Work-life balance goes beyond the family


Striking the right work-life balance goes beyond the familyFamily planning, it seems, doesn’t mean what it used to. Now the planning keeps on going and going — endless negotiations around every aspect of family schedules. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report on balancing work and family, titled It’s About Time, has taken us into a series of Australian family homes. And it’s confirmed that there’s a dizzying array of ways to structure family life: who works when, drives whom where, cooks and cleans between which other tasks, and negotiates exactly what with their family-friendly employer.

It’s all important stuff—of that there’s no doubt—but the report is not really about time at all. It’s not even about general arrangements for all employees, or about balanced lifestyles. What it’s actually about is family. And when the structures of nuclear family start to be equated with 'life', and as that portion of our time which is not 'work', then we would do well to start feeling a little nervous.

Such a narrow family focus prompts me again to wonder about Jesus’ attitude to family. Perhaps religious views of family are often trotted out in these kinds of debates, so it’s probably worth starting with a couple of qualifications. Firstly, and perhaps obviously, family space and time really didn’t mean the same thing in first century Palestine. We’re talking about a time when meals were conducted with open doors at the side, through which complete strangers could enter at any time and take a seat in the background.

And, sure, blood being thicker than water would be a good way to describe the priority for care for kinship groups, but this was a far cry from mum, dad and 2.4 kids. The Jewish tradition from which Jesus hailed contained clear responsibilities for quite extended branches of the family tree. It was a set-up designed to protect people from falling through societal gaps—making sure that widows and orphans,for example, were provided for.

Of course, the extent to which the reality reflected these values might be an open question. This leads us to Jesus' attitude to family. His comments on family, as the gospels record them, aren’t the kind of family-values-with-a-religious-gloss that we occasionally get around the religious edge of contemporary politics. On the contrary, instead of rushing to see his own family, he said: "who are my mother and brothers?… Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (Mk 3:33, 35).

But this is not meant to be an unhealthy rant prompted by latent family issues, it’s Jesus' acknowledgement that there are more important things than just sticking to our own. For all its emphasis on kinship, there’s another important strand within Jesus' tradition—care for a stranger. Challenging and controversial, Jesus knew such priorities could spark conflict within families.

Striking the right work-life balance goes beyond the familySo, as important as creative work and family arrangements may be for facilitating care for older and younger family members, the problem with the conversation around the HREOC report is that it seems to have completely overlooked the other social problems that come with overworked, time-poor adults. If people are just squishing in time to supervise school readers and provide the after-school sports taxi, then where is the time for participation in broader community concerns? If we’re all just hemmed in by the busyness of our closest kin, then people fall through the gaps.

Who hasn’t wanted to stop and talk to the older woman we don’t know but see daily on her pilgrimage to the shops, or to know more about the actual experience of asylum seekers living in our community, or to find out about the local council strategy for better bike paths— but when is there time for that?

If we’re hoping for a better work-life balance, then how do we start developing an equation for this kind of balance? The conversation is only just skimming the surface when it talks about childcare, because we need to talk about how to structure employment arrangements to allow for social justice, citizenship, for befriending the stranger—and, frankly, also for a bit of a rest.

We may not be able to work out what particular work-family arrangement Jesus may have settled on. I suspect something pretty flexible, with an emphasis on working out how to put energy into what was most important. But we can say that he’d factor in some space—take the boat out, go up onto a mountain—to rest and pray. And then, all the while still looking out for his closest companions, he’d keep on with the work of the kingdom, proclaiming a vision of a world in which people do not fall through the cracks.



submit a comment

Existing comments

I don't agree that the conversation around work-life balance is all about family - I think it's all about work. In our society, it seems that to be a fully-fledged, "normal" adult you have to be in the paid workforce. Hence, the purpose of all the work-family-balance rhetoric is to try and make it possible even for those with major family responsibilities to still be "real" people, i.e., to remain in paid work.

In actual fact, people with children - especially when they are very young - are not only likely to be working harder in their parenting role than in their paid work, they are almost certainly making a bigger contribution to society. I'm convinced that nothing will determine the future of society more than the way very young children are treated, especially in the family, because their early experiences will shape the sort of adults they become, which in turn will shape the society they live in. There certainly seems to be no end of research evidence these days about the vital importance of the early years! Thus, as a society we need to give both more recognition and more resources to parents, so that they really can put their most important job first. If parents were not pressured to put so much time into paid work, then our public discourse could really focus on "work-life balance" in the broader sense that Kylie talks about.

And while it is true that Jesus didn't seem to give a high priority to family, it's also true, as Kylie mentions, that family meant something very different then. I'm convinced that the family in its modern form really lends itself to being an arena where the values of the Gospel (forgiveness, compassion, valuing the smallest and weakest, etc.) can fully be lived out. In fact, it could be a little corner of the world where the reign of God flourishes. But once again, we would need genuine support and recognition from the Church for this to happen.

Sadly, both secular society and the Church seem more intent on using the family for their own purposes rather than being open to the sort of thing I'm suggesting.

Cathy Taggat | 19 April 2007  

there is a common assumption amongst many conservative christians that a patriarchal society is basic to the Gospel. Whereas in the old testament Jewish men were under a moral obligation to marry and produce male heirs; in the New Testament no such obligatuion existed. Men and women could remain single, give their lives to the gospel.Early Christian communities virtually became extended families with "virgins and widows"where necessary being supported by the christian community.St Paul supported himself by continuing his trade as a tent maker. Modern Christian communities seem to be returning to a similar model I hope to do more research on this topic. The latest encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" seems to have opened up a "Pandoras Box" as regards modern day marriage and partnerships

john ozanne | 23 April 2007  


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up