The new work ethic

Family: More husbands and wives are working split shifts -- and learning the hard way how difficult it is to juggle marriage and children.

August 08, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Clifton and Bertha Cox of Ellicott City have many things in common, but spending the same hours awake isn't one of them.

Clifton rises at 3:30 a.m. to work as floor director at WBAL-TV. His wife, a studio camera operator, is off and running 12 hours later.

Their toughest challenge is raising Gregory, their 2-year-old son. He spends mornings with Mom and evenings with Dad. Only once or twice a week will he get to spend time with both (at least while all three are awake).

"The jobs are stressful in the medium we work in, and that's tough on any marriage," says Clifton Cox, 51. "What helps is that we work together. It may be a split shift, but we have a common meeting ground."

As the nation moves toward an around-the-clock economy, family work patterns like the Coxes' are increasingly common. Unfortunately for these two-earner couples, research by a University of Maryland, College Park professor indicates that the odds of their relationship failing are high.

Among working couples with children, when men work nights (and are married less than five years), the likelihood of separation or divorce is six times that when men work days, according to studies by Harriet B. Presser, a professor in Maryland's sociology department.

When women in similar circumstance work nights, the odds of separation or divorce are three times as high as those when women work days, Presser's research shows.

Older marriages seem to dodge the divorce bullet: The chances of a marriage failing fall back to average rates when working parents have made it past their fifth anniversary, she observes.

Could it be that men and women stuck in troubled marriages simply opt to work different schedules? Presser says no: Her analysis of data collected by the federal government and by private surveys of more than 45,000 U.S. households suggests that, other than work hours, the couples weren't at a higher risk for divorce.

"Split shifts don't lead to higher divorce rates among couples without children," notes Presser, who also serves as director of the university's Center on Population, Gender and Social Inequality.

Presser, whose work was recently published in Science magazine, suspects that stress may be the root cause of the problem. "What's characteristic of night shifts? There's a lot of sleep deprivation. That must be linked with stress, and having children may exacerbate it," she says.

Family therapists have long observed that split shifts cause marital strife. Perie Meltzer, a Towson social worker who counsels businesses and their employees, says raising children is taxing enough without the added difficulties posed by odd work hours.

"It leaves little time for people to work together on their relationship," says Meltzer, a senior clinician for Sheppard Pratt Health System. "People can only be at one place at a time."

Brad E. Sachs, a Columbia psychologist who treats couples and children, says he frequently sees split-shift parents struggling to stay together. Whether a particular couple want to work opposite hours or whether they were forced into it by their employers, "The marriage is definitely put more at risk," he says.

"Couples who choose to work split shifts may be seeking to disengage and might even find a relatively satisfying equilibrium," he says. "But having children tips the scales. That demands adult intimacy."

With the two-wage-earning family now the model in the U.S., the problem is likely to mount. According to Presser, more than one-quarter of married adults in two-income families work other than a fixed daytime schedule. More than half include at least one spouse working weekends.

Yet few, if any, employers or government policy-makers have taken much notice of the trend. The impact of split shifts is seen as "unimportant, or people just don't know about it," Presser says.

"I hope we can increase interest in this issue," she says. "It's a widespread phenomenon, and we need to explore it."

In the meantime, the Coxes say their coping strategy will be to keep their lines of communication open: Calls between the TV station and home are frequent. It could be years before Bertha Cox, 38, has enough seniority to be transferred to a day shift -- if that even proves practical.

They are grateful that the split shift saves on child-care expenses -- Gregory attends a day-care center, but only three days a week. Both parents spend plenty of time with their son -- at least individually.

As for their marriage, it's doing fine. They've been married 12 years -- putting them seven years past the high-risk-for-divorce stage. And when their life seems stressful, they look at their reward: a fun-loving boy who loves to dress up for parties, hug his Winnie the Pooh, sing with Barney, and play with his toy cars and trucks.

"In an ideal world, it would be nice to work normal hours," says Bertha Cox. But working days at the station would mean both parents rising before dawn, and "Exactly who do you get to watch your child at 3:30 in the morning?"

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