Behind closed doors: The at-home challenges facing middle-class families
It's the place to look for that school raffle ticket you bought, the reminder card for the next doctor's appointment, a photo from your summer vacation and the latest stellar school report from your 9-year-old.
But your refrigerator door reveals much more about your family. The sheer volume of objects clinging to it may indicate how much clutter can be found throughout your home – and that's a strong clue as to how much stress Mum feels when she walks through the door at the end of a day at work.
This is one of the juicy tidbits from Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, a book by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF).
* How five household chores can reduce stress
* "Peak furnishings" is the new name for clutter
* Tips to beat clutter in kids' rooms
CELF sent a team of archaeologists, anthropologists and other social scientists to conduct a systematic study of home life in 32 middle-class, dual-income families in Los Angeles.
The book shows how these families use their time, what they do with the stuff they buy, how much use different parts of their homes get and what aspects of home life cause them stress.
Highlighting seven main points, it presents a troubling picture:
1. MOUNTAINS OF CLUTTER
Managing the sheer volume of possessions - including clothing - proved to be a crushing problem for the families. One family was reduced to collecting dirty laundry in an unused shower.
Mothers who lamented messy rooms or unfinished projects when describing their homes were more likely to have elevated levels of stress hormones.
"Fathers would walk into the same rooms and make no mention whatsoever of the messiness. They were unaffected physiologically," said co-author Jeanne Arnold, a UCLA archaeologist.
"The differences between parents in their comfort level about clutter and its long-term impacts on well-being are pretty astonishing."
2. THE GARAGE IS THE NEW 'JUNK DRAWER'
Only 25 percent of garages could be used to store cars because they were so packed with household overflow. Family members said they were storing their stuff while deciding what to do with it. Plans to recoup the cost of unused items by selling them online or at a garage sale rarely materialised.
3. BUYING IN BULK
Close to half of the families kept a second refrigerator or freezer to accommodate extra food that was purchased 'because it was on sale'. Bulk-buying personal care or home cleaning products added to the crush of clutter.
"Of course it's tempting to 'stock up' if something is on sale, but once those items arrive home they become part of the sea of stuff," said co-author and CELF director Elinor Ochs, an anthropologist.
4. THE TEMPTATION OF TOYS
CELF researchers estimate that each new child in a household leads to a 30 per cent increase in a family's possessions during the preschool years alone. Several multi-child homes had at least 250 toys on view, and most had at least 100. Untold numbers of other toys were tucked away in closets and under beds.
5. STUCK TO THE SOFA
Nearly three-quarters of the parents and about half of the children spent no leisure time in their backyards over the course of the study. They could not manage to carve out time to relax, play, eat, read or swim outside, despite the presence of such pricey features as built-in pools, spas, dining sets and lounges.
Watching television, or engaging with digital devices inside proved the most frequent leisure activity, consuming about 70 per cent of leisure time.
"Families say they feel overscheduled; yet are very sedentary at home. The reality of indoor–outdoor living for many families seems increasingly out of reach," said co-author Jeanne Arnold.
6. FRAGMENTED DINNER TIME
Allowing the evening meal to devolve into independent, individual mini-meals in which family members eat sequentially or in different rooms, was commonplace in two-thirds of the studies households. Just 17 per cent of dinners were consumed with everyone together.
Additionally, most of the families relied heavily on convenience foods like frozen meals and par-baked bread, yet they saved an average of only 10 to 12 minutes per meal in doing so.
7. THE LURE OF THE MASTER SUITE
Upgrading the master bedroom was the single most common remodelling project among the families. At the time of the study, the cost of expanding a master bedroom was a little more than US$80,000. That amount approached or exceeded the combined annual salaries for many of the families.
Often designed to evoke upscale hotels, these private spaces were envisioned as refuges from the hustle and bustle of family life. Yet the suites were rarely used, except for sleeping, the researchers found. Meanwhile, vexing pinch-points in families' daily routines — such as crowded kitchens — were rarely fixed.
Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century "... is the very first study to step inside 21st-century family homes to discover the material surroundings and vast number of possessions that organise and give meaning to the everyday lives of middle-class parents and children," said Elinor Ochs.
"Most of the time, the average person cannot see that which is most deeply familiar," said co-author Anthony P Graesch, an assistant professor of anthropology at Connecticut College. "But when you invite a team of researchers into your home, they will examine your house, your possessions, the ways that you use time."