LOS ANGELES — 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.
“Fortunately, the kids don’t get carsick,” Kim quips as she steers hard down a highway ramp, triggering an avalanche of books and shrieks.
“If that happened,” she said, “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.
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Changing family dynamics
For a week, scientists using digital video cameras recorded the Zeisses’ every move. Back in the lab, the researchers analyzed their behavior — frame by frame — intent on seeing them with a dispassionate eye as if their subjects were chimps in the wild.
Archaeologists sifted through the family’s belongings, down to the stray sock behind the dryer and the cans of tuna in the pantry.
Psychologists required everyone but the family dog Ozzie to spit into test tubes several times a day. The vials were frozen and shipped to a Pennsylvania lab where technicians measured the rise and fall of stress hormones in saliva.
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 of 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.
Reflection of the American office
For many more families in the study, two paychecks are necessary to put food on the table.
Researchers say now there are three jobs in the American family — two careers plus parenting — and only two people to accomplish them.
In short, home life is beginning to imitate the downsized American office.
It means parents and children live virtually apart at least five days a week. They reunite for a few hours at night, sleep and separate again the next morning. 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.
UCLA researchers say that, for the most part, husbands in their study haven’t cut back on their work. Some, like Gary Zeiss, work from home occasionally. Others help out with chores a little more.
Mothers in the UCLA study still bear the key household and child-rearing responsibilities, even while working full-time.
Researchers contend this appears to erode families from within, like a rusting minivan dropping parts as it clatters down the highway.
'A child-dominated society'
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 scientists.
They fear that all of this motion could cause health problems if elevated stress becomes chronic.
“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 32 families were paid $1,000 each to participate. Most responded to ads in neighborhood newspapers.
The families reflect LA’s ethnic stew: Anglo, black, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Indian and others. Two families had same-sex parents. They lived all over greater Los Angeles, from the ranch house subdivisions of the San Fernando Valley to the gang-plagued streets of Compton.
Some facts of LA life, like traffic, could not be avoided. Yet the scientists believe they structured the study so it examined the interior factors of everyday life that are just as true in Fort Wayne, Ind., or Yakima, Wash.
Lifestyle studies typically rely on participants filling out questionnaires and diaries. But let’s be honest: Most people fib, or say what they think researchers want to hear.
By using cameras, the scientists documented the families’ real reactions and conversations as the day unfolded. Or, detonated.
Their method invites comparisons to the landmark 1973 PBS series that documented the lives of the Loud family, from dance recitals to a gay son to the parents’ divorce.
But this is Ph.D.-style reality TV. It’s not a portrait of a single family. The UCLA researchers’ observations won’t wind up on late-night cable.
In 1,600 hours of digital video, scientists captured moments of unfiltered joy — but also of sorrow, anger and frustration.
Scientists say there were so many home visits that it was impossible for reluctant family members to pretend for long. Messy people couldn’t remain tidy. Unhappy people couldn’t hold back tears.
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. For more than a decade, an SJSU team has been studying 12 families in Silicon Valley, a project that also receives Sloan funding.
“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.”
'Not just a middle-class phenomenon'
Darrah says the UCLA study reinforces larger questions about why American life has become so hectic.
“It’s not just a middle-class phenomenon,” he said. “Things that happen in society get played out in the family.”
The UCLA study isn’t ranking families from best to worst. Instead, scientists are asking how families are coping.
In a word, barely.
For Ochs, the most worrisome trend is how indifferently people treat each other, especially when they reunite at the day’s end.
With a mouse click, she summons footage from the project’s vast archive. Some of it is hard to watch.
- A man walks into the bedroom after work as his wife folds laundry. There is no kiss, or even a hello. Instead, they resume their breakfast argument virtually in mid-sentence about who left food on the counter to spoil. (He did.)
- An executive mother wears a silk suit and a pained smile as her daughter refuses to meet her gaze. Finally, the embarrassed nanny prompts the girl to speak while buttoning the girl’s pajamas.
- A big bear of a man squeezes into his cramped home office where his son is playing a deafening computer game with two pals. He rubs his son’s head, but the boy doesn’t blink. As the father shuffles out, the son gestures toward the computer and mutters, “I thought you were going to fix this.”
Something's gone awry
Ochs says other human cultures — even other species like wolves — greet each other in elaborate ways that reinforce social bonds.
In her view, the chilly exchanges repeated in so many of the study’s households suggest 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.
He plays for the Junior Kings, an all-star team affiliated with the city’s NHL franchise. He skates on the same ice where pros drill (that is, before the NHL season was canceled) and world champion figure skater Michelle Kwan rehearses triple-jumps.
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. After double-knotting Jake’s skate laces, she slaps his helmet and he waddles out toward the ice.
“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?”
Less unstructured time
Kim’s remark raises a second trend emerging from the UCLA data — little time for dreaming.
Ochs laments 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 fireflies and making up stories.
Similar Sloan-funded studies launched in Italy and Sweden hint that families in those countries stay home more. The American kids spend less time at home and virtually no time in the yard. Play time tends to be organized and supervised by adults.
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, who’s ranked No. 5 nationally in her age group. Academically, she’s near the top of her middle school, too.
“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.
She pauses, bothered by the memory. Nothing bad ever happened, but it could have.
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.”
At hockey practice, Kim is the only parent to sit on the chilly bleachers near the ice. “Our kids are never alone,” she says. “They haven’t even walked down to the Burger King. It’s only a couple of blocks. But this is a big city.”
With all the scheduling and management, family life begins to resemble running a small business. That means requisitioning materials and 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.
For Arnold, who is accustomed to examining bits of bone and pottery, modern households are overwhelming. How much stuff do people own? So much that only two families have room to park their cars in the garage.
Piles of clutter
By Arnold’s rough estimate, the typical American family owns more than most Egyptian pharaohs, who were buried with their treasures for the journey to the afterworld.
Little of today’s clutter would be mistaken for King Tut’s gold. It’s piles of leftovers — clothing draped over old computers that are balancing on boxes of forgotten toys resting on top of old furniture.
The world has never seen consumption on this scale, Arnold says. “And every week we see more stuff arriving. People can’t stop.”
Kim and Gary Zeiss have abandoned decor in favor of a utilitarian scheme that supports their schedule. Practically the only art on the walls is family photographs, as many as 20 per room.
Laundry racks spread into the living room, dripping athletic gear like Spanish moss. Storage shelves line bedroom walls. The family room is a beehive of computer workstations.
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. Originally, they planned to conduct this electronic roll call every 20 or 30 minutes. But they found themselves chasing their subjects from room to room as they orbited one another, hardly pausing.
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. Not once.
Little time alone for parents
For parents, togetherness is even tougher to come by. In only six families did the parents spend more than 10 percent of their waking hours in the same room without a child present.
“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 late.
Gary and Madison don’t return from fencing practice until 10:20 p.m. For the past hour, Jake has been tossing a ball down the hallway and practicing his drums for Tuesday’s music lesson.
Kim spoons chili from the crock pot and serves bowls of salad and mashed sweet potato. The television is off.
Conversation ping-pongs. Upcoming birthday parties. Jury duty. Jake’s favorite rock group, Linkin Park, is signing CDs at Barnes & Noble on Friday. Can he leave school early? Madison has a vocabulary test in the morning.
“Induce,” she recites. “It means to make something happen. Like 'induce labor.”’
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.
Madison reappears in her nightie, still brushing her teeth. “Dad,” she sputters, “I need a good title for my science fair project.”
The table is covered with the day’s remains. Cheese shreds. A hockey schedule. Yo-yo parts.
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.
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