(FORTUNE Magazine) – Set aside the talk of family values for a minute, and let's be frank. How valuable are families, really? Once upon a time, a family was a corporate prerequisite. A man (there were hardly enough corporate women to count) wasn't in the right circles if he didn't have a wife and three kids. He couldn't get onto the right boards or into the right clubs. No children? What a shame. And a wife was so important that she was often under scrutiny on her husband's route up the ladder. Families mattered. Not to have one was considered strange. Un-American.

Today, in the corridors of business as elsewhere, families are getting more lip service than ever. Being on the right side of work and family issues--having the proper programs, letting Mom or Dad slip out to watch a T-ball game--is very PC. But corporate America harbors a dirty secret. People in human resources know it. So do a lot of CEOs, although they don't dare discuss it. Families are no longer a big plus for a corporation; they are a big problem. An albatross. More and more, the business world seems to regard children not as the future generation of workers but as luxuries you're entitled to after you've won your stripes. It's fine to have the kids' pictures on your desk--just don't let them cut into your billable hours.

In the 1980s there was the career-killing Mommy Track. In the 1990s there's the Parent Track, and it's a killer too. Several studies indicate that well-educated men with working wives are paid and promoted less than men with stay-at-home wives, possibly because they can't clock as much face time (see table). In a 1995 survey at Eli Lilly & Co., just 36% of workers said it was possible to get ahead and still devote sufficient time to their families--and Lilly has a reputation as one of the most family- friendly companies. Corporate manuals would do well to carry a warning: Ambitious beware. If you want to have children, proceed at your own risk. You must be very talented, or on very solid ground, to overcome the damage a family can do to your career.

And vice versa. Your career, in fact, may be doing even more damage to your family. The casualties are high and rising in Morningside, a quiet, leafy Atlanta neighborhood just down the road from where I live. Morningside is full of prim Tudor houses, crisscrossed by sidewalks, anchored by parks, dotted with playgrounds. It looks like the storybook family neighborhood--and it probably is about as storybook as it gets. But here, behind the family-friendly trappings, elementary school teachers debate whether they should quit assigning homework because working moms and dads are too tired or busy--or both--to handle it. Here families are smaller as parents decide they can't afford or cope with--or both--more children. Here husbands try to reconcile their own ambitions with the post-traditionalist expectations of wives who may be working even harder than they are. And both spouses wonder: Will the company write them off if they do what it takes to keep their families intact?

"We are making it less likely for people to have families," says Rosalind C. Barnett, a research psychologist and author of She Works/He Works. "It is just too punitive. There is no formal child care. There is no institutional support. It is hugely expensive." Whether business may be inadvertently penalizing families "is really the question of the 1990s," says Linda K. Stroh, associate professor of organizational development at Chicago's Loyola University.

Corporations, of course, have always demanded single-mindedness from employees. Ambitious men have historically been required to work long hours, miss dinners, and forgo time with their kids to get ahead. The reason the right wife was once so important to a man's career was that she provided the stay-at-home support that allowed him to concentrate on work. But the women's movement and powerful economic forces ended all that. As incomes began to stagnate in the early 1970s, it has taken a second earner to keep the standard of living of even the most affluent households from falling behind. Now, in 84% of married couples, both the husband and wife work. And in an interesting turn of events, the ultimate male status symbol is not a fancy car or a fancy second home or a wife with a fancy career. You've really made it, buddy, if you can afford a wife who doesn't work. She may be a drag on earnings, but she provides a rare modern luxury: peace on the home front.

The modes and rhythms of the 24-hour global company have only heightened the conflict between corporate values and family values. In a world built on just-in-time, the ideal employee is the one who's always available, not the one who's constantly torn. In a world that's a village, the corporate hero is the one free to fly to Singapore on a moment's notice, not the poor schlep who has to get home to relieve the nanny. In the wired world of ubiquitous communication, where work has become an insatiable maw devouring every waking hour--and many sleeping ones too--the model worker is the one who can best feed the beast.

The demands of this new economy wreak havoc on family routines that are the bulwark of childhood. One parent--or both--may vanish for days with little warning, because travel has become a critical component of even mundane jobs. The family dinner has disappeared in many homes as parents work long past the time little tummies start to growl; bedtime slippage follows to give Mom and Dad time--which may or may not be "quality time"--with the kids. The long, unpredictable hours lead to kaleidoscopic child care arrangements. Many households have not one but several babysitters; parents need a flow chart to keep it all straight.

