The Hurried Family

The Hurried Family

Rev. Anthony David

June 17, 2012

Couple of years ago, I was watching CNN and I came across the story of a thirty-eight year old German mother of three, Maria Bruner, who also happened to have a job outside the home as a cleaner. Apparently she had a choice between paying a ninety dollar parking ticket or going to jail for three months … and she chose jail. She said, “As long as I get food and a hot shower every day, I don’t mind being sent to jail. It means I can finally get some rest and relaxation without having to cook and wash and clean for everyone!” The police officer who arrested her said she repeatedly thanked him and smiled and waved as she was driven off….

But Moms like Maria Bruner aren’t the only ones desperate for some R&R. Dads too, children, teenagers, young adults, grandmas and grandpas, singles—just name your favorite demographic. It’s all of us, living hurry-up lives in a hurry-up world…

Brings to mind a passage from a book called Zorba the Greek by writer Nikos Kazantzakis, and it goes like this (one of the book’s characters is speaking here):

“I remember one morning when I discovered a cocoon in the back of a tree just as a butterfly was making a hole in its case and preparing to come out. I waited awhile, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened; the butterfly started slowly crawling out, and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole trembling body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my breath, in vain. It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.

“That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the internal rhythm.”

That’s the passage from Zorba the Greek. “We should not hurry, we should confidently obey the internal rhythm.” But that internal rhythm (call it God’s time) is so often out of sync with time in our hurry-up world. A hurry-up world is an impatient world that breathes on us to speed up the miracle of our unfoldment. Hurry it up! C’mon! Let’s get it going!

There’s many causes of this. Some of them are perennial. For example, the general nature of parenting. Washington Post writer Carolyn Hax puts it this way: “When you have young kids, your typical day is: constant attention, from getting them out of bed, fed, clean, dressed; to keeping them out of harm’s way; to answering their coos, cries, questions; to having two arms and carrying one kid, one set of car keys, and supplies for even the quickest trips … to keeping them from unshelving books at the library; to enforcing rest times; to staying one step ahead of them lest they get too hungry, tired or bored, any one of which produces the kind of checkout-line screaming that gets the checkout line shaking its head. It’s needing 45 minutes to do what takes others 15.

It’s constant vigilance, constant touch, constant use of your voice, constant relegation of your needs to the second tier. It’s doing all this while concurrently teaching virtually everything — language, manners, safety, resourcefulness, discipline, curiosity, creativity. Empathy. Everything.” Stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads, you know what I’m talking about. There are days when going to jail for three months (vs. paying that ninety dollar parking ticket) is miiiiiighty tempting…. Because the hot breath of parenting is blowing on your soul!

It’s a perennial cause. It’s always been this way. But other causes and circumstances are new—and they only complicate the awesome task of parenting. As in life today. “Living life today,” says Edward Hallowell in his book entitled Crazy Busy, “can seem like riding a bike no-handed while reading a book and juggling six eggs…” Why? We all know why… The speed of everyday affairs has been supercharged by innumerable technologies, from cell phones to television remotes to airplanes to fax machines to laptops to the ice machine in your refrigerator. Add to this the volume of information that pours into our lives from various outlets: email, voice mail, instant messaging, cable TV, satellite radio, the Internet. Now I’m no Luddite—there’s all sorts of good stuff we get from this. You can’t beat life today for excitement! But the undeniable cumulative effect of the brave new world we find ourselves in is that we hurry up even when there is no need; we are irritated beyond belief when the internet connection is slow, or the traffic is slow, or someone’s manner of speaking is slow, or the kids are slow, or we are slow….

