When Both Parents Work
Not too many years ago in the typical American family, only the father worked outside the home. Usually the mother was the homemaker and was there to greet the children when they returned home from school each day. But there have been dramatic changes in that picture. Today, the mothers of nearly 76 percent of children over the age of 5 are in the workforce, and during workdays no parent is at home or readily available. During school hours most children essentially are being looked after by a teacher, and after school, before their parents come home, they may be cared for by another adult - in many cases a relative, a neighbor or a commercial childcare facility. About 7 percent of middle-years children return from school to an empty house and care for themselves until their mother or father arrives. With most of their waking hours spent away from their parents, the quality of children's everyday experiences is difficult to predict and control.
Millions of families find that they need two wage-earners in order to buy a home, pay the rent, afford vacations or simply to maintain the family budget. In most communities, two-working-parent families are no longer exceptional.
The Impact of Working
When both parents are occupied with their jobs for eight or more hours per day, there are obvious effects on the family. On the positive side, the family has an increased income and thus fewer financial stresses. Also, when both parents work, there is a potential for greater equality in the roles of husband and wife. Depending on the nature of the parents' work, as well as the family's values, fathers may assume more responsibility for childcare and housework than has traditionally been the case. With their wives out in the workplace, men find it easier to define a greater role for themselves in child-raising. This is particularly evident when parents have staggered work schedules - for instance, if the father works daytime hours and is home after school and in the evening, while the mother works a shift such as 4:00 p.m. to midnight. Dad may then be in charge of preparing dinner, cleaning up the kitchen and helping the children with their homework.
The Risks of Shift Work
Many families are feeling the stress of overcommitted and overscheduled lives. But few families feel it more than those in which parents work at different times of the day. When parents work different shifts and are not home together very often, a strain is put on their relationship and the family. Even more difficult are jobs that have rotating shifts - firefighting and nursing, for instance - forcing parents to work different hours each week; those schedules can prevent families from establishing routines and rhythms and can seriously disrupt family stability.
In these families, husbands and wives often have little or no time together. If they are lucky they have a day or two during the week when they are both off, but their sleep schedules may be so different that they still spend very little time with each other. These people essentially pass messages to each other, and their parenting may be hampered by a minimum of teamwork.
When parents work different shifts, children often sense that a problem exists. They rarely see their parents together, and they sometimes yearn for a "normal" family life. Parents in these situations have to work especially hard at giving their children the feeling that their family really is a unit, despite the difficult schedules. They need to make the most of weekends and vacations and support each other in areas like household responsibilities and discipline.
For some families, shift work is a solution to providing good childcare and supervision for children who would otherwise be left in the care of another adult or on their own. Such arrangements may provide a financial benefit to the family and a sense of comfort to the child.
When both spouses work, there are two particular aspects of parenting that often suffer:
Some parents become less nurturing or less emotionally available. Caught up in the hectic pace of their lives, parents may give their children a little less attention and loving care than they need. Set aside time each evening to show your children some affection. Bedtime is often a good time for that.
Some parents are afraid to set limits. Setting limits is an important component of gaining the respect of your youngsters. For children to grow into happy and secure adults, they need to be sensitive to your feelings and values and listen to what you say. If you see that they follow the rules you set, they will adopt many of your values.