Never mind the debate over day care. Today's parents are even more worried about how kids will be affected by the stress and crammed-to-bursting schedules in their own house. A recent report by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development found that kids spend significantly less time in the company of adults than a few decades ago. About one-third of all adolescents have contemplated suicide; half are at moderate or high risk of abusing drugs, failing in school, getting pregnant, or otherwise seriously damaging their lives. While the risks are exacerbated by poverty, "in survey after survey, young adolescents from all ethnic and economic backgrounds lament their lack of parental attention and guidance," the report found.

Kids are highly stressed," agrees Carrell Dammann, a psychologist who has practiced in Atlanta for 25 years and whose patients come mostly from corporate and professional families. "If parents don't give them enough time, don't set norms and limits, adolescents turn to drugs and alcohol to fill the emptiness." As for younger children, Dammann wonders how they are affected by parents whose unpredictable movements necessitate staying in touch with the kids by beeper. "The one thing that's essential in early childhood is a sense of security. Children who don't have it are going to be anxious."

Companies are trying to help. To their credit, many offer flexible schedules, job sharing, and personal leaves. Some have gone the extra mile to establish on-site day care; others provide personal valet services to buy groceries, birthday presents--even plan the birthday party. While all that relieves some symptoms of the work and family dilemma, it doesn't alleviate the structural problems: the hierarchical and often unforgiving way in which work is organized; the pace of the managerial career path, which requires the highest investment of time just when child rearing is most intense; the emphasis on face time as a measure of dedication and commitment.

"Historically we looked at whose cars were in the parking lot at 7 P.M., and we made the assumption that they belonged to corporate heroes hard at work," says Randall Tobias, the CEO of Eli Lilly. "In truth, some of those people were probably poorly organized or spending time on the wrong things. We have to get more focus off measuring activity and onto measuring results--not the number of hours put in but what gets produced." As for the struggle of working families, says Tobias, who has begun to advocate out-of-the-box thinking on the subject, "I'm not sure a lot of corporate America understands."

Morningside is a microcosm of the dramatically altered world of work and family. Like America itself, it began as an agrarian community. In the 1920s, when businesses became more industrial, it became one of Atlanta's first suburbs; fathers left for jobs in the city while mothers stayed home. As Atlanta grew and its demographics changed, Morningside turned into an eclectic in-town neighborhood with all kinds of families: traditional, gay, childless, dual career. Now, as in so many places across the land, moms and dads leave here each morning headed not just for the nearby headquarters of BellSouth, Coca-Cola, and Georgia-Pacific, but for Richmond, Chicago, Hong Kong.

Houses in Morningside typically cost $250,000 and range up to $450,000. It's an expensive place to live by Atlanta standards, but not one of the showiest. People aren't here to impress. Instead they are paying for what families used to have: community. Neighbors serve as extended family; schools are within walking distance; commutes are blessedly short.

Morningside is a good place to study the odd mismatch between today's well-trained women and the traditional infrastructure that still undergirds work. Over on Wildwood Road live Karen Sukin, 32, and Brad Slutsky, 33, once the bright young stars of the Atlanta law scene. They met in college at Brown University. Her grades were slightly higher than his, but he scored in the 99.6th percentile on the LSAT, a tenth of a percentage point ahead of her. Both were hotshots during their summer internships at Kilpatrick & Cody. Brad eventually went to work for the silk-stocking firm of King & Spalding, while Karen chose its major competitor, Alston & Bird. Since then their work paths have veered in very different directions.

Soon after joining Alston & Bird, Karen got some advice: If she wanted a family, she should wait until after making partner. It was kindly advice and probably politically sound. But it didn't make sense to her. She had grown up in Billings, Montana, with three siblings, and family was important to her. She didn't want to be too old when she had her children; she didn't want to take the risk she might not get pregnant. "It takes a lot of energy to have kids," she says, sitting in the living room of her two-story brick house, sparsely furnished in Little Tikes. "I didn't want to be having babies in my 40s."

