I sit sunken in the green hide-a-bed in my living room—the one my grandparents’ bought in the 1960s when they were young parents with young children—and now I am the one flanked by my six-year-old and four-year-old boys, The Little Prince open in my lap. The deteriorated foam cushions are original and so the incline caused by the weight of my pregnant body pulls my kids so close it’s like we’re nestled into a bean bag. My uncle, who graciously U-hauled this hulk of a sofa from Iowa to Ohio for us, can’t see why I love it so much. He tells me of multiple moves when they almost threw it out to burn. My grandma knew it was out of fashion, but my grandpa, to his dying day, claimed that it had the most comfortable mattress in the world.
* * *
Six years ago, when my husband David and I drove a different, couch-less U-Haul from New York City to a small town in Ohio, we had many thoughts about how marriage and family life ought to be, and we were concerned by the trends we saw among our soon-to-be neighbors: low marriage rates, high divorce rates, and high rates of children born outside of marriage.
We were thinking a lot in those days about how beliefs shape behavior. For example, we noticed how flawed notions of love contributed to tenuous relationships and a merry-go-round of marriage and divorce. (“Love is effortless,” one woman told me, citing the hard work of their marriage as the reason she was divorcing her husband.)
What was not on our radar initially were the stressors our working-class interviewees face as they tend to both work and family responsibilities in an economy of low-wage, service sector jobs in which many employees have irregular schedules and no paid leave to care for sick family members or recover after childbirth and the transition to a new baby. After hearing stories from women like Tonya —who returned to work at a chain restaurant two days after giving birth and then worked through subsequent cancer treatments out of financial necessity—we were challenged to think about marriage and family in terms of a broader human ecology , which includes everything from cultural messages about marriage to policy proposals like paid family leave.
Since then, as WORLD reported recently, the issue of paid family leave is becoming truly bipartisan, as evidenced by the landmark AEI-Brookings report, the recent Senate hearing on the topic, and legislative proposals from Senators as diverse as Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Long seen as a progressive issue, the now-broad support for paid family leave is encouraging. Earlier this month, a new report, Time to Flourish: Protecting Families’ Time for Work and Care, was released by Families Valued, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. In addition to drawing on research from the social sciences and providing historical context, the report puts forth a theological framework for why pro-family Christians should be concerned about family time-stress. Currently, the faith community is an untapped resource in the movement for paid family leave, and the principles in this report provide a starting point to change that.
Something that distinguishes Time to Flourish from other reports I’ve read is its broader emphasis on family time, as opposed to a narrow focus on financing maternity leave, for example. Undergirding this is a theology that embraces cycles of care, work, and rest as God-given. Research cited in the report also supports the idea that family time matters for the health of families:
Children who grow up with solid family rituals—from the daily ritual of a shared meal to seasonal family rituals—typically demonstrate greater resiliency and mental health. Family rituals also contribute to family cohesion. As anthropologists have observed, ‘When groups act in rhythm—when they do the same things according to the same repeated time pattern—they tend to become more tightly knit.' Developing and sustaining these rituals requires time and a degree of control over time that proves challenging to parents who face long work hours, irregular or night shifts or a lengthy commute.
Several years ago, after the birth of our third son, our family was feeling especially pressed for time. I started being uncharacteristically emotionally volatile, and our family life felt chaotic. I visited a counselor and scaled back on the work I took on, telling people that I needed an extended maternity leave. My husband transitioned to a different job, which allowed me to take the time I needed away from work. The gift that came with these changes is significant: we were able to take time to create the kind of family rituals we knew we wanted but had struggled to really implement. For example, when our kids know that Fridays are “Family Fun Nights,” it’s easier to survive busy weeknights because we can anticipate a weekly time to reconnect, and it anchors us.
As the authors of Time to Flourish write, “families thrive when they have the freedom and capacity to coordinate life together.”
* * *
From the perch on my green couch, I read aloud from Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s classic. The little prince is talking with the fox, who is instructing the prince to tame him. My boys, who have already seen the movie on Netflix, are thankfully still interested in this exchange.
The fox explains that if the prince wants to tame him he must return each day, preferably at the same time:
“‘For instance, if you come at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three. The closer it gets to four, the happier I’ll feel…. But if you come at any old time, I’ll never know when I should prepare my heart … There must be rites.’
‘What’s a rite?’ asked the little prince.
‘That’s another thing that’s been too often neglected,’ said the fox. ‘It’s the fact that one day is different from the other days, one hour from the other hours.’”
The connection to family time strikes me. I can see how true these words are and how much our culture has neglected Sabbaths and holidays and the kinds of rites that sustain family life.
But perhaps, as the conversation surrounding paid parental leave attests, we are beginning to appreciate the wisdom of the fox—as well as the models of people like my grandparents whose 67-year-marriage was a beautiful example of how shared ritual bonds a family. Perhaps we are beginning to miss what we have lost. Do we miss it enough to go in search of it again?
Amber Lapp is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.