Parents Battle Strong Cultural Forces in Finding Family Time

In the idyllic world portrayed in Father's Day ads this week, there are no ticking clocks, demanding bosses, or looming deadlines to intrude upon family time. Togetherness abounds as copywriters show carefree fathers striking a variety of heart-tugging poses: wheeling baby carriages, giving children boat rides, introducing them to golf and fishing, and carting them piggyback over lush lawns. In one ad, even a father-daughter trip to the supermarket becomes the occasion for unhurried smiles. Family happiness in the produce department!

But cut to real life and this serenity, which also characterized Mother's Day ads last month, can be considerably harder to achieve. According to the authors of two new books, overloaded work schedules continue to be one of the perils playing havoc with family life. Echoing that theme, two news magazines have run alarmist cover stories in recent weeks. They accuse already guilt-ridden working parents of "cheating" their children and "lying" about why they work.

In "The Time Bind" (Metropolitan Books), sociologist Arlie Hochschild claims that many parents are spending longer hours at work because they find jobs more fulfilling than family. The workplace, she finds, serves as a kind of "surrogate home." Even when employers offer flextime and parental leave, mothers and fathers prefer full-time work.

Hochschild's thesis stems from three years of interviews with parents at an unnamed Fortune 500 company. Not surprisingly, the book has sparked heated debate, prompting protests from Hochschild that she has been misrepresented.

For Dana Mack, author of "The Assault on Parenthood" (Simon & Schuster), a series of focus groups and interviews with 250 parents yielded more traditional laments. Most parents, she says, still want more time with their children, not more hours at work.

Ms. Mack, a scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York, notes that Hochschild interviewed more high-salaried women than she did. Women in that category, Mack says, are "more secure about child care." Mack's families earned between $25,000 and $75,000.

As one way of gauging the quality of time families spend together, Mack asked parents about what she calls "the 5-to-9 p.m. world." She explains, "We always talk about 9 to 5. I wanted to get an idea of what family life is like after work."

Generally, Mack says, parents' first responses were, "It's so hectic." They talked about "the rush of trying to get dinner on the table and get everything done." No surprises there. But then, she adds, parents described their efforts "to make that time, which was really their prime time with kids, more meaningful. They would say, 'We don't just throw something on the table. We cook a meal, and we sit down and talk about the events of the day.' " So much for claims that the family dinner is dead.

Mack sees the corporate world as only one of many cultural forces that undermine parents' roles. Others include schools, courts, and the media. Yet despite these negative influences, she believes parents are trying harder than ever to raise their children well. So does Hochschild.

Although Hochschild and Mack hold differing views on many subjects, they share common ground in their insistence that children need more time with parents. Hochschild is calling for "a national conversation" to discuss ways in which businesses, the government, and families can improve the balance in family life.

If that conversation, already begun in the controversy surrounding her book, continues, it could encourage a self-examination on the part of parents, as well as a long-overdue reexamination of American corporate culture. That in turn carries the hope that by next Mother's Day and Father's Day, Madison Avenue's dreamy images of unhurried, unharried time with children will come a little closer to Main Street reality.

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