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Work-life balance goes beyond the family

  • 16 April 2007

Family 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