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The Time Bind

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Would you rather spend your time at home or at the office?

The answer is obvious – or is it? Read Arlie Hochschild's 1997 book "The Time Bind" and you'll discover that Americans are choosing work over home in overwhelming numbers.

Not because they can't get reliable day care. Not because they're afraid of losing a promotion. And not because the company doesn't offer family leave or flex hours or part-time options.

But because they prefer it.

Ms. Hochschild did intimate research at a large, successful company with progressive family-friendly policies and discovered one thing: no one was taking advantage of them.


Imagine going to work in the morning where there is an easy camaraderie between you and your colleagues. You joke around with each other, and if anyone has a problem they know that you will listen. You're working on a project that you find stimulating and when you succeed, you get commended by your boss and your picture in the hall. You leave feeling accomplished, respected and loved.

Then you go home. Your teenagers complain that you never listen to them and pester you for some money. Even though you did laundry yesterday, there's more clothing piled up today and everyone's hungry. When you finally feed your family, some of them grunt "thank you" (if you're lucky) and there's a fresh stack of dirty dishes. Meanwhile your spouse is tired and non-communicative or frustrated and taking it out on you.

Where would you rather be?

It used to be that the home was a haven from the pressures of work, a bulwark against the stresses of making a living and coping in the world. Instead, with both parents working and values unclear, the home can be a melee of confusion, tension and pain. We're more vulnerable at home and more easily wounded. The stakes are higher, the rewards less tangible.

At home there's no definitive job description and it's a 24/7 job with no one else to take a shift.

At work we have a very clear sense of who we are and where we fit in. We know our purpose and goals.

At home we struggle with questions of identity and role, of division of labor and clarity of purpose. There's no definitive job description.

Work has built-in limits. Like a therapy session, when our time is up, we can leave. Child-raising, marriage and caring for aging parents is a 24/7 job – with no limits and frequently no one else to take a shift.

To add to the muddle, many large companies have recently created a value-centered workplace, striving to reflect and teach the goal of creating a more meaningful work environment and a better world. Thus the workplace has usurped one of the primary functions of the family.

It's much easier to be good at work than at home where your spouse sees right through you. How easy it is to put your insecurities on hold as you deal competently with one challenge after another at the office. How much harder on the home front where you wonder how much you are loved. With the lack of community and the sprawl of suburbia, many people are forging their closest friendships in the workplace rather than their neighborhoods.

All the parents regret not spending more time with their children.

All these factors add up to a troubling book with troubling conclusions.

And yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, all parents interviewed said they regret not spending more time with their children.

By shortchanging our home lives, we're shortchanging our society and ourselves, and we're shortchanging our children who are the biggest losers.

Yes, it can be harder at home. It is less structured, less clear, less organized. It is a physical and emotional challenge. Respect is harder to earn and more difficult to sustain. We can't fire a disobedient child. The merger of two souls requires greater personal effort than the merger of two corporations. It is less comfortable; the rewards are less concrete, less immediate.

But how much greater. Most people's tombstones say "Mother of..." "Loving Husband to..." None say: "Owner of..." "Competent Manager of..." "Respected CEO for..."

King Solomon said "if you search for wisdom like you do for money..." then you will succeed. If we channel our drive for money, power and success in equal measure towards our marriages and our children, there's no limit to what we could achieve. If we take all our time management strategies and prioritizing techniques and apply them to our domestic concerns, our homes would run more smoothly.

At home, no one can take our place.

Treat your spouse with the same respect and honor you give your boss. Listen patiently to your children's problems the way you would to a troubled employee. Don't schedule "dinner" meetings -- consider the time already booked.

How many of us are ultimately indispensable at work? At home, no one can take our place.

Here's a suggestion: leave work an hour earlier today. Walk into your home with a smile on your face and dinner in your hand. Give your partner a kiss and your children a hug. Discuss your day with your mate. Read books with your children. Throw a ball and ride bikes.

It's wonderful that we've brought ethics and values, compassion and caring, into the workplace. Now let's bring them back home.

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