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‘Quality time’ is notion rooted in perfectionism


I have to laugh at the debate about "quality time." If I don't, I'll cry. The New York Times and Newsweek magazine have recently given ink to this hot potato. Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochshild writes in the Times Magazine for April 20 of her discovery that many parents -- indeed many mothers -- at one large company she researched show a striking preference for being at work rather than at home. In perhaps overly simple terms, this preference is based on the gratification afforded by the workplace -- its easy camaraderie, its measurable standards of success, its tangible recognition of work well done -- versus the opposite status of parenting and household work. At home "recognition" may mean that after the fourth time you've asked your child to help set the table, you actually get a response, such as, "It's not my turn."

Over the last six and a half years that I've been a parent, I have made a choice to spend most of my time at home with my kids. (Yes, I have the "luxury" of doing so, as I have a reliable source of income in my spouse's salary and the rental income from the other half of our duplex.) Yet over the years, I have worked part-time on and off to make ends meet. Currently I work outside the home one day a week. I write when I can -- late nights, nap time and once in a while early in the morning.

Occasionally in conversation someone will say, "You work one day a week, right?" I often joke, "No, I actually have one day off." I understand how people -- mothers -- can find outside work more rewarding than the work of keeping a house and caring for children. I realize that many parents do work out of financial necessity and would spend more time with their families if given the choice. Many others, skilled at both their careers and their parenting responsibilities, strategize to maintain a delicate balance between the two worlds, taking advantage of workplace options to use flextime or work part-time and otherwise carve out a personal life.

But according to the research, many others supplant this balance of actually being there with the idea of "quality time" defined in the Times article as the "premise ... that the time we devote to the relationships can somehow be separated from ordinary time." In other words, we can accomplish the same level of connection, of relationship-building, in less time if the time we do spend is sufficiently concentrated.

It strikes me that this whole notion is at least partly a sociological manifestation of a communal, yet also very personal sin -- the temptation to perfectionism. It is immoral to delude ourselves into thinking we can do everything and do it all well. It is entirely possible to over-program our lives and place work, social events, recreation and volunteer activities, even "passivities" like television, before our relationships with the people we care about. I find it disturbing that, despite our cries of time stress, we Americans, according to research reported in the May 12 issue of Newsweek, actually have more leisure time now than at any time during the past 30 years. And we spend more of it -- an average of 15 hours a week -- watching television.

It is no wonder so many of us feel exhausted and overburdened. We do not give ourselves sacred space to recreate, to reconnect with friends and family, to honor our very own core. And sometimes creating that space has more to do with an attitude than with rearranging events. As John Lennon sang on a post-Beatles recording: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Here's one way I spend quality time with my kids. When I change my baby's diaper, I do more than maintain adequate hygiene. It is time for skin-to-skin contact, for us to sing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and our own variations thereof ("The Big, Fat Spider" and "The Teeny Weeny Little Spider") in which my not-yet-two-year-old delights. I let her try to put her own pants back on and we pretend we can't find her feet. She loves it when I feign surprise upon seeing her toes peeking out of the pant legs. Yes, sometimes I get bored with the same routine. And I certainly will not miss rinsing and washing diapers when she learns to use the toilet. But we are enjoying this time. Together we are stacking the building blocks of her future ability to communicate and relate to her world with interest and imagination.

I know this way of spending time with my child is valuable even if I cannot define quality time for somebody else. I don't have all the answers but I do know one: Quality time will never happen to you if you're too busy making other plans.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 1997