Bad economy forces couples to work, work, work till they drop


January 10, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

Friday is tough for Judy Ley.

There are the three kids to get off to school. There's the baby. The house, the laundry, the cleaning, the shopping. There's dinner to prepare and have on the table by 4:30 p.m.

And then, as soon as her husband, Steve, walks into the house at 4:35, Judy Ley goes to work. Three nights a week, 5 to 9, at a hair-replacement shop.

When she gets home, she takes her 5-month-old daughter and the stroller and the diapers and the rest of the baby's things, and drives to her sister's house nearby.

The baby spends the night there because Judy and Steve both work Saturday mornings.

The Leys are working. The Leys are parenting. The Leys are tired.

"I'm pooped," says Judy, who is 32.

Her plaint has become the lament of many of America's two-working-parent families, which now number nearly 15.5 million.

Pooped. Moms who need 10 minutes without a demand being made of them. Dog-tired dads.

Call it, as others have done, the "fog of fatigue."

"It's a big grass-roots issue. Talk to working parents and they will tell you time is the problem, sometimes ahead of money," says Barbara Whitehead, a social historian and research associate for the Institute for American Values in New York.

"To the degree that they try to spend time with kids, they lose sleep. That's where the fog of fatigue comes in."

Judith Coche, a marriage and family therapist who teaches at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center, says she has seen "tremendous changes in people's concerns for their own levels of fatigue in the last 10 years."

And when income goes up, fatigue does not necessarily go down.

Ivy Silver and her husband, Steve Leshner, are more comfortable financially than Steve and Judy Ley. They are partners in an insurance brokerage and consulting firm. They have car phones. And two children, ages 7 and 5.

"I'm totally tired," says Ms. Silver, 36.

Mr. Leshner, 39, says he is fatigued occasionally, but not tired.

She laughs. "He won't admit it, but he's tired."

The worsening economy has forced mothers who are at work to stay there and mothers who were at home to get a job.

More than 63 percent of two-parent American families now have both parents working, according to the census -- a jump of 17 percent since 1981.

The number of working single parents increased more than 31 percent in the 10-year period to more than 6 million today. And 53 percent of women 18 to 44 with infants are in the work force.

"It means other helpers are necessary," says H. Charles Fishman, a child psychiatrist and the executive director of the Institute for the Family in Princeton, N.J. "If it's not an extended family, that means day

care and baby sitters.

"I'm struck by how hard everyone is working. There's hardly enough time to keep the family above water, let alone spend time with the kids. Parents are aware of it, and that makes it worse."

So besides exhaustion, there's guilt. Listen to Ivy Silver.

The family moved to the suburbs from the city in February. Before the move, she and Steve worked full time. The kids had a loving baby sitter at home.

Then the move -- and a decision by Ms. Silver: work half-days only.

"I looked at my kids and they felt needy. They were clingy. They didn't have the resilience I thought they should have."

She felt guilty. About the children, her job, her own needs. Since she and her husband worked together, they decided that they had the flexibility -- flexibility that many couples don't have -- to cut back her workday.

They've also cut back on Friday-night movies and gymnastics classes for the kids.

"We can't do it all," Ms. Silver says. "We started to feel totally harassed by being scheduled."

"What kids want from their parents is more time, and what they really want is their parents not to come home from work so wired," says Ellen Galinsky, co-president of the Families and Work Institute, a research center in New York.

"Kids can tell the kind of day you've had from the way the doorknob turns, the way a coat is hung up. It's particularly demanding having a hectic job, and having little control to solve problems. That contributes to the feeling of fatigue and exhaustion."

Ms. Whitehead says since 1965, there has been a 40 percent decline in the time parents spend with their children, and that too many children "adapt to the rhythms of the workplace, not the household."

So what do parents do?

"There is growing interest among parents of younger children in adjusting their work schedules to free up time with their families," Ms. Whitehead says. "The polls show a shift in that direction. But I'm not sure it will translate to action."

Mr. Fishman says that too many people are just trying to maintain their lifestyle, not improve it, so options for a lot of parents are few.

"We all need a different conceptualization of community," he says. "There's just not enough people helping each other in America. We need a better social-network."

Neither Judy or Steve Ley, nor Ivy Silver and Steve Leshner believe their situation is unique. Both couples have friends who are as fatigued as they are.

"I don't feel it's so crazy I can't handle it," says Ms. Ley. "I just do it."

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