Where the Heart Is: Easing the Tension Between Work Life and Family Life

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 Sigmund Freud observed that the two great themes of adult life are love and work. Although reluctant to elevate Freud’s work as a spiritual compass, I think his observations on this point were on target– most adults want to succeed at work and want to be good as a mother or father. Yet, navigating the terrain between these two domains can be the source of a great deal of anxiety.

Sociologists and historians have attributed much of the antagonism between work and family to the time of the industrial revolution. The arrival of the automobile allowed men to travel away from the farm and into the city to find work, thereby separating the economic and domestic functions of the family. The “good father” became associated almost solely with being a provider, while mothers were relegated to homemaking and the educational/moral nurture of children. With each domain being governed by a different sets of norms, values and innate desires; men typically felt driven to gain competence in work, while women hoped for fulfillment in care-giving roles. This separation often led to inequities that in a culture bent on autonomy and individuation eventually generated liberation movements.

(Some theologians trace work-family antagonism much earlier than the industrial revolution. From the consequence of the fall, Adam is at enmity with creation, requiring sweat equity to improve his lot.  Eve suffers a relational longing that will subject her to vulnerability and domination.)

In more recent decades, the boundaries between work and family have again blurred with the increase of momtrepreneurs, single-parent families, egalitarian ideologies, technology that permits working from home, and allowances for such things as flextime, paternity leave, and career customization. Yet, some studies estimate that 80% of those living in America still report experiencing conflict between work and family. So, here are some suggestions, prompted by my reading of Working Fathers, New Strategies for Balancing Work and Families by James Levine and Todd Pittinsky that I think can help:

First, a Christian vision of holiness can bring a cohesive wholeness to identity that overcomes the compartmentalization of life into competing spheres.

Often we embrace our work or ministry with the urgency of calling and resent our spouse or child when they encroach on the “important business we need to tend to.” However, if the ultimate pursuit of life is to be made holy, there is no better curriculum to produce it than the role of spouse or parent. Where better can one learn self-denial for the sake of another, practice what it means to be a servant, or grow the fruit of the spirit than in response to the daily insistence inherent in being family? When we regard both work and family as replete with opportunities for spiritual formation, then one domain begins instead to contribute to the other. Consider this – all of the really critical stuff that it takes to be a good leader or effective manager bears direct correlation to being a good mother or father: tending to emotional contexts with a non-anxious presence, communicating clearly, developing social intelligence, understanding needs and vulnerabilities at different stages of life, multi-tasking, collaboration, setting limits, getting rest, are all learned in the family.  No wonder Paul links the ability to manage one’s family in a way that garners respect as a prerequisite for becoming an overseer (I Timothy 3).

Second, quality and quantity is as important in family time as it is in ordering turtle cheesecake.

However, most of us live without many margins, so instead of trying to add more activity, the task may be to develop rituals that allow becoming more present to each other. Ritual, (used here to simply mean the “we always” things a family does together), allows synchronized ways to enter each other’s world. Without ritual, parents often try to connect with kids in the moments that work into the flow of their world with little respect for a child’s flow of life, and “forced entry” almost always ends badly.

Third, use technology judiciously to bridge the work/family gap.

Send pictures and texts while traveling to give access to your world, record yourself reading a bed time story to play while away, or learn from a spouse what to ask a child about when they Skype so the conversation can be more than the typical stifling exchange – “how was your day?” – “good.”

Finally, next time your child sheepishly brings you their report card, flip the relationship.

Ask them to grade how you’re doing in such things as: understanding their emotions, showing interest in their world, communicating how much they are loved and the extent to which family conveys a sense of them being worthwhile to the world. If they respond “you should be grounded,” there may be wisdom in their response.

 

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Chris Kiesling has served as professor of Human Development and Christian Discipleship at Asbury Theological Seminary since 1998. He is the co-author,with David Setran, of "Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood," and also a contributor to "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?"

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