Working parents in America are trapped in impossible dreams of being an Ideal Worker, a Perfect Parent, and an Ultimate Body. Telling the stories of nine families in Southern California, tied together by their connection to a single company, we examine why everyday life feels so hectic and unrelenting. Impossible expectations for working, parenting, and living are amplified unlike ever before by smart devices. We reveal that rather than individuals succeeding because they have a phone in hand, beneath the veneer of technology is a complex, hidden system of support—people's dreams are being scaffolded by retired in-laws, friendly neighbors, spouses, and paid help.
The Ideal Worker gets in early and stays late, spends nights in front of the computer answering work-related emails, and—in prioritizing work above all else—happily jumps on a plane for a last-minute work trip. The Ideal Worker is available to work at all times and directs people to support organizational priorities, despite social and individual costs. These expectations reward overwork and constant connectivity, and they penalize those with home responsibilities (often women). Despite the impossibility of ever achieving Ideal Worker status, intense loyalty to the firm and to colleagues as "family" further drives attachment to the myth and pride in professional accomplishments.
The Perfect Parent spends intensive "quality time" with children: having family dinner and showing up to recitals and sporting events. He or she takes children to numerous extracurricular activities and actively monitors homework and "screen time." The fact that it is not possible to manage all of this simultaneously (for example, family dinner cannot happen when multiple children are in multiple enrichment activities) means that parents constantly feel as if they are falling short. Yet in prioritizing family above all else, the Perfect Parent myth keeps a parent (generally a woman) in the home. The gendered expectations for parenting mean that men and women serving as the default caregiver do so within a societal frame that devalues caregiving.
The Ultimate Body regularly and consistently exercises, tracking achievements and pushing fitness to higher and higher levels; he or she eats well and keeps up on the latest trends in food, prioritizing the body with time and attention. Despite its importance for health, sleep is often what is traded for a chance to get in some exercise. The Ultimate Body myth encourages people to take ownership of their bodies as a project of self-fashioning, without respect for biological constraints: in effect placing the burden for health and wellness on individuals. Changing messages about what is healthy, combined with the other myths taking priority, means that being the Ultimate Body is perpetually out of reach for most.
Technologies such as smartphones help people do more and be more flexible. Working can be done remotely, while excellence is still maintained; parenting can be done constantly, ensuring a child is never left unsupported; fitness can be measured, quantified, and shared. But in increasing the ease with which people pursue their dreams, technology has also made true perfection even more obviously out of reach. Even while people accomplish more with their devices, their worlds collide with more frequency as well, creating more moments when people try but fail in their simultaneous efforts to work, parent, and live.
As people send work emails from home, coordinate with babysitters at the last minute, keep kids on a digital leash, and track and share their latest fitness feat—expectations of what is possible shift. Information and communication technologies have blown open the shared capacity for connection, coordination, and surveillance. Mobile technologies tighten the strings of connection between people by requiring increased responsiveness and accessibility. In other words, people have used these technologies to intensify what it means to be an Ideal Worker, a Perfect Parent, or an Ultimate Body. Rather than serving as an individual tool, these devices actually act as a source of connection, tying people to and enabling them to rely on others in more and deeper ways.
Society valorizes the performance of the myths—availability to work, active engagement with children, healthy eating and regular exercise—but the myths are silent on what it takes behind the scenes to make those idealized behaviors possible. Every household has invisible work that needs to be done. Immense amounts of Physical Work, Mental Work, Coordinating Work and Emotional Work take the time and energy of someone. Such work is rarely valued and often unrecognized. But this is the invisible work behind people's efforts to work, parent, and live.
Families cultivate and rely on a number of different structures of scaffolding to do the invisible work of the household. Each structure helps people get through the day in a manner generally aligned with the myths of perfection: food purchased, meals cooked, houses cleaned, kids cared for, spreadsheets filled out, colleagues responded to, and maybe some exercise. Families solve the demands of invisible work differently, but striving for the myths of perfection requires help. People need others to scaffold their efforts to live their dreams. Single working parents are on the hook for finding their own scaffolding; stay-at-home parents provide scaffolding for their working partners; couples with two careers find a way to develop and maintain a lattice of scaffolding in order to work, parent, and live as best they can. Our dreams are being scaffolded by retired in-laws, friendly neighbors, spouses, and paid help.
By making scaffolding visible and valued, and rethinking how scaffolding fits into daily life, people can begin to take action to help themselves, and others, live their dreams. U.S. culture needs to value caregiving and domestic work and see it as real work. People can re-envision their workplaces and families, build new forms of community, and support redesigning the infrastructure that they rely on to get through the day. We outline a series of actions on how and where to begin.
We outline steps that you can take, as individuals, families, community members, employees, and citizens, to make striving for your dreams more manageable. Ask less of yourselves but more of your devices, families, organizations, and politicians.