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Mission accomplished for center on middle-class families

In the midst of the emotional turmoil caused by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, UCLA established a center that would focus on a subject extremely familiar to all of us: the everyday lives of families. The timing was right, as Americans seemed to be in need of the kind of trust and intimacy that family and community could provide.
The goal of the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), created with a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and situated in the Department of Anthropology, was to study the needs of middle-class, dual-earner families. Now, after nine years of fruitful research documenting how working families thrive amidst the stresses of everyday life, CELF has announced that its work is done.
Through their work in the center, CELF researchers have gained valuable insight into a number of areas, including what kind of goods middle-class families are buying (or not buying) for their children; how parents get their children to do chores; what young adults think about the choices their parents made; and what families are doing to balance their health needs with desired activities.
On April 29-30, the center celebrated its closure with a one-and-a-half-day conference titled “Reconsidering the American Dream: Middle-Class Families Experience the 21st Century.” Dozens of national and international scholars came to the James West Alumni Center to hear the results of their peers’ research.
“Those of us who enter into and observe the actual private lives of middle-class families in the United States are unusual,” said CELF director Elinor Ochs. “Private family life in this country is idealized as a realm that should be out of the public eye — concealed, protected and relatively sacred. Entering these middle-class homes, where privacy is conceived as a cultural entitlement of the highest sort, is a fearsome challenge.”
Illustrations by Katrina Laygo
The CELF conference was divided into five carefully crafted sessions: family aspirations, family consumerism, family intimacy, family responsibilities and family resilience. Video documentation created by CELF faculty and students produced results that were not only fascinating, but sometimes quite surprising. For example:
Family consumerism. In her study of 32 Los Angeles middle-class families, UCLA archaeologist Jeanne Arnold and her team counted all visible household possessions, calculated object densities and explored inadequacies in storage space.
“These problems are especially salient with kids’ proliferating toys and gear,” Arnold said. “The U.S. has barely 3% of the world’s children, yet American families annually purchase 40% of the toys consumed globally … an amazing imbalance. Kids’ stuff is everywhere in these homes.”
Three-quarters of garages no longer are acquainted with any of the family cars, becoming on-site storage units, she added. “Several of these families — if not most — are stressed in measurable ways by material overindulgence, money issues, not feeling fit, not using home spaces they have invested in, and not getting outside,” Arnold said.
Family intimacy. Marjorie Goodwin, UCLA professor of anthropology, discussed a research area of interest to most parents of young children: She observed how parents maneuver the attention of their children to perform routine activities. A video clip of a mother trying to get her son to go to bed while the child screams, “No! I’m not!,” drew sympathetic laughter.
“In families where there are clear boundaries that have been established between parents and children, there are less emotional kinds of defiance expressed,” Goodwin said. In these families, parents were able to get their children to comply by using less confrontational methods, such as wordplay or by playfully shepherding them into doing their tasks.
Anthony Graesch, an anthropological archaeologist and postdoctoral fellow at CELF, teamed up with Belinda Campos, an assistant professor of social psychology at UC Irvine, to study another indicator of family intimacy: finding time and space for each other. The two researchers documented the daily lives of 32 dual-earner families in Los Angeles and studied videotapes to observe what kind of social behaviors were used to greet parents when they came home from work.
The results were a mixed bag. Graesch and Campos found that the majority of behaviors fell into two categories: positive (pleasant greetings, information, hugs) or distraction (parent wasn’t acknowledged). Happily, positive behavior seemed to dominate, and there was very little negative behavior recorded (“You’re home late again!”).
“It’s really no surprise that many parents are now expressing concern that work responsibilities severely limit their ability to participate in family life and to cultivate those affectional bonds that are consistent with their ideals,” Graesch said.
Family responsibilities. The problem for today’s young adults stems from a growing conflict between current social/economic realities and the persistence of conventional views of breadwinning and caretaking, said Kathleen Gerson, sociology professor at New York University. She based her results on in-depth, life-history interviews with 120 residents of urban and suburban communities in New York.
CELF.2One interesting area of Gerson’s research involved how young adults today viewed their parents’ work and marital choices. While 52% of the young adults whose mothers stayed at home thought that a “traditional” arrangement was best (father works, mother stays home), 48% — almost half — preferred a different arrangement. And an overwhelming 79% of the respondents with working mothers actually preferred their situation because it brought in greater economic resources and produced a more collaborative sense in the home.
Other children wished that their domestically oriented mothers had not felt a moral obligation to stay home, Gerson said. “In the long run, they felt that it had backfired, first on the parent whose morale and self-esteem had declined, but secondly, on the children who felt somewhat guilty that this choice had been made ‘in their best interest,’ when they didn’t necessarily need it.”
Carolina Izquierdo, a medical anthropologist and CELF research associate, and Wendy Klein, an assistant professor of linguistic anthropology at CSU Long Beach, studied how family members negotiate responsibilities at home and found that in middle-class families, parenting approaches and children’s roles have evolved over time.
“In the 1970s, the number of women working outside the home increased dramatically, disrupting the traditional breadwinner/housewife model of marriage,” Izquierdo said. “Yet even today, research indicates that working mothers spend more time involved in home-related tasks than fathers, and that women suffer more in their social roles as parent, spouse and employee as they strive for balance between work and home life obligations.”
More recent studies have shown that many children do not routinely help out with the household chores, Klein added. When children were asked about their responsibilities at home, their responses ranged from doing “nothing” and thinking that the question was humorous, to cleaning the house with their siblings every weekend.
“Though household work and family responsibilities can be a burden and a source of tension for working parents, these are also crucial activities through which spouses can express solidarity, respect and intimacy, and through which children can become responsible, caring and independent individuals,” Klein said.
Family resilience. Cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that can be assayed from saliva samples, helps measure a person’s reaction to stressors. This hormone was used by UCLA Psychology Professor Rena Repetti, CELF affiliate Darby Saxbe and UCLA doctoral student Shu-wen Wang in their studies about health and resilience through family relationships.
A steeper decline in cortisol levels over the day equals better health outcomes, and through their observations of CELF couples, the three researchers noted that the spouses were “contagious … one partner’s mood or stress state may affect the other partner,” Saxbe said. “A high-quality relationship may buffer spouses from each other’s everyday stress.”
Interestingly, it appeared that spouses’ social behaviors were intertwined with their physiology, Wang said. Husbands had better stress recovery — that is, their cortisol levels dropped — when their wives were less engaged and less emotionally expressive, while wives had better stress recovery when they themselves were more engaged and more talkative. Similarly, husbands’ cortisol levels went down when they did less housework, but their wives benefited when their husbands did more housework.
“What may be a source of resilience for one spouse may actually be a behavioral pattern that is detrimental to the partner,” Wang said.
For more information about CELF, click here.
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