Look after my children? I'd rather work

Parents are going in to the office to escape domestic stress. John Carlin and Vanessa Thorpe report
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The Independent Online
Here's a measure of the way things are. Hallmark USA have introduced a new line of cards aimed at parents who worry they do not spend enough time with their children. The cards contain messages such as "Sorry I can't be there to tuck you in".

Hallmark's marketing people deserve applause. Like the manufacturers of "no-fat chocolate cake", an American supermarket staple, they have had the wit to exploit the commercial possibilities afforded by guilt. What the card manufacturers may have failed to grasp, however, is just how deep the guilt of neglectful parents runs.

For today's parents, and especially mothers, are harbouring a dirty little secret. They convince themselves that they wish they could dedicate more time to the home, instead of spending all hours of the day at the office slaving to pay the bills, when they know in their hearts that they would far rather be at work. For the awful truth is that the pressures of work come as a soothing respite after the stress of running a household.

That, at any rate, is the provocative thesis expounded by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, in her new book, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work.

"Nowadays," she writes, "men and women both may leave unwashed dishes, unresolved quarrels, crying tots, testy teenagers and unresponsive mates behind to arrive at work early and call out, 'Hi, fellas, I'm here!'"

Dr Hochschild makes the point that that there is nothing remarkable about men treating work as a refuge from domestic obligations. "This isn't news," she writes. "The news of this book is that growing numbers of women are leery of spending more time at home as well." Dr Hochschild, who drew her conclusions from interviews with 130 staff members at an unnamed American corporation over a three-year period, cites the example of a 38-year-old woman called Linda who is married with two children.

Typically, Linda arrives home in the evening to a pile of unwashed dishes, a crying two-year-old child, a whining teenage daughter and a husband who complains he never gets any time to talk to her. Work, by contrast, is a haven of ordered, adult tranquillity. "I usually come to work early, just to get away from the house," Linda says. "When I arrive, people are there waiting ... There's laughing, joking, fun."

Linda, who is a manufacturing plant supervisor, seizes every opportunity she can to get in some overtime - and not primarily because she needs the money. "The more I get out of the house, the better I am. It's a terrible thing to say, but that's the way I feel."

The statistics, Dr Hochschild found, support the notion that women go to work to relax. Ten and 11-hour working days were not uncommon at the company she studied and the majority of employees did not use up their full annual holiday time.

A similar pattern is emerging in Britain. Psychologist Oliver James, whose forthcoming book Britain on the Couch will deal with the new trends in family behaviour, says the concept of "quality time" is often used by British parents as a way of avoiding guilt.

"Compared to 1950, we put far greater emphasis on our relationships as the fount of all happiness," he says. "But, ironically, we also break relationships up in an unprecedented way, whether through divorce or by separating ourselves from our families through work."

Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of the British media empire Pearson, has three children. She says bringing up a child is 200 times harder than any job she can think of.

"It is a different role and a role which you care very much more about fulfilling," she says. "Home and work are two different states of mind. The family comes first is our only rule at home. Quality time always implied that you had to read a book or go to a museum, which can bring unnecessary tensions."

The magazine US News noted in a recent issue a list of lies Americans tell themselves. One is: "We both work because we need the money." Affluent couples are as likely as struggling couples to say they work for "the bare necessities".

Another lie is: "It's OK for both of us to work because our child is in good day-care." The truth is that most parents do not look too closely at the day-care centres where they send their children because they are afraid of what they might discover.

A third lie is: "If only companies were more flexible, I'd spend more time with my kids." The fact is, as Dr Hochschild finds in her book, that when companies offer shorter working hours or unpaid holidays only 4 per cent of employees take it up.

The biggest lie of all, according to the Hochschild theory, is that parents say they sacrifice their time for the sake of their families when in truth they are maximising the amount of time they can escape from them.

At one level this smacks of gross neglect and hypocrisy but at another more significant level what it would seem to reveal is the social confusion that reigns in the aftermath of the Women's Lib revolution. The old rules have gone but the new ones have yet to be determined.

Take a national survey by the Pew Research Centre for the People and Press whose findings were released last week. Most women believe a traditional family in which the father works and the mother stays at home is best for raising children, the survey found. Yet three out of four women would prefer to work outside the home, and university-educated mothers who stay at home complain that they feel incompetent and frustrated.

It may be a generation, the Pew researchers concluded, before things settle and a new pattern of guilt-free, conflict-free parental behaviour is established.

Meanwhile, Dr Hochschild proposes nothing less than a total re-evaluation of "a self-perpetuating national way of life" whose chief symptom is an obsession with cramming in more toil than there are hours in the day.

But try telling that to the chief executives of corporate America. The principal reason America is hailed today as the world's economic success story is that its people work productively and hard. Dr Hochschild's book begs a question to which there is no obvious answer. It is the central question of our times, the one politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are battling to resolve: how to strike a balance between the demands of a successful modern economy and a satisfactory quality of life.