Families see a subtle, lasting shift in values

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Several weeks after the September terrorist attacks, Jennifer and Jeff Arnold of Waukesha, Wis., found themselves engaged in what she calls a "regrouping of values." Saddened by the death of a business friend in the World Trade Center and weary of demanding clocks that left them little time together, they resolved to make changes.

"My husband and I reevaluated our marriage and our schedules," says Mrs. Arnold, marketing manager for a financial firm in Milwaukee. She and her husband, a contractor, now devote evenings to 20-month-old Jeremy and 10-year-old Emily. Household tasks, such as laundry, wait for the weekend. They also try to spend time with her parents and her husband's parents on weekends.

"We're focusing entirely on our family," she says.

Recommended: Default

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, sentiments like hers abounded. The autumn air echoed with earnest talk about how families were reordering priorities, patching up old feuds, and spending more time together. "Nesting" and "cocooning" became the operative words.

Today, 3-1/2 months later, the family remains a refuge from uncertainty and danger. But beyond extra hugs and heartfelt exchanges of "I love you," how much has really changed? Are good intentions becoming a reality?

Parents around the country offer varied opinions. At the same time, experts with broad perspectives on social trends see signs of a quiet, but potentially profound, shift in values that goes beyond changes in individual families. The result, some say, could strengthen families, modestly reshape the workplace, and influence public policies affecting children and parents.

For those who lost relatives or friends in the tragedy, everything is forever altered. Other families, unaffected personally, report that little has changed.

"For people who didn't know anybody in the disaster, a few months go by, and everything is pretty much status quo," says Peter Baylies, of Andover, Mass., the father of two school-age sons and director of the At-Home Dads Network.

Among the 125 men who attended a national convention of at-home fathers in Skokie, Ill., last month, the subject of Sept. 11 barely came up, according to Mr. Baylies. These men, already heavily invested in family life, feel little need to change.

To Eric Piper of Lynnfield, Mass., a department manager at a supermarket and the father of two daughters, 10 and 13, the talk about new priorities is "a lot of media hype." Referring to his own family, he says, "We're doing all the same things we always have - eating dinner together and spending time with the kids."

Yet change, however subtle, is in the air. Even before Sept. 11, signs of what could be called the New American Hearth began appearing in everything from books promoting marriage to calls for better work-life balance. Now those yearnings have intensified.

"There's just a definite shift in the larger environment," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values in New York. "It's the first time in a long time that there's been a clear, overriding national goal that dominates everything else. The seriousness of that, the stakes of that, the danger involved in that is going to indirectly affect family life."

He and others caution that it is too early to gauge long-term effects on marriage and divorce rates. But Mr. Blankenhorn speculates that the combination of a recession and a war could keep some couples together. "That has happened in previous eras. When there's a period of loss and danger, you kind of cling."

Closer ties take other forms as well. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist in New York, notices a change at her 4-year-old's school. "All of the class trips this fall have been oversubscribed in terms of parents, both dads and moms, wanting to be with their children as they visit a farm, pick pumpkins," Ms. Hewlett says. "In Manhattan, that's rare."

As president of the National Parenting Association, Hewlett sees people everywhere struggling, with varying degrees of success, to devote more time to all generations of their families.

In the wake of tragedy, some divorced parents are expressing more appreciation and gratitude for their children, and even for the lives they had when they were married, says Rick Tivers, a partner at the Center for Divorce Recovery in Morton Grove, Ill. Among his clients, several custodial parents are more flexible about visitation. "They'll say, 'Of course you can see the kids.' "

Other professionals who work with divorced families notice a less-generous spirit. In some cases, custodial parents are not allowing children to visit the other parent because they fear flying and more terrorist attacks.

"Custodial parents are finding it easier now to deny access to the children, making excuses and attaching those excuses to the Sept. 11 events," says Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children.

Even when parents cooperate, other obstacles may appear. Stuart Miller, a legislative analyst in Washington, shares custody of his 14-year-old son with his former wife. She lives 3-1/2 hours away. Normally, his son takes the train to visit Mr. Miller. After Sept. 11, Amtrak began requiring photo identification. His son, too young for a driver's license, had no ID. So Miller has been making the seven-hour round trip by car to pick him up and take him home. He recently bought his son a hunting license, simply to get a photo ID.

"This difficulty has made it easier for some parents to interfere with visitation," Miller says.

Even families longing for greater closeness are not always sure how to achieve it. Since September, Jeannette Lofas, president of the Stepfamily Foundation in New York, has been helping parents to strengthen ties by establishing new rituals.

"The most important thing is to get back to the ritual of meals, of going to church together, or spending an evening at home watching a movie as a group, rather than just watching television separately," Ms. Lofas says.

She also finds families yearning for order. Many people have order in the office but not at home, she says. Now they are asking her how to get it. She is currently helping a majority of her clients to establish family rules as one way to free up time for "important, close things."

Other families are striving for greater harmony. Four days after the September tragedy, Maureen Jones of Needham, Mass., made a brave and difficult telephone call to a relative. She wanted to heal a rift in her extended family. Stunned by the death of a friend on Sept. 11, she realized anew the importance of domestic ties.

"Truly, any kind of conflict that exists in a family should be resolved," says Mrs. Jones. "It's wasted time, wasted energy that you really shouldn't put into anger and hurt."

Jones has drawn inspiration from the relatives of her best friend, Susan Retik, whose husband, David, was killed on Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center. "I've seen Susan's family be there for her," Jones says. "You look at your own family and think, How would we come together as a family?"