Biologically her argument was sound. But it held no weight in the world of law. When Isaac was born almost five years ago, Karen was counseled to come back full-time and slip home early if she needed to. She tried but felt guilty. So she scaled back to a part-time 40-hour week, which enabled her to get home for dinner. When Lauren was born a year and a half later, that was barely acceptable, and then only on the grounds that it seemed wise to get her childbearing out of the way as efficiently as possible. When she became pregnant with Sarah, who was born a year ago, people were politely incredulous: "You could see it in their faces," recalls Karen. "The reaction was, 'But you have enough already. You have a boy and a girl, and that's all you're entitled to.' "

Somewhere Karen fell off the partnership track. At the end of last summer she stopped working altogether. "Commitment is the big word at law firms," she says. "Commitment is what makes you a partner. That means working long hours, as well as spending your evenings and all your other available time building your career. I just can't do that now." But she misses work and told the firm she hopes to return in a few years.

While Karen has dropped out, her husband has worked 60 to 80 hours a week since joining King & Spalding seven years ago. Brad, who made partner last year, rarely gets home for dinner, and he works many weekends. Summer before last, he went five months without a day off. He spends free nights on outside activities that might help build his practice. He sees his children in the morning before getting to the office at 9. "I miss a lot," he says wistfully. He moved to Morningside, which is ten minutes from his office, to cut down on commuting time and to be able to slip home to see his children at lunch. But most days he eats lunch at his desk.

Brad feels pressure from peers and clients. "You always have to be available for a client," he says. "I think about who I would want handling a serious problem for me. I would want someone devoted to the problem--not someone working on it when it's convenient." With Karen off the track, Brad feels more pressure too, to support and educate his children. And of course he feels guilty--about not seeing his kids, about Karen not working. "She's an extremely intelligent person," says Brad. "She's a great lawyer. You wish there were a setup where what she is doing is more acceptable."

Lawyers have always worked hard. But, says Karen, "I don't think partners today worked nearly as much when they were younger as we do now. Nor were there the same expectations. There's no way a generation ago that men were expected to devote all their waking hours to work. Brad and I talk about it a lot. We think it's because we're at the bottom of the baby-boom generation. We're fungible."

It's true that this generation has provided corporate America with an army of workers, an unprecedented number of them unencumbered. Young people are delaying marriage and children with a vengeance. One-third of women and one-half of men ages 25 to 29 have never married--an all-time high. The percentage of childless women has risen from 10% of 40- to 45-year-olds in 1976 to 17.5% in 1994, another all-time high. Some of this childlessness is due to infertility, but a lot is due to choice: opting out of the complications and expense. Birthrates, which have rebounded slightly to about two per woman after falling to a low of 1.8 a decade ago, are buoyed largely by immigrant groups.

The commitment of today's workers dovetails nicely with the voracious appetites of business. At global Coca-Cola, fast-track employees had better be prepared to move around. At BellSouth, even departments like customer service and computer support work round-the-clock. "People tell me that if they're working less than 50 hours a week, they aren't carrying their load," says Elaine Rubin, a therapist who grew up near Morningside and now directs the employee assistance program for BellSouth. Rubin says she sees far fewer cases of drug and alcohol abuse that such programs were designed to handle, and many more cases of work and family stress. Says Rubin: "I keep hearing that employees are being asked to work smarter, work harder. Their supervisors keep thinking it is an issue of time management."

No one is better at managing time than working couples with children. But only the most deluded would describe themselves as both standout managers and adequate parents. (Can anyone be a standout parent?) Nancy Nicholl-Hasson and Marty Hasson live on Cumberland Road in Morningside. Nancy, 32, is a project manager in the chemical division of Georgia-Pacific. Marty, 40, is a sales rep for Ribelin Sales, a Dallas-based distributor of chemical products. Both their jobs require travel. Both struggle constantly to avoid shortchanging either their employers or their daughter Claire, 2. (They expect another baby in June.)

To that end, they have developed some complex rules. Explains Nancy: "An overall premise of our relationship is that neither of our careers is dominant; both are valuable and have a major impact for our family." Each spouse must give the other as much notice as possible of a trip. If trips conflict, says Nancy, "we have to assess which one is more important." If one spouse forgets to notify the other, he or she has to cancel the trip. "I think we have done a great job of being fair to each other," says Nancy.

Marty has a different take, one that is typical of life in two-career households everywhere: "There is always a wall of defense, an attack of offense. I say: 'I'm going out of town.' She says: 'I'm going out of town and coming back the same day. Think how stressful that is.' I say: 'Well, I've got an early morning meeting.'" Often they coordinate travel schedules five to eight weeks out. Sometimes they get competitive: "I had that day before you did," one of them will say.

