All Work, No Play

Arlie Russell Hochschild on why we can’t stand to stay home.

The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work

By Arlie Russell Hochschild

Metropolitan Books (an imprint of Henry Holt & Co.); 320 pages; $22.50

“What tedious work it is,” confessed a spinster aunt tending to her fatherless nieces and nephews in 1860. “The same things over and over. It requires a load of patience and I am principled against showing any impatience to little folks lest it should lessen my influence.” This mid-19th century godsend–whose letter is quoted in At Odds: Women and the Family in America From the Revolution to the Present, by Carl Degler–was an unusual recruit to the enterprise of child rearing: She neither romanticized her mission nor vented her frustration on her charges.

What clear-eyed calm! Such sanity has been rare in discussions of child rearing in the “century of the child,” as the 20th was christened at its start by historians and social reformers. During the Progressive era, experts extolled parenthood as an ennobling profession set apart from the workaday grind. By the postwar years, child rearing was being touted as enriching fun. At least nowadays parents are allowed to complain about the burdens their children impose. But somewhere along the way, they’ve–we’ve–also lost all patience for kids. This is the disconcerting news delivered by Arlie Russell Hochschild in her important new book, a sequel to her best-selling The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (1989).

In that book, Hochschild explored the dilemmas faced by two-career marriages, in which, she found, women still shouldered the bulk of the child care and housework. The TimeBind charts the transformation of the workplace in the intervening period, and looks at how parents and their children are coping now. More provisions have become available for part-time and flexible employment in successful American companies. Does that mean that stressed-out mothers and fathers are finding better ways to balance their home and work lives? The answer, Hochschild says, is no. Parents are working ever longer hours, and are startlingly frank about why: Staying home with the kids is “tedious work,” especially when you could be out earning money in a self-esteem-enhancing workplace.

Hochschild’s subtitle–When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work–telegraphs her basic argument. “A cultural reversal of workplace and home” has taken place. In an increasingly work-obsessed society, life on the job has been “feminized,” thanks to efforts to engineer a homelike, caring culture for employees, complete with solicitous “climate surveys” and stress-reduction workshops. The home front, meanwhile, has been “masculinized.” It runs like the soulless assembly line of old. Ruthless efficiency, compartmentalized schedules, too little autonomy, too much anomie: No wonder parents would rather stay late at the office.

Hochschild’s own work has the air of being effortlessly well timed. Here, as she did in The Second Shift, she’s grabbed a social problem out of the air that ordinary people groan about a great deal and scholars and cultural critics generalize about equally ineffectually. She gives the problem a local habitation–Amerco, a (pseudonymous) Fortune 500 company rated one of the 10 most “family friendly” corporations in America. Between 1990 and 1993, Hochschild interviewed senior managers, middle managers, and clerical and factory workers. She shadowed six families as they did, and didn’t, participate in the company’s “Work-Life Balance Program,” which offers various child-care options and arrangements for working more flexible or shorter workdays. She followed the parents home from work, met their children, became attuned to the tone of their anxieties. And she spoke with the consultants, child-care providers, and psychologists new to the payroll of a business that had lately converted to the “Total Quality” philosophy. That system, the creation of the management guru W. Edwards Deming, replaces overtly bureaucratic control with self-managing work teams and an emphasis on a “common vision.”

Employees at every level of Amerco fit Hochschild’s profile of distracted parenthood. Vicki King, a manager who strongly endorses the company’s family friendly policies, works inflexibly long hours herself and juggles her kids’ lives like a bustling administrator. She looks back on her maternity leave without any nostalgia: “Gee, guys, that was six weeks I didn’t have anybody to talk to. My friends are at work. The things that interest me are at work.” The work needn’t be fascinating to exert its pull. Mario, a workaholic whose low-level job is stacking and loading boxes, loves his kids but can’t wait for his shift with them to end: “It’s very stressful mentally, and I get sick of hearing myself scream.” Meanwhile, Mario’s wife, Deb, refuses to cut down on her work at the factory because she knows it means Mario will cut back on the home front.