In conversations with her relatives to end their two-year rift, Jones says, "I felt like I was brokering Israeli-PLO peace talks." Although a full resolution could take months, she is heartened by their willingness to meet and talk about the problem.

Some couples are newly aware of the importance of interdependence in a marriage. "There's such a move these days to be totally independent in a marriage," Mr. Tivers, the divorce counselor, explains. Although that can have positive effects, he cautions that independence can sometimes draw people away from their marriage. "At times it's important to need each other and have some mutual dependency."

Mutual dependency is also crossing generational lines to forge stronger bonds. At Pennswood Village, a Quaker-directed retirement community in Newtown, Pa., one resident couple lost a daughter in the attacks. An employee's husband was also killed.

"We've had a lot of opportunity to help each other," says Nancy Spears, executive director.

In the weeks since the tragedy, she has witnessed a heartening new appreciation for older people. Members of the World War II generation, she explains, convey a reassuring can-do spirit that says, in effect, "We've faced worse things, and the world is not going to end." The average age of residents at Pennswood Village is 84; for employees, it is 35.

"You see more need on the part of young people to reach up [to older people] for help, rather than for older people to reach down," Ms. Spears says. "The older folks are needed more in a way that feels good. They're feeling a sense of being able to contribute to the comfort of the younger people in their families and their extended families. It's very powerful in that regard."

Despite heartening stories like these, the desire for a New American Hearth is producing tensions, particularly in the workplace. Putting new priorities into practice remains a challenge in the current economic downturn.

Hewlett tells of a friend who had hoped to spend more time with her 2-year-old. She negotiated with her boss for a reduced schedule. But 10 days later her husband lost his job. She had to return to work full time.

Companies have shed more than 800,000 jobs in the past two months. Total unemployment stands at 8.2 million, a six-year high, the US Department of Labor says. Workers may hesitate to ask for concessions because they fear losing their jobs.

"People feel even more pressure to put in face time, to be there at 8 at night, to go the extra mile by attending breakfast meetings," Hewlett says.

Employers face similar conflicts. Hewlett finds many companies torn between the pressure to be more caring and the pressure to deal with a bottom line that increasingly shows red ink.

"Sept. 11 made companies see the human side of things and the value of family," says Kathy Lynch, a manager at the Boston College Center for Work & Family. But the post-September question is: Has there been an increase in family-friendliness? The answer is not yet clear.

"Organizations that were poised to go forward with child care are still doing that," she says. Others that had not yet announced a new family-related initiative might decide to wait.

Not all the news is bleak. Companies in a variety of fields, especially those requiring a lot of traveling and consulting, are experimenting with virtual work, says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York. They might ask employees: "Instead of traveling back to the home office, can you telecommute? Do you really need to fly out to that client meeting? Can you do it virtually?"

Sept. 11 also made working at home more acceptable in companies affected by the destruction, possibly setting an example for others. "It was like the [1989] earthquake in San Francisco," Ms. Galinsky says. "Working at home was no longer just something for mothers who wanted to be home with kids, but something that helped businesses."

Where do employees and employers go from here?

Hewlett sees this as a fork in the road, a time "very ripe" for workers to make new requests.

"We could turn this recession into a window of opportunity, to have many more part-time career options," she says. Instead of firing people, companies could reduce their wage costs by giving employees a chance to work a four-day week.

When France created a 35-hour workweek, Hewlett explains, the purpose was to spread the work around, not to be family-friendly. The plan has drawn "amazing support from mothers and fathers who are newly able to balance their lives."

For another group of Americans - poor families - talk about balancing lives and reordering priorities remains an elitist fantasy, far removed from their daily struggle to afford food and rent.

The events of Sept. 11 have made it more difficult to focus on the needs of low-income families and poor children, says Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington. She notes that the tragedy has deflected attention away from preexisting problems of poverty, homelessness, and the need for more child care.

As the economy weakens, child advocates across the country express concern about the effects of state budget cuts on low-income working families. Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now, an advocacy group in Sacramento, Calif., points to cuts in child-care subsidies and after-school care. California Gov. Gray Davis has also postponed plans to expand health coverage for poor parents.

"For children to bear the brunt of an economic downturn is especially shortsighted," Ms. Salisbury says.

Policymakers, Mrs. Edelman adds, must ask a crucial question: What are the nation's real priorities? Insisting that the current challenge can produce "wonderful opportunities," she says, "This is the richest nation. These are not money issues. These are values issues."

When the subject is values, parents offer other perspectives. Arnold emphasizes the need to focus on the quality of family life, rather than simply on the quantity of things to be done.

"For a long time, Jeff and I were lulled into the mentality of checking off items on the to-do list," she says. "We felt, well, we're young, we have young kids, we'll have time later to do those things." Now they try to emphasize the present.

Galinsky shares that philosophy. Sept. 11, she says, has made people focus on living now rather than always for tomorrow. She hopes that attitude will not go away.

Hewlett, for one, expects it to stay. "The hubris of the '90s is really history," she says. She calls consumerism "part of yesterday's values," while today's values are more likely to focus on the hearth than on the mall.

"Maybe we do understand that less is more," she says. "We may be prepared to give up some income, to deal quite happily with new levels of insecurity because we understand it's such a privilege to have your family intact."

For the Joneses, too, the emphasis is on intangibles. Echoing the comments of other parents across the country, Jones says, "We realize that certain things don't matter. You can sell your possessions. I don't want to sound pious or altruistic, but as long as we're alive and healthy, that's truly the biggest blessing."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...