Dual-Earner Couples’ Adjustments to Work and Family Role Strain

Activity Description:


One core concern in the study of work and family is identifying the strains experienced by working couples and linking these concerns to work and family policy. Kathleen Christensen and Ralph Gomory (1999) describe this as the 3:2 problem, the difficulties two people face when they try to manage three jobs (two in the workplace and one in the home). Studies indicate that families are increasingly abandoning the male breadwinner and female homemaker template, creating a time squeeze in which role expectations overshadow couple’s time resources (Clarkberg and Moen 2001; Moen and Sweet 2003).

For those in the labor force and managing families, these concerns are apparent and instructors can launch directly into discussions of policy. However, for undergraduate students, who are still anticipating what work and family lives will be like, there is less understanding of the degree of strain created by conflicting work and family roles.

This exercise is designed to address this concern, teaching undergraduate students to identify cultural expectations for the parent role and the worker role, and the degree to which these expectations create role conflicts. The exercises last 25 minutes, and discussion 25 minutes.


Step 1:  Identify the Cultural Expectations for the Ideal Parent (10 minutes)

Using the template (click on the document at the end of this entry to view and download template in PDF format), have students work individually to identify the core values that our culture holds toward parenting, focusing their analysis in consideration of a parent caring for two young children (E.g., parents should be nurturing, parents should teach and socialize children, parents should keep children nourished and safe, etc.[column 1]). Then for each core value, students identify the corresponding behaviors that a parent should perform (E.g., families should eat dinner together, parents should cook good meals, parents should read kids bedtime stories [column 2]). Next students identify the time commitment, measured in hours per day, needed to accomplish each of these goals (column 3), and to sum the total number of hours required to be an ideal parent. Finally, students identify if any activities require a specific scheduled block of time (E.g., if ideal parents clothe, feed, and send kids off to school, that will require them to be in the home from 6:30-8:30 am).

Step 2: Identify the Cultural Expectations for the Ideal Employee (10 minutes).

Students should consider the career they plan on entering following college. As all students will likely strive for professional careers, coach them that typically employees in these types of jobs are expected to work between 45-50 hours per week. Replicate the same process outlined above. Students first identify the cultural ideals of the ideal employee (e.g., committed, dependable, etc.), the corresponding behaviors (e.g., put in long hours, adhere to schedules, be willing to travel), the time commitments associated (e.g., hours per work day), and if the ideal employee in their profession will need any schedule considerations.

Step 3: Synthesize analyses (5 minutes).

Have students sum the total number of hours committed to parenting and working report the sum total of time it takes to fulfill worker and parent roles (E.g., if they say being an ideal parent takes 8 hours and an ideal worker takes 8 hours, they should report to you 16 hours). List these hours on the board as students state them. Likely most students will report that the ideal worker and the ideal parent requires a commitment of 16-20 hours per day.

Discussion (25 minutes):

Ask: What do we learn by this exercise?

Students quickly recognize that it is impossible for individuals to perform work and family roles in correspondence with cultural ideals of what is expected of working parents. Students should also recognize that this study only looks at two roles, that of worker and parent, and need to be considerate of the other roles people are obligated to fulfill, such as spouse, friend, and community member roles. It also ignores the need for personal time for exercise, hobbies and sleep.

Ask: Do you identify any strains in terms of parenting and employee schedules?

Students will likely recognize that parenting will often intrude on the ability to perform business trips, to come into work early, to be able to stay late at work, to put in long hours. This opens a good opportunity to discuss the gendered nature of the “ideal employee” as outlined in Joan William’s ( 2000) book Unbending Gender, that the ideal employee is an employee that can work according to the standards of the male breadwinner template.

Ask: Given these strains, how do you think couples respond?

Students will likely conclude that couples will likely need to relinquish responsibilities associated with other role comments. Giving up sleep, curtailing friendships, time with their partner, etc. These conclusions and the social costs can be supported and linked to by research such as Arlie Hochschild’s (1989) The Second Shift, and Robert Putnam’s (2000) Bowling Alone, and others.

Beyond relinquishing other roles, the instructor can highlight a number of less obvious practices here, including:

  • Delaying having children and deciding to forego having children (Altucher and Williams 2003).
  • Scaling back on work hours, and the normative pattern for dual career couples to adopt neotraditional arrangements (Becker and Moen 1999; Moen and Sweet 2003).
  • Strategies of structuring alternate schedules, so that husbands and wives “tag team,” such as the wife working night shifts (Garey 1999).

This exercise is designed for a 50 minute class. However, if longer class time is available, instructors may want to bridge directly into policy concerns, focusing on organizational and governmental responses.

Activity Source:

Content contributed by Stephen Sweet as a Suggested Work and Family Class Activity

Activity Links to Materials:

Teaching Activity Role Strain