Caring for kids, so to speak

Study: Are all things equal when it comes to raising children? To get a clue, listen to yourself.

November 28, 2001|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Four white middle-class families. Four hundred hours of tape. Fifteen transcribers. One million words.

Two years after she posted notices in Laundromats and corner stores in Georgetown seeking to listen in on the daily lives of two-career families, America's best-selling linguist, Deborah Tannen, is unearthing some revolutionary truths about couples who say they want to share family work equally:

Women may be unintentionally talking themselves into more of the load. And men aren't objecting.

Her book on working parents won't be written for a few years, but Tannen shares some of her research findings this afternoon at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington. Even her graduate students were amazed last week when they saw the research they've worked on individually for months take shape.

"Mothers may not realize they are implying that fathers are less responsible or less skillful or poorer nutritional managers because we don't have the resources to analyze our speech as we talk," says Alexandra Johnston, a Ph.D. candidate who worked on the study with Tannen and co-director Shari Kendall at Georgetown University.

By listening to how people speak, Tannen has produced best-selling books that reveal how what people say creates who they are. Her book on men's and women's conversational styles, You Just Don't Understand, was a New York Times best seller for a decade. A follow-up, Talking from 9 to 5, in which she showed how conversational style influenced who got credit for work - men - and who did it - women, has led many people to change their behavior in the workplace.

She was asked to do the current research by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which is interested in helping dual-career couples reduce conflict between work and family life.

The tapes are still being analyzed, but transcripts of some of the conversations to be discussed today shed light on why women often work a "second shift" at home, and why women - and not men - are the ones who quit work when children arrive.

One thing they reveal is that despite years of working beside men and earning similar money, women still don't think of themselves as breadwinners.

On tape, the women talk about working to pay for a vacation house, to be stimulated, to keep themselves from shopping and spending money.

Their husbands' salaries, though, pay for the necessities. "You've been giving me a hundred dollars ... a week in cash to spend on groceries," one woman tells her husband during a meeting with their financial counselor.

It's the classic gender stereotype: If he earns money, it's for the essentials. If she earns money, it is for extras.

And when the cost of day care for two children becomes too expensive, it's the mom in one of the families studied who quits.

Another woman has cut back so many hours - to eight hours a week - she is almost out of a job. Still, she clings to her work identity. "I am NOT a full-time [chuckling] stay-at-home mom. That's what I've learned. Because it's just like BRUTAL. It's just - I, I don't know how they do it," she says.

And in families that want to share child care and work hard at it, women take over the job of managing the household without realizing it. Tannen's tapes show that the language wives use unintentionally limits their husbands' involvement.

Consider Kathy and Sam, a dual-income middle-class couple in their 30s with a 2-year-old daughter, Jill. In one taped conversation, Kathy described their arrangement as very well balanced. He takes off Mondays, she takes off Fridays, and the child is in day care three days a week:

"It's important to ME, cause I know that if I were to stay home, I would be the, y'know, I'd have all the-the time with her, which is-is fine for me, but it's important for both of us to be part of her primary care-taking," she says.

In this family, Kathy makes most of the meals because she gets home earlier. She shops for leafy greens and fruits and prepares nutritious food for her daughter. Look what happens when Kathy sees her daughter drinking some Coke:

Kathy: WAIT a minute. Where did you get Coke?

Sam: (laugh) Dada

Kathy: (baby talk to Jill) Daddy gave you Coke?(breath intake) Ha! Mommy says No No Coke!

Sam: Just a little bit!

Kathy: Daddy gave you COKE?

Sam: If Mommy can give her pop (Popsicle), Daddy can give her Coke.

Kathy: Pops are made from juice!

Sam: Kay, how about Hershey's?

Kathy: (sigh) Well ... soda is for very special occasions.

Here's what's happening, according to Johnston, the Ph.D. candidate who analyzed this section of the tape:

When Kathy criticizes her husband's decision to give the child Coke, Sam minimizes his breaking Kathy's household rule ("just a little bit"), then tries to justify it a second time by claiming it's no different from Popsicles. Kathy explains that Popsicles are made from fruit juice and have nutritional content. That prompts Sam to point out that she gave the child chocolate. She sighs and repeats her household rule.

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