This items comes from the “Meant to Comment on This a Few Days Ago” department…
Last Thursday (2/22/2007), the Wall Street Journal ran an article in its Personal Journal section titled “Dealing With the Dead Zone: Spouses Too Tired to Talk” by Sue Shellenbarger (click here to read — subscription may be required, but I am not sure). It began: “Michael Hickey knows better than to try to start a conversation with his wife when she gets home from work.”
The theme of the article (as is probably obvious to you by now) is that stress at work is causing many adults to come home from a day at the office in a state of mental tension and fatigue that makes them completely uninterested in speaking to their spouses or children until after an extended period of “decompression” time. From the article:
“About 45% of high-earning managers enter a conversational dead zone after a long workday, when they’re too pooped to say anything at all to their spouse or partner, says a December Harvard Business Review study of 975 global managers by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce. Such strains are ‘wreaking havoc’ on family and personal life, the study says.”
The article reminded me of an observation I made on the state of the family some time ago. The “standard” set up of the day — kids go to school, Mom and Dad go to separate jobs — seems almost tailor-made to hurt family bonds. I can recall my own rearing and recognize the effect: this arrangement of things allows and in some cases even encourages everyone in the family to create for themselves lives that are almost totally distinct from those of the others.
Dad has his job. Mom has hers. Young Billy has his life, as does Susie his sister. Friends, experiences, goals, priorities — all are almost mutually exclusive. Lunch is almost never together, breakfast might be, and dinner — if taken advantage of — can be the exception, but isn’t dependably so. And even when everyone is all together for dinner, how often do the family members end up splitting up after the food is gone, back to their own individual worlds?
I used to think, “Well, there’s eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work & school, and eight hours of family time — so half of the waking time is spent together,” but that is a naïve breakdown. Work generally takes up more than eight hours a day, even if including only the extra 30-60 minutes of lunch time and the commute to and from, let alone the plain fact that for many the work day is simply longer than eight hours in America. Is it any wonder that the workplace plays such a key role in many adulterous relationships? Psychologist Dr. Shirley Glass has noted that in her own experience 46% of the unfaithful wives in her practice and 62% of the unfaithful husbands had adulterous affairs with coworkers.
Those figures come from a 2003 Dallas Morning News article (4/30/2003, click here to read) which refers to Dr. Glass’ book, NOT Just Friends. The same article quotes Dr. Glass as saying (emphasis mine),
“What causes both men and women to get involved in workplace affairs is that so much of their energy and the best part of themselves is experienced at work. Then they come home depleted and have to give time to the children.”
Speaking of the children, what of their separate lives? During the five years I taught high school in my pre-actuary & pre-minister days, I routinely saw the evidence of the existence of those separate lives. Some parents often have no idea of the kinds of lives their children live for 60-90% of their waking time — and, regrettably, many parents who are members of this clueless group are completely unaware of their membership. And the “honors” kids were no exception; in fact, at times the “disconnect” there was the greatest (“As long as Billy’s grades are good, things at school must be going well…”). It was always painful when I would call and talk to a parent about his or her child’s behavior and the reaction on the phone indicated that my news was a real wakeup call. More difficult, yet, were the times when the parent was in total and seemingly irreversible disbelief that his or her child could have been capable of the behavior that I described. Even though I was describing behavior that virtually every teacher and every student in the school who had contact with their child was well aware of — behavior observed on a daily basis — the parent had not a clue. The life they imagined that their child lived for nine or ten hours a day was completely different from the life their child really lived.
Between time at school, extracurricular activities, homework assignments, et al. — yes, a child’s life can be almost completely distinct from that of his parents’ these days. Dad, Mom, Billy, Susie — four different people living four virtually unrelated lives in four different, unrelated worlds.
Did God really mean for the family to be so segmented? For our lives to really be that distinct from each other’s? I don’t think so. When God speaks of His commandments and tells Israel through Moses that “[y]ou shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deut. 6:7), He seems to be painting a picture of a family that lives its life together. The lives of its members are intertwined in a healthy way. (Those lives can be intertwined in an unhealthy way, to be sure, but that is a topic for another post!) It is a picture of a family that not only experiences the great ups and downs of life together, but the mundane, everyday moments, as well.
