It’s nothing novel to say that American families feel busy. According to a Pew Research Center report, in almost half of two-parent households, both parents work full-time, and in an additional 17 percent one parent works full-time and another part-time. With the challenges of balancing work and family, social relationships can fall by the wayside. More than half of working parents say they don’t spend enough time away from their children to get together with friends or pursue hobbies, and among those who are married or cohabiting, 42% say they spend too little time with their partners. Needless to say, in American family life the perception of “time poverty” is real.
When thinking about how to help stressed families, we tend to gravitate towards policy solutions. Those matter immensely, but as I’ve recently learned, so do other things, like friendship and a supportive community—things we can access without waiting for a bill to pass through Congress.
It all started when my formerly Amish mother-in-law came to visit. (Yes, I married a man who grew up Amish.) She is the kindest and most helpful mother-in-law imaginable, but as she was helping me clean out my refrigerator, she commented, “It’d be really nice if you had a cleaning lady.” Was my house really that dirty? It was and I knew it, though I didn’t want my mother-in-law to know it, too.
Before I could get too offended, however, she explained that when she was an Amish farm wife with a big garden to tend, more chores than she could handle, and three children in diapers, the eldest of whom was disabled, her community was there to help. Her young nephew came to live with them for the summer to help with farm chores. Her sisters would get together each week, rotating houses to cook and clean each other’s kitchens, laughing and socializing and working while their older children helped and their youngest ones played. Her mother- and father-in-law lived just up the lane.
For the Amish, community was not only built around leisure or worship, but around functional tasks. In this way, quality time with friends and family did not have to compete with other responsibilities, but could complement them.
Their example gave me an idea. Why not see if any of my own friends wanted to spend time together not just at play dates or dinner parties, but doing each other’s chores and house projects? I found one friend who was crazy enough to try.
For the past year, we have taken turns working on each other’s to-do lists. From 4:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, a day on which both of our husbands work late, we go to her house. Our four children play (usually nicely) while we fold laundry, clean bathrooms, mop and vacuum floors, weed flower beds, make dinner, do dishes, and other chores. On Thursdays, we do the same at my house. It’s not unlike the article “I Want A (Sister) Wife” that went viral during the same time we started our “cleaning days”—amazingly, when it’s not your house, it doesn’t really feel like work. And when it is your house but your friend is there to talk to, it doesn’t really feel like work, either.
For the Amish, community was not only built around leisure or worship, but around functional tasks.
This has not eradicated all the challenges of work-family balance, but it has helped decrease my stress level. Our house is much cleaner and more organized, and when it’s not, I still have peace of mind throughout the week because I know that some respite is coming—Carrie will be here. It’s kind of like having a cleaning lady for free. As my four-year-old likes to say when he doesn’t want to clean up his messes, “Miss Carrie can pick it up when she comes.”
But even more than that, these cleaning days have become an occasion for forming a deep friendship. There’s nothing like pouring out your soul while you are scrubbing the burnt grease off the bottom of a friend’s oven, or folding their family’s underwear. It’s easier to talk—to really talk—about meaningful things in your lives when you are working together on a common goal, especially when that goal involves as much vulnerability as letting your friend help clean all the junk in your closet (or toilet).
As scholars like Robert Putnam have demonstrated, many Americans lack these kinds of meaningful friendships—connections that matter for family life. Working parents feel the tension between responsibilities at home and cultivating a community outside of it. It’s not easy to do both. Building relationships around functional tasks, as opposed to only social ones, is one way that people have historically balanced the challenges of survival with the need for close human relationships. The Amish have retained some of this culture, much to the benefit of their families.
In modern America, there is not much precedent for giving and receiving help from neighbors. We don’t know whether the neighbors will look kindly on that meal we brought them after the birth of their child, or politely reject any offers of help. Will the new guy across the street think it’s neighborly—or creepy—if I bake him cookies as a welcome gift?
In an episode of Parenthood, Adam Braverman is offended when a fellow parent from his son’s Little League team offers to help with meals and rides to school during a stressful time for the Braverman family. “Listen, by the way, Adam, if you guys need anything... Help with meals, rides to school, anything,” the well-meaning parent offers. Adam’s terse reply: “Thanks, Scott. We still feed and clothe ourselves.” We are often embarrassed to offer help and embarrassed to ask for it for fear of appearing too intense or needy, or just plain odd.
For this reason, institutional support matters. Neighborhood associations can bridge the gap and create a culture of involvement by sponsoring block parties and celebrating neighborliness. Religious institutions can urge members to provide practical support to each other during times of illness or the arrival of a baby.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints seems particularly good at making such support part of their institutional culture. Though we are not members of the church ourselves, when we moved last year, some Mormon friends of ours offered to organize a team of people to help us, which included two sister missionaries and two elders who spent a Saturday moving furniture and cleaning. I have a vivid memory of one of the elders crouched over in our tub, scrubbing vigorously until it gleamed. Recently the sister missionaries stopped by again to ask if they could help us with any house projects, and when I told them we needed to paint, it wasn’t long before I got a text from another Mormon friend saying, “So I heard that you needed to paint…” Helping each other is strongly embedded in their culture, which may help to explain why the LDS Church tends to have strong families.
While continuing to advocate for public policies that alleviate stresses on the family, families can help each other by engaging in the kinds of cooperative behaviors that defined life for my Amish in-laws. Families can thus take steps to solve two problems at once: a sense of busyness, and lack of meaningful friendships. It’s possible for individuals to do this on their own, like my friend and I have. But widespread social change is much more likely to happen if civil society institutions lead the way by creating the culture and structures for families to help each other, like the LDS Church is already doing. Other institutions should take note.