How A Song Helps My Family Take Control Of Time

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Michael Erard and his wife both work from home, so creating a schedule for family time, creative time, and play time with their 2-year-old son required a little creativity, but they’re making it work—one 24-hour cycle at a time.

An artist friend of mine once observed that this generation of kids will be unique for having their parents at home more than our own parents were, for the simple fact that the parents—us—are more likely to be working at home. I remembered this observation the other day on the way back from daycare drop-off of my 2-year-old son: Out of the three people in our household, our son will spend the most time away from home, in school.

Until he’s in school every day, though, we’ll still spend a lot of time in the same residence, living and working. Now we have a house, which offers more space than the apartment where we previously lived. Back then, our thinking was, he’s going to have to understand that his mother or father are close enough that he might see or hear them, but that they belong to a different sort of time, one where he can’t have easy access to them, not until the work day is over. Plus, doors can be opened. Little kids can shout. We may have more space now, but he’s more mobile and more vocal, which thins the doors and shrinks the space. To prevent those disruptions, you have to install psychological limits, not just physical ones.

We began our parting and reunion rituals when he was 3 months old, when we each went back to work after parental leave; we might have been reading Becky Bailey, a parenting expert, who recommends “I love you” rituals. My wife, M, made up a good-bye song, and I have a song for him, too. Both songs describe what’s going to happen—the parent is going away, perhaps to work, perhaps somewhere else—and there will be a return—we’ll come to get you, we’ll be together again. (For some reason, the reunion song we invented dropped away from our ritual over time.) When he started daycare, having a farewell ritual helped smooth the separations as much for us as for him. At least where he’s going during the day, there won’t be reminders of our time together. But me: I walk by his strewn toys every time I leave my office.

I was recently talking to M about other work-at-homers we know, and I realized that the song ritual has had an unintended benefit: It has demarcated the adults’ boundaries for each other, which are things we didn’t know we needed when working from home before having a child. Now, when M sings to him, I know she’s on her way, out of play, not available to either of us. When I’m with him in the afternoons while she works, I don’t think to myself, I wish I could get some help with this. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had to interrupt her in two years, and only then because glassware was exploding (don’t ask) or things like projectile vomiting were going on.

None of this is an innovation, exactly; for some people, crafting these moments could be so automatic, yeah, they do it, and so what? On the other hand, when I’ve described this small feature of our daily lives, people seem impressed, so maybe they don’t realize that this tool is available for them, too. For us, it has been just one tool we have for weaving together and also splitting the sorts of time and space that we build our lives with. In an earlier set of posts for Role/Reboot, M and I described some aspects of how we have designed our “household model“: the allocation of energies and tasks, and the scheduling of family time, work time, creative time, and play time. Why such a focus on time? Because one of the most powerful elements of our design process has been taking control of time. Everyday, normal, mundane time.

And it’s not just middle-class people working from home who can benefit from this; anyone can do it. I realize there are significant cultural and class implications in suggesting that merely coming up with the right song will solve a host of problems, but that’s not actually what I mean. The notion of “time management” (the phrase that often gets used to describe the schedule-shaping part of our lives) is too impoverished to really get at what’s at stake or how much meaning we derive from bending and shaping time. To put it another way: You “manage” time if you believe there’s only one kind of time. In fact, there are many different kinds of time, each one experienced differently, each one with a different value.

Just take the notion of a “public” timetable and a “private” timetable. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from each other is their ability to set their private timetable and navigate the public, 9-to-5 timetable. Many working Americans are at the behest of the public timetable, and trying to squeeze a private timetable becomes a major constraint that squeezes families. For instance, our lives would be easier if caring for the children of workers was seen as part of the public timetable, not something to be wedged into its margins—or wholly ignored by it.

There is also powerful research that suggests that even low-income families—particularly women, who have the greatest number of factors working against them—are able to take control of their lives when they’re able to get their hands around the time factor. In a fascinating 2004 article, “Don’t Have No Time: Daily Rhythms and the Organization of Time for Low-Income Families,” sociologist Kevin Roy and colleagues describe the consequences for low-income families, especially women, who don’t have a lot of control—or the resources to control—their schedules. They’re dependent on inconvenient public transportation routes. They have to save self-care activities, even grocery shopping, for weekends. They can access health services or job training only during certain time windows. The jobs they work are low-paying, menial. Their family schedules are out of synch with “public” timetables of the 9-to-5 world.

So they become experts at juggling time. Saying they do it to “get time to do the things they need to do” is of course superficial; what they’re actually doing is creating schedules that are stable and predictable, which is the only way to work and have a family in modern America. They stagger obligations (working night shifts, for instance, while caring for children during the day). They expand any resources they can in order to add flexibility to their lives (such as maintaining relationships with family members, especially those with cars, who could do child care in a pinch or give them rides). Navigating the conflicts between the private and public timetables is so difficult, and their private time so valuable to them, that some women end up just quitting public help altogether. “Mothers reduced other interactions with public agencies, such as visits to clinics or social workers,” Roy wrote, “because of the wasted time and frustration that often emerged from inflexible allocation of resources and inability to integrate them with shifting commitments to work and child care.”

The struggle to get on the right side of the schedule affects all of us, including our children, and I think some of the impact of all this back and forth between places, priorities, and roles would be lessened—for all of us—if we consciously made different sorts of time. Rituals for departures and arrivals are one ways to do that, by smoothing out the absences and tying the bits of time we can snatch into more continuous wholes. This would help our kids, and our partnerships, and ourselves.

Michael Erard is a linguist and author of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners and Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. He’s written about language for the New York Times, Science, Wired, the New Scientist, and many other publications, and is a contributing writer to Design Observer. Find him on his website and follow him on Twitter @michaelerard.

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