Families & Time: Keeping Pace in a Hurried Culture


Kerry J. Daly

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  • Understanding Families

    Series Editors: Bert N. Adams, University of Wisconsin

    David M. Klein, University of Notre Dame

    This book series examines a wide range of subjects relevant to studying families. Topics include parenthood, mate selection, marriage, divorce and remarriage, custody issues, culturally and ethnically based family norms, theory and conceptual design, family power dynamics, families and the law, research methods on the family, and family violence.

    The series is aimed primarily at scholars working in family studies, sociology, psychology, social work, ethnic studies, gender studies, cultural studies, and related fields as they focus on the family. Volumes will also be useful for graduate and undergraduate courses in sociology of the family, family relations, family and consumer sciences, social work and the family, family psychology, family history, cultural perspectives on the family, and others.

    Books appearing in Understanding Families are either single- or multiple-authored volumes or concisely edited books of original chapters on focused topics within the broad interdisciplinary field of marriage and family.

    The books are reports of significant research, innovations in methodology, treatises on family theory, syntheses of current knowledge in a family subfield, or advanced textbooks. Each volume meets the highest academic standards and makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of marriages and families.

    The National Council on Family Relations cosponsors with Sage a book award for students and new professionals. Award-winning manuscripts are published as part of the Understanding Families series.

    Multiracial Couples: Black and White Voices

    Paul C. Rosenblatt, Terri A. Karis, and Richard D. Powell

    Understanding Latino Families: Scholarship, Policy, and Practice

    Edited by Ruth E. Zambrana

    Current Widowhood: Myths & Realities

    Helena Znaniecka Lopata

    Family Theories: An Introduction

    David M. Klein and James M. White

    Understanding Differences Between Divorced and Intact Families

    Ronald L. Simons and Associates

    Adolescents, Work, and Family: An Intergenerational Developmental Analysis

    Jeylan T. Mortimer and Michael D. Finch

    Families and Time

    Kerry J. Daly


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    This book is dedicated to my own family—Helen Theresa, Johanna, and Ben—whose love, patience, and care sustain me through time.


    Consciousness is often irrevocable. I used to take great delight as a child when someone told me to imagine a black-and-white cow in a green field and then insisted that I stop thinking about it. My relative powerlessness at chasing the image from my mind led me to try out this phenomenological trick on others who similarly had difficulties in dismissing the images of such cows from their consciousness.

    As I wrote this book, time took a central place in the way that I viewed the world. Increasingly, I interpreted my experience through the lens of time. My consciousness of time had become irrevocable, and like the cow that couldn't be chased away, time came to dominate my ways of thinking about and experiencing everyday life.

    The idea for this book came out of my research with fathers of young children. Using qualitative interviews as my data collection technique, I asked questions about how they saw themselves as fathers, who their important influences were, and how they perceived their relationship with their children. As I reflected on their responses, I was struck by the dominance of time metaphors in their descriptions of their relationship with their children. They lamented about not having enough time with their children, they strategized about how to make time to be with their children, and most important, they repeatedly emphasized the value of spending time with their kids. Time appeared as a dominant currency in their experience of family: It was the measure of value in their relationship with their children. It was with this sensitization about the importance of time to men that I began to look more broadly at the meaning and importance of time in families as a whole. When I began to look at the literature, I was initially struck by the relative absence of time in the family research. It appeared that most of what people were doing was to count the number of hours that family members committed to various activities as a way of understanding the stresses and strains associated with managing the family-work balance. What was missing in the literature was a comprehensive analysis of the conceptual meanings of time for families. Although various aspects of family time experience have been explored in the literature, there has been little effort to bring these elements of temporal experience together into a comprehensive whole. It was this apparent gap in our understanding that became the catalyst for this book.

    In the course of writing this book, I had many different personal experiences that sensitized me to the multidimensional nature of time. One of the overarching changes in my experience of time occurred as a result of having a sabbatical. With sabbatical, the tyranny of institutional time structures is removed. When you don't have to teach classes or attend regular meetings, then the daily schedule is something that must be constructed rather than simply responded to. At the same time, however, I was very aware that I wasn't as free as I had expected. First, I realized that family schedules are bigger than just me. Children go to school and must be fed lunch and be picked up. My spouse was working, and as a result, there were several schedules that needed to be synchronized—just as if we were at home. Furthermore, the spatial move of living in another part of the country did not make my time unavailable to people at my home institution. Specifically, e-mail and fax machines meant that the response to graduate students, editors, and colleagues was expected just as quickly as if I were at home. Although sabbatical removed me from some of the temporal constraints of my work institution, it did not free me completely. Overall, I was left with a respect for the power of our daily timetables that came from two directions. First, I was more appreciative of my dependence on routine that arose in the course of trying to establish a new schedule for myself outside of the institutional structure of the university. Second, I was aware of how difficult it was to shake the persistent and steady pace of my life that continued during sabbatical by virtue of my embeddedness in the schedules of the people around me. The forces that maintained this pace ranged from the hours of my children's school day to the research progress of one of my graduate students in South America.