Is that even possible anymore without withdrawing from our modern day society completely? Jesus certainly didn’t advocate isolating our families from the world around us into little communes (cf. John 17:15), yet we are not to be of this world (John 17:14, 15:19) — our priorities are to be different, and we should be striving to produce the sort of fruit that God is looking for, even if the soil of this society does not support it.
So what to do? Well, that will likely vary from family to family. Some parents choose the option of homeschooling their children as part of a solution, as we have. Others choose to keep their children in public (or private) schools, but ensure that they are very involved and that the “school” part of their children’s lives does not grow to such an extent that it overshadows the “family” part — making sure that the “school” part is always subordinate to the “family” part. Our children’s friends should be well known to us — if for any reason because spending time with our children will inevitably mean spending some time with us if we refuse to allow our family to be too segmented. Our children can hopefully be reared in such a way that “family time” and “friend time” do not have to be mutually exclusive all the time — rather, those times should intersect and overlap, and not to an insignificant extent.
Concerning the workplace worlds — well, the day when a boy/girl spent much of their time growing up and working alongside Dad/Mom all day — doing the same things on a smaller, yet increasingly larger scale — is sadly gone to a great extent. It’s hard for you to sit down at a computer every day, for example, crunching numbers on an Excel spreadsheet with your son right there at your side doing exactly the same thing. (“How is your analysis of commodity futures coming along, little Timmy?”) And your boss is unlikely to be really pleased if you decide to spend half of every month working at your spouse’s office, instead, to prevent your worlds from becoming too distinct. Actually, it’s a fact that some companies do not allow you to bring a son or daughter to work even on a national “Take your son/daughter to work” day — cuts down on productivity, you know…
Still, being aware of the potential for division and the creation of separate worlds can motivate us to make differences where we can. For instance, as Dr. Glass mentions in the Dallas Morning News article:
According to Dr. Glass, work-related friendships, or those anywhere else for that matter, can greatly enrich the lives of most couples. What the couples need to do, she says, is establish boundaries for friendships and find ways to keep emotionally connected with each other.
“We need to have some walls in our friendships so that they don’t become overly intimate or personal, and with our romantic relationships, it should be reversed,” she says. “If a friend knows more about what is going on in our marriage than our spouse, it’s a friendship that has gone astray.”
I knew a guy, for example, who refused to take pictures of his family, etc. to place in his office at work, because mentally that helped him remember, “This is not home. I do not live here. This is where I work — the most important part of my life and the most important people in my life are somewhere else.” This tactic (and it is simply a tactic) will not work for everyone. I, for instance, did just the opposite in my little cubicle kingdom, and I had pictures there that reminded me of what I was missing while I was there. I had friends there at work — dear friends, in fact, for whom I cared a great deal and still do (and if some of you are reading this, hello!), but they weren’t my family.
For me, although I couldn’t take my children with me to work together out in the “actuary fields” harvesting asset share calculations and chopping down international mortality tables, I did talk about work when I got home and I brought my children into my life as much as possible. When I brought some work home I put them in my lap at times and showed them what I was doing (admittedly in simple terms: “Well, son, here Daddy is trying to predict how many people in South Korea are going to die in car accidents this year. Doesn’t that sound exciting! Uh, what was that, son? Well, “morbid” is such a big word for such a little guy!…”)
And as for my wife, I put a great deal of effort to make my day a part of her experience as well, and she did the same for me. Without burdening her with the sort of news I knew she would rather not hear, she heard about my trials and tribulations, joys and triumphs, and we did our best to make sure that our lives were not as segmented as they easily could have been. There were times when I think she felt she knew my coworkers almost as well as I did. Did we perfectly succeed? No, we didn’t. But as a friend of mine once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly,” and I do think that we benefited from our persistent effort.
Don’t be fooled: Satan’s plan for our families is to divide and conquer. Yet, as Paul says, “we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor. 2:11) and knowing of your enemy’s plans is one of the crucial first steps to defeating him. What solution will you come up with for preventing “over segmentation” of your family in a society that seems virtually designed to cause us to craft completely separate lives? I don’t know — that will depend greatly on you and your circumstances. But I would like to hear your ideas if you would like to share.