"If I come home late," Marty continues, "Nancy says, 'Pick up,' and rightly so. She's dead tired. And she's had Claire all evening. But maybe I've just had three days of insanity, so I say, 'You want me to do what?' What generally results is an argument. Most of the time you attribute it to two tired people who love each other but who don't have enough time together."

For all its politically correct talk, the corporate world seems strangely impervious to the pressures on working families. "People have always had to make choices about balancing work and family," says John Clendenin, chairman of BellSouth. "It has always been a personal issue, and individuals have to solve it." Trouble is, the solution has gotten much harder. In the past two decades the growth in personal incomes has slowed, and in some cases declined. Incomes of even the wealthiest men have increased by only 16.7% since 1975. At the same time, the big-ticket expenses of family life--a house, a car, a college education--have soared (see chart).

The median income of families rose only 6.7% in real terms between 1979 and 1994, even though women more than doubled their time in the work force, according to a 1995 survey by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth. "For families to maintain their standard of living, it has been essential for women to get in the labor market and stay there longer," says Katherine S. Newman, a professor of public policy at Harvard. "This is not pin money. It is not fulfillment of stated ambitions. This is driving economic necessity."

Well, yes and no. The second income often lets families splurge on luxuries--an expensive car, an exotic vacation, private school for the kids. But in most cases it is not a question of to have or not to have a BMW. With women contributing a large chunk of the income in the most affluent families, subtracting their paychecks would require not just giving up luxuries but making the decision to be downwardly mobile.

As economic realities have changed, so has the nature of work. Forget 9 to 5. Forget weekends. At companies that try to accomplish more, in less time, with fewer people, work becomes all consuming. More than 2,000 FORTUNE readers surveyed in 1995 said they spent, on average, 57 hours a week working and commuting.

Working parents often fret about the career consequences of being a conscientious parent or a diligent enough partner to keep a marriage on track. How and when, they wonder, will they have to pay a price for leaving the office in time to get home for dinner? Vince Luciani and his wife, Dana, live with 22-month-old Gabriel in a pretty brick house at the eastern end of Morningside--a labor of love Vince has been renovating brick by brick with his father-in-law. Dana, 33, a senior vice president and in-house consultant for NationsBank, left a killer job at Andersen Consulting because of its less family-friendly environment. Vince, 34, is the assistant manager of audio engineering at a Panasonic plant that makes car radios. Next month he will begin a new job as president of Smart Devices Inc., which makes movie theater audio equipment.

In both the old job and the new, Vince has weighed whether his strong commitment to family might put him on the Daddy Track. Since Gabriel's birth, he has tried to leave work by 5:30 or 6 P.M., at least an hour earlier than normal in his department, to make the hourlong commute home to see his son before bedtime. To compensate, Vince arrives early, skips lunch, and doesn't take any of the smoking breaks common at the plant. "I've tried to position myself to have a life," says Vince. "You work in order to have a family. Work is important, but family is important too." He explained this to his boss, who seemed to understand, despite the reputation that Japanese executives have of being even less family-friendly than their American counterparts. But, says Vince, "I worried a lot. I didn't know what the long-term consequences would be."

He still doesn't. Although his new job is only a 20-minute commute, enabling him to work a longer day, he is being groomed to run the business, and he'll be working for a man who puts in long hours. Once again, Vince confronted the issue directly, telling his new boss that he wants to help raise his son. "I didn't want to set the expectation that I would be at the office till 11 P.M.," says Vince. "He says he understands. Time will tell."

Working parents often find they must make compromises that change their career aspirations, their family expectations--or both. Bert Hogeman, 40, is a lawyer at BellSouth, the kind of dedicated corporate soldier who takes a portable fax to the beach. Until a year and a half ago he was general counsel for BellSouth's international operations, spending as much as two weeks of every month overseas. Sometimes he would leave for the office in the morning to discover he'd be heading overseas that afternoon. "It was all very exciting," says Bert, whose wife, Lori, is a clinical social worker at Hillside, an adolescent treatment hospital in Morningside.

