Public life and family life: making room for both

''I've been here a long time, and it's destroyed my family.'' The words of a prisoner, perhaps, or an overseas draft-evader? No. They were spoken by a senior member of the US House of Representatives.

They were directed at Paul Tsongas, then a representative, now a senator, during his early days in Congress in 1975. And they ended with a sober warning. ''I've got one piece of advice,'' Senator Tsongas recalls his senior colleague as saying. ''Don't do it.''

To his credit, Senator Tsongas has preserved the balance between family life and career. That's not always easy. As the recent censure of Rep. Daniel B. Crane (himself a family man) for sexual misconduct suggests, there can be plenty of pressures pulling public figures in other directions.

One can't help thinking that a deep commitment to family life should provide a bulwark against such pressures. Yet so insistent are the demands on the time of public officials that family matters often get displaced. It's a story as old as Homer and Aeschylus. So, too, is the excuse for that displacement: that the nation's needs overshadow those of a few close relatives.

An honorable excuse, on its face. But look deeper. America is still a family land. Census figures tell us that some three-quarters of US households are occupied by families. Yet the irony is clear: American families risk being represented by public officials who cannot afford time for family life.

It has not always been so. The legislators of the American past were often family men first and lawmakers second. These days, that situation seems reversed - with sad consequences. For the institution of family is being challenged by everything from mobility and mortgage rates to moral vacuity and sagging spiritual vision. Fortunately, as Monitor writer Marilyn Hoffman recently reported, Americans recognize the challenges. She notes that polls conducted by Better Homes and Gardens magazine over the last 10 years show materialism, inattentive parents, and (this year) the lack of a stronger religious and spiritual foundation as the greatest threat to the American family.

Part of the problem, clearly, is the so-called ''knowledge explosion.'' It has not been accompanied by an explosion of the amount of available time. A legislator wanting to serve his constituency well can be drawn into nearly endless hours of reading, listening, discussing. So, too, the businessman, the professional, and the academician carry home similarly heavy briefcases. It's called ''doing a good job.''

And so it is - considering the way we have defined ''good job.'' We measure it in intellectual and statistical terms. We count pages written, bills introduced, or deals struck. We place too little weight on the things families teach us: quietness, constancy, mutual compromise, and a capacity (so useful for those in positions of authority) to laugh at ourselves and put weighty matters in perspective. Out of this grows the ability to grasp the needs of entire communities - to understand family life not only in America's 59 million family households but in what the United Nations estimates as the 1.03 billion families worldwide.

What's needed, then, is a redefinition of our priorities - a reaffirmation of our expectation that those in the public eye set sound examples by devoting time and energy to their families. To some extent, that's already happening. One hears, now and then, of local and national officials choosing to spend increasing amounts of time with their families - not out of escapism, but to strike a balance. In that, they too are following a trend revealed in the Better Homes and Gardens poll. Some two-thirds of the 200,000 respondents to that survey indicated that they are spending more time at home now than five years ago - and that they feel happiest there.

That's as it should be. For America's problems will be solved by balance, not by extremism - by breadth of understanding, not workaholic narrowness. We have erred too long in the other direction. We are readier now to admit that what happens in the home - not just what happens in Washington or the state capitals - will determine the health of the nation.

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