The Psychology of Work and Family

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love who spoke at Scripps College last November, says we’re in the midst of a radical new social experiment. In an NPR interview this January on her latest book, Committed: a Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, Gilbert ponders: “What happens if we give women autonomy, education, finances, you know, control over their sexual biology? What happens if we give you all this freedom? What are you going to do with it?….We’re all still sort of puzzling it out in a very intense way.”

When she was in college, Gilbert says, “My friends and I would sit up until two in the morning and sort of panic over how we were going to balance raising our children, being married and having careers, and I kind of don’t think the guys down the hall in the dorm were doing that when they were 19.”

Scripps College women are no less concerned today, judging by continuing interest expressed in the classroom and in career counseling sessions.

“Current students are becoming more ‘out there’ in admitting they want family and marriage along with a career,” says Julie Boone Elliott, in Scripps College Career Planning & Research office. She finds the students she counsels are having more conversations about careers and families than they did 10 years ago.

One way they are exploring their options and trying to find answers is in the popular class “The Psychology of Work and Family,” team-taught for the first time this past fall semester by Professors Judith LeMaster and Amy Marcus-Newhall.

The class offers provocative texts, empirical and theoretical scientific articles, practical discussions, and guest panels of both women and men who share their experiences balancing career and family. The professors ask students to examine the dynamics at the intersection of work and family, actively engage with course materials, and generate research ideas to further investigate unexplored areas.

Discussions are lively, especially when Linda R. Hirschman’s book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, is the topic. Hirschman advises women to work no matter what their circumstances, and challenges the idea that society benefits when mom stays home. “We’re having you read a diverse array of materials to get you to critically examine issues from different perspectives,” says Marcus-Newhall.

The students don’t hesitate to take on Hirschman’s arguments, offering point and counterpoint. The class has a wide divergence of opinion on whether it is better to “get to work” or stay at home to raise one’s children, and whether, indeed, women really do have this “choice” based on societal expectations. Opinions seem influenced by the student’s own home life, with students who had been raised by stay-at-home moms tending to voice that as an ideal, while students who had working parents extolling these benefits, such as learning early socialization skills, having a variety of interesting activities, and having working role models.

In one session, the class discusses traditional roles within marriage.

The professors point out that men and women’s traditional “spheres of responsibility” are the result of “social learning,” and imply that it will take more than simply recognizing the situation to change it. Marcus-Newhall points out that we still have traditional gender roles that define what we are expected to do and what we do. According to research, “women are the family providers and caretakers and manage the home responsibilities, whereas men are the economic providers. When these roles are violated, there are negative perceptions and consequences.”

She adds: “With more women are in the workplace, men have increased their household and childcare responsibilities, resulting in more overall family time with kids today than was the norm for men 20 or 30 years ago, which is a very good thing. However, women still perform significantly more of these responsibilities, even when they are working full time like their husbands.”

A few weeks later, three working fathers visit the class, and students learn that men, too, grapple with work and family balance. Two of the panelists are Scripps College professors, positions that allow more flexible hours than many working fathers enjoy. The students pepper them with questions that come from their readings, discussions, and own individual concerns:

“Do the media play a role in how you parent?” “Who pays for childcare?” “Does having one or two kids influence the dynamics in your marriage?” “Did you see yourselves as fathers early on in life?” “What is your interpretation of masculinity before and after having children?” “Was it important for you to have a son?”

The fathers give candid answers and offer advice:

“If there are conflicts, give priority to family. You can’t recoup bonds later.” “family is the primary factor in your life; whatever you can do, do it; I feel like I’m missing out on major milestones in my son’s life.”

After sitting in on several of the “Psychology of Work and Family” class sessions, one can conclude that today’s college women are asking many of the same questions women have asked for years — yet they are doing it armed with more information and self-awareness than their mothers and grandmothers ever had.

And that’s reason for hope.


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