From whence cometh the myth of quality time?
Frank Bruni is quite correct to emphasize that “quality time” is a modern myth. It’s a fabrication designed to excuse parents from spending enough time with family. He does not mention that this myth was invented by feminists to assuage the guilt of working mothers who were spending so much time on their careers that they could not spend enough time with their children. To solve the problem, feminists invented a myth whereby it was the quality, not the quantity of time that counted.
If Bruni had said that “quality time” is a feminist shibboleth, he would have been tempting the goddesses. And, we can’t have that.
Bruni is writing about a yearly vacation that he and his family take together for a week every year. It’s a family tradition, a bonding ritual one that he had previously seen as a burden. Now, however, he sees its value. In the past he had tried his best to spend less time with the crowd; now he goes for the entire week and enjoys it immensely. Family rituals are good and fun things to do; they affirm allegiance and bond people together.
In his words:
With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.
There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.
Bruni suggests that we retire the concept of quality time:
We delude ourselves when we say otherwise, when we invoke and venerate “quality time,” a shopworn phrase with a debatable promise: that we can plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, engineer intimacy in an appointed hour.
We can try. We can cordon off one meal each day or two afternoons each week and weed them of distractions. We can choose a setting that encourages relaxation and uplift. We can fill it with totems and frippery — a balloon for a child, sparkling wine for a spouse — that signal celebration and create a sense of the sacred.
And there’s no doubt that the degree of attentiveness that we bring to an occasion ennobles or demeans it. Better to spend 15 focused, responsive minutes than 30 utterly distracted ones.
But people tend not to operate on cue. At least our moods and emotions don’t. We reach out for help at odd points; we bloom at unpredictable ones. The surest way to see the brightest colors, or the darkest ones, is to be watching and waiting and ready for them.
That’s reflected in a development that Claire Cain Miller and David Streitfeld wrote about in The Times last week. They noted that “a workplace culture that urges new mothers and fathers to hurry back to their cubicles is beginning to shift,” and they cited “more family-friendly policies” at Microsoft and Netflix, which have extended the leave that parents can take.
Ah, yes. We are going to reform workplace culture to allow parents to spend more time with their children. One is not allowed to say it, but many other studies have noticed that this message is really addressed to mothers. When parental leave is offered equally to mothers and fathers, mothers take it and fathers do not. It might have something to do with biology of the mother/infant connection. It might have something to do with the dominant importance of mothers in the lives of children. It might have something to do with the man code that penalizes fathers who have to rush home to change diapers.
But, we know that in our gender neutered world, it is necessary to say parental and not maternal leave, because feminists would be sorely aggrieved at the thought that fathers are not leaving meetings early in order to breast feed their children.
Such is the way that the culture tries to correct its errors. Now, with any luck, we will no longer be hearing that quality time is just as good if not better than quantity time. But, isn’t that Bruni’s argument. Quantity time is of better quality. Why did anyone imagine that quantity time cannot also be quality time?