    During my sabbatical year, I also experienced the death of my father. He died after struggling with Alzheimer's disease for several years. For me, his death was a profound and sobering realization that human time does not stretch out endlessly before us.

    I also spent time during this year volunteering through our church to take a man in his 99th year for regular walks. When I breathlessly arrived at his house (because I always try to arrive just on time rather than early), I was always aware of the change in pace and tempo from my own plugged-in world. I would come from having impatiently checked my e-mail for a message at my office, to walking slowly and methodically up the lane lined with arbutus trees with a man whose stroke meant that each step was calculated and methodical. I was intensively aware of slow. I was also very aware of the dramatic change in historical context, for many of his reference points, reminiscences, and memories were rooted in the 19th century! I was always somewhat awed and humbled by his range of experience in time.

    Over the past couple of years, I have also found myself as a father and husband shifting gears from having a wife who was initially an at-home mother to a wife as a graduate student to a wife who now works full-time in the workforce. The pace and intensity of our shared lives have changed dramatically through those transitions and have had a powerful influence on our lives together.

    Overall, these experiences have alerted me to the importance of some of the central themes in the theoretical analysis of time: the power of schedules and timetables in the way that we organize our day-to-day lives, the embeddedness of our own schedules in the temporal structures of others, the finitude of time, the intertwining of individual lives and history, and the challenges that are associated with synchronizing the changing schedules of individual family members. These themes and others constitute the substance of this book.

    Several comments are warranted to alert the reader about the style in which this book is written. First, the book is intentionally interdisciplinary in nature. Although I am a sociologist by training, time defies the neat boundaries of any one discipline. It has been a central focus in both ancient and modern philosophy. The social sciences have taken a modest interest in time through their relatively brief history, with the perspectives of sociology, psychology, and geography being represented most often in this book. Time has also been a focus in the interdisciplinary fields of family science and family systems theory, and these too are well represented throughout the book. Nevertheless, despite my efforts to present these various perspectives, I am quite sure that my sociological orientation has resulted in a more heavy weighting for that perspective in the book.

    Second, this book is distinctively North American in its scope. Although many of the ideas are relevant to Western, postindustrial societies, culture plays an important role in the way that time is valued, perceived, and experienced. There is much that needs to be learned in an analysis of cultural variation with respect to time, but this is beyond the scope of this analysis. Of course, cultural variation is as much present within North America as it is present comparatively throughout the world.

    Third, this book is intended for a wide range of audiences. It is primarily directed toward scholars from a variety of disciplines who share an interest in the family. Professionals and students who regularly teach about, or do research on, some aspect of family experience inevitably must deal with issues of time. Whether it is division of labor, caregiving, or developmental changes throughout the life span, time is a foundational theme. Those who focus in their scholarship on some aspect of the family-work interface may find this work particularly relevant. Time lies at the heart of families' efforts to work out the stresses and conflicts associated with the work-family balance. This book is also intended for therapists and educators who wish to help families cope with the escalating demands of a fast-paced technological culture.

    Finally, this book is intended to be a theoretical book about time. In light of the move away from positivist assumptions about how to do science, theory has become a contentious term that can mean many things depending on the values, goals, and premises of the theorist. As a result of this, some comment is warranted at the outset about how I perceive theory. In contrast to the axiomatic, lawlike character of positivist theory, I view theory as a meaning structure. A meaning structure is a composite of ideas and explanations that provide insight into the dynamics, dimensions, and relationships of a particular phenomenon. These ideas and explanations are rooted in many sources, including our own conjecture as scientists; empirical evidence that portrays patterns of feeling, action, or behavior under specified circumstances; and our observations of the world around us that are shaped by the media, culture, and experience. Given the dynamic nature of these influences, theory can never stand still. It must always have an elasticity that allows for the incorporation of new information and ideas.

    In keeping with these ideas, I propose this as a theory about family time. Although books tend to reify ideas in a way that most postpositivists find distasteful, they serve as an important medium for the exercise of ideas that are relevant to the topic at hand. Metaphorically, theories should be treated like bread dough that rises with a synergetic mix of ingredients only to be pounded down with the addition of new ingredients and human energy. It is my hope that these ideas will give rise to new ideas about the patterns and politics of family time. Equally, it is my hope that they will be kneaded and reworked as time goes on.


    Thanks to Dave Klein and Bert Adams, the series editors, and Jim Nageotte at Sage for believing in this book and being willing to support it.

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    Author Index

    About the Author

    Kerry Daly is Associate Professor in the Department of Family Studies at the University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada. He received his PhD in Sociology from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. His research interests focus on the social meaning of time, the social construction of fatherhood, and the nature of adoptive relationships. He is coeditor of Qualitative Methods in Family Research (Sage, 1992), and coauthor of Adoption in Canada (Health and Welfare Canada, 1993). He has published articles in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, the Journal of Family Issues, Qualitative Sociology, and the Journal of Social Issues. He is married, has two children ages 10 and 12 and, in moments of quiet, wonders where the time has gone.

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