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The facts on America's families

Did anyone anywhere react to the sad death of baby Matthew Eappen at the hands of his au pair by crying, "Good grief, with that father off at work all day, no wonder this happened"?

If they did, I missed it. Instead, people calling themselves defenders of "family values" deluged call-in shows to say that Matthew's mom, who was reckless enough to be a part-time ophthalmologist, "got what she deserved."

Unfortunately, the notion that giving eye exams three days a week merits the sacrifice of your second-born pretty well captures the quality of debate these days about work and family. Wouldn't it be nice if the national nerve touched by this tragedy prompted some honest talk rather than an orgy of blame?

If we stopped to acknowledge some facts, we might finally agree that there are as many "right" ways to strike the balance between work and family as there are families, and that, obvious abuses aside, none of us has the right to judge another family's choices.

Take, for starters, this whole presumption that the kids are basically Mom's responsibility. The fact today is that in 31 percent of two-earner couples (mine included), the woman earns more than the man. Yet in only a handful of these families does the man look after the kids.

To listen to the press and the ideologues, you would think that women have abandoned kids to substitute moms altogether. Yet the most underreported fact of modern family life is this: For all the increase in women's education and career horizons, and the jump in those with young kids who do (and often must) work, two-thirds of married women with school-age kids still do not work full time.

In other words, things are not as horrific as right-wing zealots would have us believe. Nor is there anything like the more equal sharing of child-rearing duties that feminists champion. Male irresponsibility (and corporate inflexibility) leaves ambitious women an awful choice: Take the "mommy track" at work, or take the big job and do what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the "second shift" at home anyway.

But not all of today's myths point to the need for greater solicitude for working couples. Indeed, the biggest myth of all may be that both parents "need," financially, to work.

Working women naturally suspect those who raise this question of having ulterior motives. And for the lowest-earning third to half of the labor force, there's little question that stagnating wages since the 1970s have forced both parents to work to stay afloat.

But evidence suggests that both parents in middle- and upper-middle-income families are working simply because they want to or because they've defined "necessity" upward.

Surveys show, for example, that people with high incomes are just as likely to say they work for "basic necessities" as are those at the edge of poverty. And where a generation ago most Americans said that simple things constituted "the good life" _ a happy marriage, a home with a lawn, college for the kids _ the consumption ante has gone way up.

Yet if it's easy to see why most couples find two incomes desirable, the fact remains that one-quarter of married couples with school-age kids _ nearly 7-million families _ choose to have one parent stay home. And it's not just the rich. These families sacrifice: Median income for two-earner families was about $56,000 in 1995, up 27 percent in real terms since 1970, as opposed to $32,000 for old-fashioned single-breadwinner homes (down 3 percent). It isn't easy, but these folks make it work. And thus offer proof that couples have more options than they think.

The bottom line? If we face facts, skip the judgments and own up to the complexity of family choices today, we'll make progress. If we use every tragic episode like Matthew Eappen's to vent old biases, we're sunk.

Matthew Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Los Angeles. His e-mail address is mattinoibm.net.

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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