The most important decision faced by a modern household with children is how a single householder or both members of a partnership can harmonize the time and energy invested in satisfying financial needs, career ambitions, parental responsibilities, sexual urges, and intellectual and recreational cravings. Because the energy available to each person is limited, those investments are not independent from one another: an overinvestment in one activity means reduced investment in the others. Without a decent income, it is difficult to help children develop fully the potential of their bodies and minds. Parents who are sexually, sensually, or intellectually unsatisfied slip easily into neurosis, which their children perceive. Children capture even the most subtle negativities in the words and deeds of their parents.
It is not easy to reach the optimal mix of energy investments. Moreover, the optimal point is different from one person to another, from one partnership to another. To approach the optimal requires a constant and open dialogue between partners, the task becoming even more complicated for a single parent without a permanent significant other with whom to face risks and enjoy opportunities. In both cases, it is a trial-and-error process for which the children themselves provide feedback.
In this delicate process of learning how to be simultaneously oneself and one family, we should try to avoid being deluded by magic beliefs of our creation. Here again we should be careful of the real effect of the magic paintings in the caverns of our rational structures. One of our latest art works is called quality time. It is a composite picture with many elements. Let us see how they look.
Quality Time: Fact or Fiction?
One element depicts children as benefiting from socializing with male and female peers of their own age. This is absolutely true. Before the time of big cities and small nuclear families, it was easily accomplished. Children would play with their siblings and neighbors of their age. Even an only child would not have difficulties in finding peers among the latter. Everything happened at, or near, homes that were abuzz with life -- not always life of the best quality, but life nevertheless. Now, with homes that are deserted for most of the day, and neighborhoods that are unsafe, the socialization of children below kindergarten age has either been transferred to day-care centers or converted into the opposite of socialization: a passive restraint under the care of often inexperienced babysitters with neither the rich emotions and intuitive life of the old illiterate housekeepers of yesteryear, nor the rich culture of the tutors that high-income families could afford.
The magic picture then goes on to suggest that even under the best socializing environment, whether outside or inside the home, children still need close physical, emotional, and intellectual communications with their parents. Since this is also true, parents allocate some time each day to be with the children and -- here comes the magic pass that will catch the deer! -- have convinced themselves that because it is time devoted just to the children, it is superior to the time devoted to them in old-style household arrangements, where attention to children was always mixed with household chores.
From 9 to 5 it is work time, from 5 to 9 it is "high-quality" children's time. Are work problems instantly erased from the mind when we pick up the child from the day-care center or say good-bye to the babysitter? Even if household chores are shared between partners, do they have enough energy to prepare a zesty meal, listen to the thousand and one stories and questions of their infants, share the stories of their own life in the marketplace, put the children to bed, and still have a moment of intimate tenderness between themselves? Are weekends better when parents are transformed into taxi drivers who move the children to and from sports activities, parties, theme parks, museums, malls, and gyms? Could this flurry of activities compensate for the inactivity and dullness of the week? Not to speak of households where one parent has two jobs to collect a sizable income, or where one or both parents either are intrinsic workaholics or are pressured by insensitive bosses to work longer periods. Nor to speak of times when disease or emotional stress visits the household.
Is this really quality time for reaching out to the others, to investigate the wilderness in the child or partner who is sharing the car or the table, and explore the constellations locked up in their skulls? And even if it is, do not we need also some quality time to be ourselves, to investigate our own wilderness, to explore the constellations in our own skulls?
Agnes de Mille, the famous choreographer and dancer, was quoted in The Sun (August 1992) to have said that we need to "...reach beyond the faces across our tables, learn to investigate the wilderness in the seat next to us, and explore the constellations locked up in our skulls." I would add that bright constellations are locked up not only in our skulls but also beneath the whole of our skin.
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It is not with the magic of words that we will find answers to these crucial questions. Nor do they disappear when we move to an integrative, harmonizing consciousness, but we find easier to make trade-offs when we learn to appreciate the things that really matter to life and love. Only a decrease in individual greed and ambition, and a move of society toward increasingly blending human concerns in the technical and financial rationality of businesses and markets, will gradually allow us to be at one with ourselves and our families.
This article was excerpted from the book:
The Invisible Player: Consciousness As the Soul of Economic, Social, and Political Life
by Mario Kamenetzky.
About The Author
MARIO KAMENETZKY is a former science and technology specialist for the World Bank. He has been tackling socioeconomic development issues for nearly fifty years as a professor, corporations officer, independent consultant, scholar, poet, and writer.