What America asks of working parents is impossible

Three core myths animate much of American life, according to Beckman and Mazmanian, professors at the University of Southern California and UC Irvine, respectively. The first myth, they explain in their recent book, Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working and Parenting in the Digital Age, is that of the “ideal worker,” who “has no competing obligations that might get in the way of total devotion to the workplace.” The second is that of the “perfect parent,” who “always puts family first.” And the third is that of the “ultimate body,” which is cultivated through diligent dieting and exercise, and doesn’t deteriorate with age. “Achieving even one of these myths would be impossible,” Mazmanian told me in an interview, “but achieving all three is ludicrous.”

And yet that’s what many of the working parents featured in Beckman and Mazmanian’s book strive for anyway. The two researchers, with help from a graduate student, observed the daily lives of nine middle- to upper-income families in Southern California over the course of several weeks, noting how smartphones, tablets, and laptops both connected people and drained their time and energy. Mazmanian and Beckman conclude that the always-on nature of today’s communication technologies doesn’t just make work more demanding—a familiar critique by now—but also adds a layer of stress to family life and makes Americans’ deepest aspirations ever more difficult to realize.