Deb is blunt about why she likes the status quo, despite the stress of arranging child care: “At work I can do more of what I want. At home, I have to do what the kids want.” You can almost hear her stamping her tiny foot. These Amerco parents can sound like, well, children. Indeed, Hochschild calls attention to a psychological reversal accompanying the cultural reversal: We used to feel immature at work and independent at home. Now it’s the other way around.

According to Hochschild, Total Quality “presumes the worker is a capable adult, not a wayward child.” Deming’s emphasis on worker autonomy and a joint “conversation” about the company’s goals revises the much stricter model of “scientific management” championed by Frederick W. Taylor at the turn of the century, in which the workers were expected to be obedient drones. Hochschild’s radical proposal is that home is where Taylorism now reigns. Home is where parents feel infantilized, trapped on a treadmill of efficiency. They’ve “outsourced” functions that used to be part of their responsibility (baby sitters, tutors, camps), creating a fragmented regimen. The fast-paced pressure of their overscheduled lives has produced a balkiness in their hurried children–and in their own harried selves–that they feel helpless to deal with.

But is the Total Quality workplace really as homelike as Hochschild claims? And is the Taylorized home front quite the downsized operation she describes? Her own evidence of parents “fleeing a world of unresolved quarrels and unwashed laundry for the reliable orderliness, harmony, and managed cheer of work” points to a diagnosis that is, if anything, more disconcerting. Perhaps parents are eager to go to work not because it gives them autonomy but because it lets them be safely and comfortably childlike. At home, they face the daunting challenge of being superadults. Hochschild acutely observes that “what Benjamin Spock did for child rearing, Total Quality is doing for work.” But Spock was not, pace his critics, a permissive advocate of giving the child real power or of giving parents an easy break. He envisioned the parent as the “friendly boss,” vigilantly and solicitously manipulating a naturally docile child.

At work, Deb and Mario don’t really get to do what they want, only to enjoy what they have to do. They have been given satisfyingly discrete tasks, for which they are rewarded with boosts to their self-esteem. Their needs are defined and ministered to; support is constantly made available in the form of organized workshops and counseling sessions. The goal is not independent self-reliance, but a more internalized sense of dependence on the company.

At home, Deb and Mario and the rest of us–whether Amerco employees or Slate free-lancers with children, like me–don’t exactly fit the model of mere repetitive-motion machines. We’re more like Total Quality bosses, and we’re just what many new-style CEOs are: overwhelmed by a vast therapeutic mandate to keep control while dispersing power and to ensure not just the health but the happiness, not just the productivity but the loyalty, of our charges. What’s striking, as Sharon Hays recently pointed out in The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996), is how tenaciously we cling to “intensive motherhood,” as she calls this ambitious mission, despite its increasing impracticality and despite how guilty it can make us feel.

The truth is that home hasn’t suddenly become work. It has always been work–endless work, and such close restraint. “The same things over and over.” No “recognition ceremonies” for tasks well done, few clear-cut goals or tidy limits to responsibility. Professionalizing and romanticizing that work, as experts and parents have tried to do throughout the century, has not made child-rearing more spiritually satisfying or relaxing. It has made it more anxiety-inducing.

Hochschild wants to say that we can reclaim safe haven in our family life from a market-dominated world, but her idea of a solution ends up sounding like the ultimate triumph of the commodified mentality. In vacuous Demingese, she announces that we need to learn from “public debate about the need for ‘emotional investment’ in family life in an era of familial divestiture and deregulation.” Actually, Taylorism might be more in order. More fathers need to buckle down on the home front, which would improve the attitude and motivation of mothers too. And parents of both sexes should remember that growing children are the fastest-paced Americans of them all. Surely that is, paradoxically, the most persuasive reason to slow down a bit at work and hang out more at home. The kids will be gone in no time.