Empty Houses, Fragile Homes

How do we cultivate a robust, healthy home when our house is empty?

Home is where… no one is. At least, that seems to be the modern trend. City dwellers lead hectic lives, our suburbs are "bedroom communities," and the talent of the next generation is quickly fleeing small rural towns. Home is typically understood as a place primarily inhabited by a family in which the family finds protection, comfort, and fellowship together, as well as a place to which we can invite others to partake in our lives. But when our houses are empty for the majority of hours in the day, can they even properly be called homes? As the amount of time we spend in our homes continues to decrease, this trend is steadily reshaping our society.

In some cases, it is easy to find valid, sympathetic excuses. Single parents run 30% of households in the U.S., a number that has tripled since 1960. Many of these parents are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time to spend in the home. In other cases, we do not have good justifications. Our society tends to frown upon stay-at-home parents, or at least raise a doubtful eyebrow. Everyone is supposed to realize their full potential, and it's assumed that that potential can only be realized in a career. The message is pretty clear: If you're not working and instead staying at home, you're selling yourself short, you're giving up.

But what does research tell us about life in homes with two working parents? Currently 67% of households are dual income, and the market has adjusted to the new norm. The modern dual income household has comparable discretionary income to a single income household in the 1970s. So, there's no one at home for the kids, and it turns out we aren't any better off financially. We've traded family time and leisure so that both parents can "have a career." Is that a good trade for the next generation?

There is no doubt that parents today are trying hard. In fact, they actually spend a bit more time with their own kids than their parents did with them, but the total (20 hours/week combined) still leaves something to be desired. And those 20 hours include all types of shared time, including TV time and time spent in the same room with our heads buried in phones. Consider how the average student in such a home spends his or her time. They are in school for roughly 7 hours per day, they spend 1-2 hours on homework, they sleep another 7 hours (less than recommended, but can you blame them?), and they spend 3 hours per day in front of the computer or TV. That leaves only 5 free hours and we haven't begun to talk about sports, extracurricular activities, travel time, meals, time with friends, etc. How much time is left for the family? How many hours are spent in the house that aren't alone in a bedroom or in front of the TV? What is lacking in this child's experience and understanding of home that will impact the person he or she becomes?

In a distinct departure from historical precedent, and even from the home experience in other contemporary cultures, few American households today contain extended family. We are a transient society, with the next generation frequently living states away from their extended family. Even if family is near, who has the time to steward these relationships? Rushing to and from work, carting children around to various activities, staying fit… it's hard enough to manage the schedules of our own immediate family. Who has time for extended family? Aging family members most often end up in the care of special homes and services for the elderly, exonerating us from the time and responsibility of their care and perhaps indulging a similar impulse to that which lands our children in preschool seemingly earlier and earlier each year.

Yes, there are many victims of our empty homes – the most unacknowledged and significant of which is perhaps our leisure time. We simply don't have time for hanging around the house. The average full-time American worker spends 47 hours/week at work, and the average part-time worker spends 26 hours. Work clearly hasn't taken a time hit, and our children are doing more activities than ever, shuttled around, of course, by their parents. Throw in some basic chores, 6-7 hours of sleep, and time at the gym, and adults are barely left with energy or time enough to watch a couple of hours of TV with the kids. There is no margin for the kind of shared leisure that improves our minds and souls, enables us to educate our children beyond the four walls of a classroom, and strengthens familial bonds. Under the strain of such a harried pace, where is there room for contemplation, rest, sustained conversation, and other soul-crafting leisure activities that have traditionally played a role in the home as providing both a haven and an education for life?

In the face of the sobering state of our modern homes, we might hear echoes of familiar advice from elderly family members and friends: "Slow down, appreciate your children, they grow up so fast!" or "On your deathbed you won't regret not spending more time at the office." The combined wisdom of the aged seems in direct contrast to our current culture; how long can we ignore their collective shout - "Spend time with your family!"?

Instead, we heed the voice of our modern obsession with self-realization. We have convinced ourselves that our primary moral duty is to be all that we can be, which generally gets defined as a "career." As our highest individual imperative, this seeming obsession is actively dismembering our social structures. Since we must be all that we can be, our children, by extension, must be also. So we fill our time. We fill their time. Little time is left for family, and virtually no time is left for lasting, non-achievement-oriented relationships in our communities, churches, or extended families. Our homes are empty of children, parents, and guests. And what, we must ask, will be the impact on our society when its fundamental unit – the family – is functioning less and less as a unit? Who, or what, is shaping the rising generation beyond the schools and the media?

This survey of our current cultural landscape seems to leave us with a nation of self-obsessed commuting achievers whose most consistent day-to-day social relationships are with the government and media – making Aldous Huxley's Brave New World look frighteningly more prescient by the day. This problem is not new. Our empty homes are the result of many, many decades of cultural development. They are the inevitable result of our emphasis on self-actualization combined with the technological developments that have made travel and isolation easier choices. We are experiencing the logical ramifications of a self-oriented culture.

But I think that many people would rather not live this way. Regrettably, our broader culture has made alternatives difficult. It is now difficult to live on one spouse's income. It is now difficult to pull your child out of activities when every other family is doing it. It is now difficult to choose the incalculable benefits of family time and self-sacrifice when you could be spending time pursuing achievements that are so easy to rank and calculate.

Short of a complete cultural change, then, our houses seem likely to be empty for many years to come. But we can hope that our children, or perhaps their children, will turn against the tide of packed schedules and self-actualization to acknowledge anew the importance of true homes filled with people who spend time with and for each other. And we can act on this hope.

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