Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Deconstructing Family Time: From Ideology to Lived Experience

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Deconstructing Family Time: From Ideology to Lived Experience

Article excerpt

"Family time" is often uncritically accepted as a uniform, coherent concept and a universally desirable goal. In order to fully understand the meaning of family time in experience, interviews were conducted with parents in 17 dual-earner and 11 single-parent families, and 8 observation episodes were done with 4- and 5-year-old children in childcare. What emerged was a dramatic discordance between the expectations and experiences of family time. Although families have held on to an expectation of a positive experience of togetherness, they are typically left with a feeling that there is never enough, that it is in the service of children, and that they are duty-bound by it. There is a structural contradiction between the ideals and experience of family time that is typically expressed through disillusionment and guilt.

Many work-life initiatives are premised on the assumption that employees want to spend more time with their families. This is rooted in a cultural concern about the growing culture of "overwork" (Daly, 1996; Schor, 1991). When family time is assigned the label of scarcity, people appear to be engaged in an endless pursuit of it: Parents complain that they don't have enough of it; politicians leave their positions claiming they will commit more of their lives to it; and companies develop work-life strategies that will help their employees gain access to more of it. Hochschild (1997) gave us pause when she upturned our beliefs about what people were really pursuing in their lives when she reported that a significant portion of her sample were not pursuing refuge by spending time with their families, but rather, by spending time at work where they could feel like their life had some order, companionship, and support. This was an important finding because it shook at the foundational belief that family time is universally aspired to and directed us to examine what it is about family time that may be difficult or stressful. As Barnett (1998) has suggested, the way that we operationalize family time in research may have little to do with the idiosyncratic definitions individuals have in mind when they indicate they would like to spend more time with their families. This research grew out of a set of unanalyzed and problematic assumptions for what family time is: specifically, that there is some kind of uniformity of experience associated with it and that it is equally desirable for all members of the family. It is against this backdrop that I became interested in examining the way that families talk about the meaning of family time.

"DECONSTRUCTING" FAMILY TIME

"Family time" is colored by some of the ideological debates that are carried out with respect to the family itself. In the same way that families of the past have been romanticized and idealized, so too has family time. The hegemonic view of family time reflects the romanticized version of family life through its emphasis on the importance of traditional, two-parent families spending "quality" time together that enhances their collective well-- being. Even when the concession is made that there is a diversity of family structure and experience, family time is still held out as a central ideal. Family time is not only a descriptive term that offers a perspective on some aspect of family togetherness, it is a prescriptive term that directs families to act in certain ways.

To say that time has been insufficiently "problematized" (Davies, 1994), is to argue that one needs to look beneath the surface of everyday assumptions and begin to explore the values and prescriptions that constitute a term like family time. This is a process of "dereifying" family time (Shaw, 1992) in order to examine the "silent languages" and "hidden dimensions" of time that go unnoticed (Gillis, 1996b). Family time does not typically include portrayals of nontraditional families, the negative aspects of family activities or the different meanings and entitlements associated with family time for each family member. …

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