American Family Life In Flux

Kim Zeiss, right, organizes the family schedule on her Palm Pilot with the help of her husband, Gary, as their son, Jacob, 8, watches Friday, Jan. 14, 2005, while they wait for daughter, Madison, at the Los Angeles International Fencing Center in West Los Angeles, Calif. The Zeiss family is one of 32 Los Angeles families in a study of the modern American family by UCLA scientists. AP

Jake Zeiss bolts from his west LA bungalow before 8 a.m., red hair damp and shirttail flapping.

After seven hours of back-to-back meetings, he volleys for an hour with his tennis pro. Still perspiring, he slides back into his Mercedes, gobbles a nutrition bar and does paperwork on a lap desk while his chauffeur burrows through the nation's worst rush hour traffic.

Jake Zeiss is 9 years old. His paperwork is multiplication tables.

He gropes for a pencil that has dropped down the dark, sticky crevasse of the back seat. And he's tempted by a new yo-yo. It's the kind that beeps and lights up.

"Jakey, is that a good use of your time?" hollers his mother, Kim, as she swerves past a loafing Honda. "How many problems have you done?"

The Zeiss family is late for hockey practice. After that, it's fencing lessons for Madison, Jake's 10-year-old sister. Their father, Gary, will meet them at the gym - hopefully by 8 p.m.

Kim Zeiss has transformed her SUV into a rolling Wal-Mart, with cases of snacks and drinks buried beneath backpacks and sports equipment piled so high she can't use the rearview mirror.

"Fortunately, the kids don't get carsick," Kim quips. "If that happened, we'd be sunk."

The Zeiss family might be insanely busy. But they are not alone.

Scientists at UCLA have spent the past four years observing 32 Los Angeles families in a study of how working America somehow gets
it done. Day after day.

The UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families is one of six long-term projects sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation examining the intersection between family life and work.

At UCLA, a team of 21 researchers has completed the $3.6 million data-collection phase. A second phase will be devoted to analysis and, researchers hope, influencing federal policy on family issues.

Already, trends are emerging from their observations, and they appear to be related to the biggest change in family dynamics since Kim and Gary Zeiss were kids themselves:

Mothers working outside the home.

It's a poorly understood seismic shift in both the nation's economy and daily life. For some families in the study, it allows them to own a bigger house, drive better cars and take nicer vacations. For many more families, two paychecks are necessary to put food on the table.

It means parents and children live virtually apart at least five days a week, reuniting for a few hours at night. In this study, at least one parent was likely to be up and gone before the children awoke.

When they are together, today's families tend to stay in motion with lessons, classes and games. Or, they go shopping.

Researchers contend this chase appears to erode families from within, like a rusting minivan dropping parts as it clatters down the highway.

What's falling by the wayside?

Playtime. Conversation. Courtesy. Intimacy.

And guess who is driving the minivan now? Researchers say parents effectively have relinquished the steering wheel to their children. That's because most family decisions and purchases are geared toward the kids' activities.

Whether these highly programmed kids will grow up to become competent and compassionate adults is an open question for many of scientists.

"We've scheduled and outsourced a lot of our relationships," says the study's director, Elinor Ochs, a linguistic anthropologist. "There isn't much room for the flow of life, those little moments when things happen spontaneously.

"And, we're moving from a child-centered society to a child-dominated society. Parents don't have a life after the children go to bed."

The study's requirements were straightforward: Find households with two parents who work outside the home, pay a mortgage and have two or three school-aged children. The families also reflect LA's ethnic stew and diverse neighborhoods.

Each family was observed over a week's time. Researchers would stick with the families from the morning's first pot of coffee to bedtime. They followed a simple rule: Knock first.

Other scientists who have conducted family studies are intensely interested in the results but doubt cameras can eliminate bias entirely.

"I'm sure these families never forgot the camera was there, and would play to it," said San Jose State University anthropologist Charles N. Darrah.