The hot breath of technological change breathes upon us…. And not just this change only. Add to it changes in the workplace, changes in social roles, changes in the economy, politics, mass media. Lots of good changes now—don’t get me wrong! But even so, we are feeling the hot breath more than ever today. Remember The Brady Bunch, from just 40 years ago? A TV show that mirrored the main reality of the time of single-earner households? Households in which family members regularly sat down together and shared meals, there were lots of unstructured activities, there was lots of time just to hang out (which is the main source of all the entertaining craziness that happened between Greg and Peter and Bobby and Jan and Cindy and Marcia Marcia Marcia!!!!) But that was then, this is now. Now it’s all hurry-up. Kids feel it. Between 1981 and 1997, according to the University of Michigan Survey Research Center, children lost twelve hours of free time per week, play time declined by 25 percent, and time spent in unstructured outdoor activities fell by half. Meanwhile, commitment to structured sports doubled, time spent watching other people (like siblings) play sports rose five-fold, and studying increased almost 50 percent. Kids today are feeling the hurry-up breath, and so are parents. These days, dual-earner families outnumber single-earner families more than three to one. It’s that way because it takes about a year-and-a-half on the job, at an average wage, to earn enough money to cover the typical yearly expenditures of a family:  food, clothing, shelter, taxes, life insurance, gifts, health and personal care, interest on loans, recreation. For lots of parents today, male or female, on top of the awesome pressures of parenting are work pressures too. Single moms and single dads are saying to two parent families, Welcome to my world….

We’re living hurry-up lives in a hurry-up world. And our families are taking the hit. Our parenting. Our souls. Just seems there’s never enough hours in the day to do the job we’re supposed to do as well as to be parents, be a family, be individuals with lives and interests of our own….

And we know it. We know we’re not perfect. At times the guilt is overwhelming. We feel guilty when we are away at work. We feel guilty when we are at home but just too tired and the only thing we have energy for is to be a couch potato. The guilt is a killer. Can you relate? So what happens next is especially interesting. Parents often take that guilt and focus it on the kids, and the guilt becomes transformed into fear that the kids might not turn out all right….  Guilt becomes fear, fear becomes resolve, and resolve turns into a strategy of hurry-up parenting. Writer Mahala Burns puts it like this: “The baby arrives, and it’s Mommy and Me classes, Kindergym, infant swimming, teaching toys, computer learning programs for 2 and 3 year olds, the list goes on. So does the nagging feeling if you don’t do all this, your kid will be left behind, disadvantaged…. So once the kids get into school, the sports and activities machine takes over. They must do T-ball and pee wee football, dance classes, art classes, Spanish immersion classes, summer camp—and all this by second or third grade or it’s too late!”

There’s a book out there called The Hurried Child, by psychologist David Elkind, and listen to what he says. He says that generally, it is a parent need, not a child’s authentic wish, that pushes children into learning activities at an early age. School-age children need the opportunity to play their own games, make up their own rules, and abide by their own timetable.”

This quote packs a wallop, offers up a lot to reflect on. If our kids are busy like crazy, is it their need that drives them or ours as parents? If free time is such a good thing for our kids—a little slice of God’s time—then why are we not helping them preserve more of it?

Now it’s undeniable: there are wonderful outcomes to all these programs for children:  greater school readiness, enhanced language and cognitive development, increased personal initiative. Perhaps it’s just that your child is energetic and active and loves being busy! Yet a right balance has to be struck here. Children lose other important developmental opportunities if they lack sufficient free time for spontaneous play. And when a child’s entire week is packed with scheduled activities and they constantly feel pressure to excel, we’re talking stress disorders and worse. They end up feeling like a failure. They end up feeling exhausted, used, even exploited!

People, the chain reaction I am tracing out here seems relentless. The time crunch (which I’ve argued is inherent in parenting and then exacerbated ten fold by technological and social change) leads to guilt which leads to hurried parenting which leads to hurried children. It’s all about making the miracle of life happen faster. And so the question comes back to us: What happens to our wings, in the end? Will they turn out all folded back and crumpled? Will we struggle desperately to fly, all in vain?

So what do we do? How do we heat-proof our souls?

First thing is this: make a personal pact with guilt. If guilt is undermining our parenting, if we are doing whatever it takes to make the guilty feelings go away even if it’s not helping our children and our relationships, then it’s time to go eyeball to eyeball with it. Time to simply accept it and make a pact with it. And what I mean is this: Promising to myself that if I set and follow fair guidelines for how I will be with my family and children given the other realities of my life, then it’s OK for me to let the guilt go. My parenting will be good enough … and good enough is good enough.

Such guidelines for stay-at-home moms and dads might include:

  • I will cut myself some slack on the housework and/or visiting relatives when I am feeling particularly overwhelmed.
  • I will let go of the idea that parenting is a one or two person project. I will actively seek assistance in my parenting role by cultivating a support network of family, friends, and childcare workers; and I will draw on this network regularly so that I can continue growing as a person, and I can continue nurturing my relationships with others.
  • It’s OK to have some time to myself several times a week. It’s OK to find ways of nurturing my personal growth even as I’m nurturing the growth of my children.

