elinor Ochs, the U C L A anthropologist who led the study.
In addition to housework, mothers spent 19 percent of their time talking with family members or on the phone, and 11 percent taking occasional breathers that the study classified as “leisure.” The rates for fathers were 20 percent chatting, and 23 percent leisure.

Still, parents also had large amounts of solo time with their children, a total of 34 percent for mothers and 25 percent for fathers, on average.
Occasionally, camera crews caught family members spitting into a small vial. Researchers measured levels of a stress hormone called cortisol in the saliva. These cortisol profiles provided biological backing for a familiar frustration in many marriages. The more that women engaged with their husbands in the evening, talking about the day, the faster their cortisol dropped. But the men’s levels tapered more slowly when talking with a spouse.

At the door, having found his jacket, the 8-year-old in the video flops to the floor and is demanding that someone tie his shoes. Now Mom joins Dad, hovering over the boy, hands on hips, giving him the same hairy eyeball as her husband.
Hours seem to pass as the youngster struggles with his laces, his jacket sleeves, his attitude. Finally Dad caves in, and drops to the floor to help him out. And then, just like that — through some combination of stubbornness, patience and dumb love — it is over. The clothes are on, the door swings open, and father and son go out, into the world.
The New York Times

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