But it was hell on Lori and Kaitlin, nearly 8. "Lori never issued an ultimatum," says Bert. "But there was chronic complaining and unhappiness." Says Lori, 39: "I would say, 'Just be a garbage collector. Just stay home.' I was angry at BellSouth for saying, 'You go now; you don't have a choice.' " Kaitlin would ask her mother why Daddy didn't say goodbye. Once, when a friend asked what her father did, Kaitlin responded: "Well, he works in an airplane." Increasingly Bert felt left out of the family. "I went to Kaitlin's school one day, and I overheard one of her friends say, 'Kaitlin, I didn't think you had a daddy,' which made me feel like a worthless individual. Lori would function very well without me, and I didn't like it. Not that I wanted them to be missing me all the time. But I wanted to feel that I was necessary."

Because of all the traveling, Bert and Lori came to a critical decision: They wouldn't have more children. It had taken a long time and numerous infertility treatments to conceive Kaitlin. At some point, Lori says, "it got to be too late. We didn't want to go through it all again." She worried, too, about her ability to devote enough time to a second child. "I said to Bert, 'I'm 38 years old, and you're not home half the time. I'm raising this child--I'd be raising two children--alone. I can't imagine what it would be like.'" At the hospital where she works, Lori is confronted daily with a basic truth about children: Whether they come from $300,000-a-year households or welfare households, they need time and attention.

In the fall of 1995, Bert became the legislative and regulatory counsel for BellSouth's U.S. business. The new job eased his family pressures and at the same time enhanced his career. But, says Bert, "this hasn't been without a cost. I really wanted--and still want--a larger family. We made a decision, reluctantly on my part, not to have another child. To me that's almost an incalculable price to pay. It makes me aggravated and sad at times. We have a great child, and if we can only have one, she's the best one to have. But I wanted to have a little boy. If we don't have a boy to carry on the Hogeman name, it comes to an end. I really wanted to have a son."

The people who teach in Morningside's classrooms and preach from its pulpits, the educators and ministers who try to maintain the traditional rhythms of neighborhood institutions, are distressed by what they see. At Morningside Elementary School, Beth Burney often has a hard time getting her fifth-graders to do homework. "Their parents are so busy working," she says. "By the time they get home, have dinner, and clean up, it's so late that there's no time for homework." It's not that Burney can't relate. She has two children, and after a day of teaching, she has barely enough energy for a Monopoly game.

One parent recently told Burney it wasn't right to assign homework when families have so little time together. Such remarks have prompted soul-searching among Morningside teachers. Is it appropriate? If not, should the school day be extended? On the one hand, homework is an important way to teach children responsibility. On the other, says Burney, "when I was a child, homework would take up only a small part of my free time. I got home from school at 2:30. Now kids don't get home until dinner. They have no time to play." Burney worries about 10-year-old kids whose schedules seem every bit as full as their parents': "Some of them need little datebooks." Burney says her students seem needier than those in years past. And they are more easily distracted, more often fatigued. "Just as adults get scattered, children get scattered," she says.

Over at Morningside Presbyterian Church, pastor Coile Estes worries too. Her beautiful brick church, shaded by magnolias, is within walking distance of most of the neighborhood. But increasingly she says there is no such thing as sanctuary in her parishioners' lives. Between jobs and families, they have little time for church and less for reflection. Wednesday nights have traditionally been church night, especially in the South. "But it just doesn't work here," says Estes. Even on Sundays she sees the encroachment of T-ball practice and birthday parties, as families squeeze in on weekends what they have no time for during the week. "A lot of employers don't appreciate a balanced life," says Estes. "I hear that from my people all the time." Preacher that she is, Estes calls up a lesson from the Bible. "Even Jesus had to pull away from his preaching and performing of miracles to rest and relax, to have some private time and prayer."

Parents who have spent their prime years torn between career and kids say that ultimately something has to give. For many it will be the work. Employees committed to more family time will switch jobs, redefine their career paths, become free agents in the workplace. Down the road, there is hope in trends beginning to play out in corporate America: Technology, now so often an enemy of family time, may eventually become its savior, not only by enabling employees to do more work from home but also by eliminating some offices altogether and permanently altering the way business gets done. "I do think we are at a turning point," says Ellen Gabriel, a partner at Deloitte Touche who is leading a companywide effort to retain and advance women. "Work has to change for parents to raise healthy kids and to be healthy, contributing employees."

On some level corporate America must know this. Because even if it doesn't much care about families, it surely cares about a brain drain. Companies that don't do more to let parents be parents will begin to lose them. People who want children will find a better way.

REPORTER ASSOCIATES Sheree R. Curry, Melanie Warner