"And," Darrah said, "the researchers can't help but look at the people and think, "What is my family like? It's people studying people."

The UCLA study isn't ranking families from best to worst. Instead, scientists are asking how families are coping.

For Ochs, the most worrisome trend is how indifferently people treat each other, especially when they reunite at day's end. In her view, the chilly exchanges repeated in so many of the study's households suggests something has gone awry.

"Returning home at the end of the day is one of the most delicate and vulnerable moments in life," Ochs said. "Everywhere in the world, in all societies, there is some kind of greeting.

"But here, the kids aren't greeting the parents and the parents are allowing it to go on," Ochs said. "They are tiptoeing around their children."

The Zeiss family, however, is positively tribal with hugs and shouts. Their packed schedule just means they reunite in the car or parking lots.

After a 40-minute drive to the ice rink, Madison races to the snack bar while Jake drags his hockey equipment into a musky locker room.

Elbow-to-elbow, Kim and 20 other mothers strip their sons down to their Spiderman undies and strap on pads the size of sofa cushions.

"When they turn 10, they dress themselves and moms can't come in," she says. squatting on a duffel bag to catch her breath. "None of us want to see that day. What else am I going to do - sleep?"

Kim's remark raises a second trend emerging from the UCLA data - how few people have any unstructured time.

In just one of the 32 families did the father - a freelance film animator - make a habit of taking an evening stroll with his son and daughter. Hand-in-hand, they dodged vacant lots and broken glass in Culver City while chasing bugs and making up stories.

Kim and Gary Zeiss are keeping their children busy by design. They believe it's a key to being a successful adult in a culture that rewards multi-taskers.

"You know the old saying," says Gary, a 47-year-old attorney. "If you want something done, give it to a busy person. They're learning how to be that."

A typical Monday for the Zeiss family has four or five after-school events. They are in constant touch by cell phone, Blackberry and pager.

It's very different from how they were raised in Miami in the 1970s. Gary wasn't allowed to play football; his parents feared for his safety, but he remembers feeling unchallenged.

Now he is reviving his interest in fencing, which he shares with Madison.

The kids are doing well," he says. "They are getting good grades. They're not obese. At the end of the day, this is good for them."

Kim's mother was divorced, and Kim spent afternoons alone watching television and doing homework. Some days she would ride her bicycle 15 miles to the beach.

Now 43, she worked as a television producer at MTV and ESPN until Jake was 2. Recently she became an administrator at Madison's school. She is fond of saying that she is "producing a family."

With all the scheduling, family life begins to resemble running a small business. That means requisitioning supplies, which invariably leads to a third hallmark of the study: clutter.

Archaeologist Jeanne E. Arnold planned to treat each house in the study like a dig site, cataloging and mapping family belongings as artifacts. But there was too much stuff. Instead, her staff took photographs. Thousands of them.

By her rough estimate, the typical American family owns more than most Egyptian pharaohs.

The world has never seen consumption on this scale, Arnold says. "And every week we see more stuff arriving. People can't stop."

Researchers say schedules and clutter butt heads to create the fourth family trend: flux.

Using computers, scientists mapped the location of each family member throughout the home every 10 minutes. Ochs says families gathered in the same room just 16 percent of the time. In five homes, the entire family was never in the same room while scientists were observing.

"People just don't come together very frequently in our society," Ochs said. "They might say they want community, but they don't seek it."

The Zeiss family congregates for dinner, but not until Gary and Madison return from fencing practice at 10:20 p.m. Kim spoons chili from the crock pot and serves salad and mashed sweet potato. Jake drops his spoon and starts rubbing his eyes. Time for pajamas. It's 10:56 p.m.

Gary and Kim smile across the table. It's their first time alone since the alarm clock buzzed 17 hours ago.

Kim stares at a spoonful of cold sweet potatoes, then eats it with a shrug and stretches back in her chair.

"My feet are up," she announces to the ceiling. "We'll do it all again tomorrow."

Seven hours from now.


By Joseph B. Verrengia
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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