As for the parent who works outside the home:

  • If I must take care of family emergencies during work hours, I will not apologize to co-workers (as if I’m doing something wrong…)
  • I will be home to eat dinner with my family at least three nights out of the week.
  • When I am home with my family, I will focus on my family and not be caught up in homeWORK.
  • When I travel, I will call home at bedtime.
  • If career is undeniably threatening the health of my family, then it’s time for the career to change.

This is a great topic of discussion with friends, or in our covenant groups. What is a good set of guilt-moderating guidelines for busy parents? Whatever you end up developing, know that you will have to constantly monitor those guidelines because the guilt will continue to whisper in your ear and so you must continually push it away, say NO to it, say, I am doing the best that I can, I am living up to the agreements I have set, my parenting is good enough, and good enough is good enough. Say it with me, “Good enough is good enough.”

Make a personal pact with guilt. That’s the first thing to do to bring greater balance and sanity into our hurried families. First thing to do to heat-proof our souls. And here’s a second thing. Last thing. Schedule downshift moments. They are little slices of God’s time—moments which can allow people to get in sync with the internal rhythm of their lives so that their wings unfold as they should. Remember that University of Michigan survey I mentioned earlier? Here’s something else it found. It found that shared mealtime is a better predictor of higher test scores and other markers of success than anything else we can do with our kids.

That’s what I call a downshift moment. That’s what I call success. Got to schedule it in. Plan for it. Defend it. Something else comes up—an invitation to do something with friends, or perhaps the boss calls—and your response has got to be, “Sorry, I already have an appointment scheduled.” You do have an appointment scheduled! With your family. With yourself. Remember our reading from earlier: 1st Corinthians 13 for Fathers?

And though I have trained personnel, enduring hours, days and years but have not trained my child in the way he/she should go, I may claim not the title of teacher.

Though I consult executives, yet have not been available to my own children for consultation, I remain the misguided one.

Though I prioritize my workday/career, and do not prioritize my home life, I have prioritized a progressive distancing of those who in fact mean the most to me.

This is tragic. We have to get our priorities straight.

We’ve got to schedule in more downshift moments in our hurry-up lives, to balance them out. Yang needs yin. How about resisting the urge to pack too many activities into a Saturday afternoon in order to make up for being gone at work all week? Make Saturday afternoon flex-time, relaxation time, conversation time, doing chores together time.

And then make Sunday morning time for spiritual community. Religious education and worship are more examples of downshift moments. What’s happening right now in this building. All week, we’ve been going 100 miles an hour, but now, the pace of life is down to 20 miles an hour. Is it making you want to scream? Too slow? Frankly, folks, doing the downshift can be really hard… We get addicted to speed… We get caught up in the rush and gush of our lives!

I know it first hand. Let me tell you something about that reading from Nikos Kazantzakis I quoted from earlier. I first encountered it twelve years ago, when I was a first-year student in seminary. A visiting pastor quoted it in a sermon she was preaching at one of the weekly worship services that Meadville Lombard Theological School put on. Clearly, when she preached that sermon and quoted that quote, the scales fell off of my eyes. She spoke to my soul. She helped me become more aware of what the hot breath of seminary was doing to my life and to my family. She helped me see.

But here’s the thing. I HATED those worship services. That’s right. I avoided them whenever I could. Which is ironic, given that I was in seminary training to be a pastor, and isn’t worship a big part of what pastoring is all about? Yes? But the reality was this: I always felt too busy studying for the ministry or too tired because I was too busy and so I can remember those moments as the weekly worship began, how hard it was to downshift from my regular 100 mile-an-hour pace to 20 miles-an-hour. It’s like I had ants in my pants. It’s like I had ants in my mind. It was miserable.

What got me to worship that day 12 years ago, I don’t know. But I’m so glad I was there to hear a good word that I so desperately needed. And I’m so glad you are here today. The hot breath of our hurry-up world is upon us, and we wither…. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can heat-proof our souls. That’s what we can do. Make a personal pact with guilt. Schedule downshift moments and defend them. Whatever it takes to obey the internal rhythm. Whatever it takes to ensure that our wings unfold fully and beautifully into all that they were meant to be.