"Increasing numbers of women are discovering a great male secret - that work can be an escape from the pressures of home..."
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Our eight-year-old has been home with a mild case of chicken pox for the past couple of days. I stayed home from work the first day and today, my husband took off. I've been needing to put in some extra hours at work and Bob agreed that today I could stay late. As I walked to the bus stop this morning, I felt a small sense of elation. A long day at work! A whole day around grown-ups. An entire day of not having to break up fights and deal with tantrums. At work no one says, "No!" or "I don't want to" when something needs to get done. At work, I don't have to threaten or yell or feel exasperated or impotent.
I'm lucky. I have satisfying, challenging, meaningful work. I share a room with two co-workers who are energetic, fun, interesting, creative -- and nice. We bounce ideas off of one another, find inspiration for work projects in our conversations and we laugh a lot. When I tell my boss how lucky I feel, she smiles knowingly and says: "The three of you were handpicked. Like pearls."
My children are pearls, too. One is a deep thinker who often opens my eyes to new ways of seeing things. Another is creative and inventive, making up games to entertain himself and his friends. A third has a gorgeous face and sings like a rock star. They all have big hearts.
But let's face it. I didn't do a great job with setting limits and I've got a batch of high-strung kids to boot. I often wish at least one of them had taken after my mellow, easy-going brother, but no such luck. When the genes were being distributed, each of these entities who are my children must have felt that my husband's and my excitable traits would be more fun. Excitable temperaments means never a dull moment but it also means never (well, hardly ever) a peaceful moment. Being home too often means being tense.
Work is peaceful. People smile at me. My computer usually behaves fairly well and when it doesn't, there are myriad techies running around who are actually willing to help. I get to write, think, meet with people, surf the net and talk on the phone. No dishes. No laundry. No washing floors. And no demanding kids.
Here's the problem: I feel terribly guilty about preferring work to home (even if it's only sometimes.) It helps to know I'm not alone.
Arlie Hochschild, the Berkeley sociology professor whose book The Second Shift opened an entire generation's eyes to the extra burdens carried by working mothers, has documented the disturbing, new phenomenon of preferring work to home in her aptly titled The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work.
"American's clean little secret," the New York Times calls it.
Hochschild found that American mothers and fathers are working longer hours than ever and they complain about not having enough time at home. Ironically, she also found that even when workers are given a chance to cut back on their hours, they choose not to. Money is not the answer, Hochschild found. Nor was fear of being layed off.
Hochschild writes that she was surprised by her finding: People work long hours because it's easier than being at home. "...work has become a form of 'home' and home has become 'work'...We are used to thinking that home is where most people feel the most appreciated the most truly 'themselves,' the most secure, the most relaxed," she write in the New York Times Magazine of April 20, 1997. "We are used to thinking that work is where most people feel like 'just a number' or a 'a cog in a machine.' It is where they have to be 'on,' have to 'act,' where they are least secure and most harried."
But that's not longer true, she found.
She quotes Linda, a shift manager at the company she studied:
"I get home, and the minute I turn the key, my daughter (16) is right there. Granted, she needs somebody to talk to about her day...The baby is still up. He should have been in bed two hours ago, and that upsets me. The dishes are piled in the sink. My daughter comes right up to the door and complains about anything her stepfather said or did, and she wants to talk about her job. My husband is in the other room hollering to my daughter, 'Tracy, I don't ever get any time to talk to your mother, because you're always monopolizing her time before I even bet a chance!' They all come at me at once."
In contrast, here is Linda's arrival at work, in her words:
"I usually come to work early, just to get away from the house. When I arrive, people are there waiting. We sit, we talk, we joke. I let them know what's going on, who has to be where, what changes I've made for the shift that day. We sit and chitchat for five or 10 minutes. There's laughing, joking, fun."
Hochschild found another interesting phenomenon:
She writes, "Life at work can be insecure; the company can fire workers. But workers aren't so secure at home, either. Many employees have been working for Amerco for 20 years but are on their second or third marriages or relationships. The shifting balance between these two 'divorce rates' may be the most powerful reason why tired parents flee a world of unresolved quarrels and unwashed laundry for the orderliness, harmony and managed cheer of work."
Hochschild calls this phenomenon "troubling" and says our children are paying the price. But she doesn't provide any answers except to point to Sweden, Denmark and Norway's enlightened parental leave policies. But this doesn't address the real issue of finding relief at work from the pressures of home.
We don't have answers either. But we do have some thoughts on the subject. Click on our Building Character Hot Topic. And take a look at what our staff writers have to say about being working moms in Working on Being and Real (Working) Mom. For ideas on how to ease the transition from work to home, go to our real life drama, Mom Returns from Work.
Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000