TWO CHILDREN, ONE TIME BIND SYNDROME
While spending time with their families over the course of three summers in the early 1990s, I became acquainted with two little girls, Janey King and Hunter Escala. When I first met them, both girls were four years old and both daughters of two-job couples who worked at Amerco, a company I researched to find out how workers were responding to family-friendly policies. The two girls had much in common. Both had loving, happily married parents who spoke appreciatively and knowledgeably about their children. Their parents also worked the same long hours for the same company in the same town during the same period of time. But the two children responded to their parents’ work hours in completely different ways.
Janey King was the younger of two children born to a fast-rising company executive, Vicky King, and her husband, Kevin, a dentist.7 Janey’s parents both worked long hours, and when I met Janey during the first summer I was there, she was spending from 7:00 a. m. to 5:00 p. m. weekdays in a summer program and sometimes also spending between 5:00 p. m. and 7:00 p. m. with a warm, highly competent college student named Cammy.
Many evenings Janey and her mother fell into what I came to call a “time bind syndrome.” The company was exerting steady pressure on Janey’s mother to meet its production goals, catching her up in its strong company culture, and extending her work hours. Janey’s father was less successful at his work, which was, in truth, less demanding, but as a matter of pride he put in the same long hours his wife did. Their work hours were also not overlapping but simultaneous.
In response to her parents’ long hours, Janey grew resentful, cranky, offish, and demanding—mainly in the presence of her mother. She refused to report on the events of her day or show interest in anyone else’s. This made 6:00 p. m. to 8:00 p. m. into a “witching hour,” as Janey’s mother humorously put it, and created a “third shift” for her, coping with Janey’s resentment at her long day Janey’s crankiness exacerbated the strains of reentry and made it coverdy a little tempting to extend time at the office. This was the time bind syndrome.
In another household in another part of town, four-year-old Hunter Kscala responded to a working-class version of the same long workday in a
very different way. Hunter was the second of three children born to Italian American factory workers. Her mother, Deb, worked a rotating swing shift with some overtime, as her own parents had before her. Hunter’s father, Mario, worked steady day shifts plus overtime, and boasted of being a “60- hour-a-week man.” The three children were cared for at various times by a kindly neighbor, their two grandmothers, their father’s cousin, and assorted other relatives who lived in town.
When her parents returned home from work, Hunter seemed excited to see them, and this was the general report her parents gave of the interactions with her at the various endings of their workday, 3:00 p. m., 4:30 p. m., 5:00 p. m. and other times. In fact, because her parents’ schedules were continually changing, it was hard for Hunter to know from week to week when homecomings were, and she often asked to be told when each parent would be home. But Hunter did not appear to lock into an adversarial campaign, as Janey King did, to win more time from her mother or father. Instead, she seemed to run around in a pack with her brother and sister, alternately appealing for attention to her mother, her father, and her older sister, Gina, who seemed to both nurture Hunter and boss her around.
Why, we may wonder, did Janey and Hunter respond so differently to situations that seem similar—at least with regard to parental time? Let’s consider some possible explanations for this difference. First, we could have here two children of different temperaments, Janey more high-strung and insecure and Hunter more relaxed and self-assured. Or maybe Janey had the ego strength to challenge her mother and Hunter didn’t dare, but instead defended against her need for her mother and father by diversifying her affections. Perhaps so, but I doubt that either of these explanations is the end of the matter. The difference between Janey and Hunter could also be due to the fact that Janey was insufficiently attached to her mother and that her mother, Vicky King, was overly preoccupied with her job, working as she did in a strong, absorptive work culture. Maybe Vicky was not what D. W. Winnicott has called a “good enough” mother.8 Actually, though, Janey’s mother spoke knowledgeably, warmly, and frequently about Janey. She knew a great deal about Janey’s life, that of her friends, and her favorite activities, and spoke with sensitivity about the issues that troubled her. Vicky didn’t seem depressed or angry. She loved her work and that seemed to rub off at home. Friends and co-workers spoke admiringly of her as a mother. If anything, it was Deb Escala, Hunter’s mother, who seemed a bit tired and depressed.
Maybe the participation of the two fathers was the more critical factor. If so, the results are confusing—because Janey, who expressed more unhappiness, seemed to get somewhat more attention f rom her father, Kevin King, a dentist who took great pride in his identity as an involved father, while Hunter Escala’s dad, a good-natured factory wm kci. wanted to get out of the
house to play baseball at the slightest excuse, although he was very involved with the children when he was with them. In different ways both fathers were involved. |aney’s dad engaged her in long conversations while Hunter’s dad roughhoused with her and her sister and brother on the lawn out back, Janeys "ather was deliberate, thoughtful, even-tempered, and project – oriented, although it wasn’t clear he had much fun being with Janey. Though less reliable, Mario Escala was more emotionally expressive and playful with Hunter. I find it hard to trace a pattern here between fatherhoods and the time bind syndrome.
How about die children’s relations to their siblings? Janey had one sibling; Hunter had two. So Hunter had to share parental attention with one more child than Janey did, even though she accepted her parents’ long hours with greater equanimity. We might have expected Hunter to show signs of the middle-child malaise so pronounced in parental folklore, but here again we would seem to be wrong.
Can we also speak of a class – and sibling-related effect here? Janey’s older brother worked hard at his schoolwork, came home with A’s and B’s on his report card, and was encouraged—as Annette Lareau’s research suggests tends to be true for upper-middle-class children in general—to focus on individual achievements.9 Meanwhile Hunter’s siblings were more encouraged to form strong relations with kith and kin and less stimulated to focus on individual achievements. Along with gender, class background may help account for the fact that Hunter’s sister was a “little mama” while Janey’s older brother was not a “little daddy.”
Social class can—and I think did—affect the girls in another way too. In her classic work Worlds of Pain, Lillian Breslow Rubin observed that the grown children of working-class parents forgave their parents for childhoods far harsher than those of middle-class children, who complained more openly.1’1 Maybe Hunter had already concluded that her parents had it hard and forgivingly concluded “they’re doing their best,” while Janey King, comparing herself to children of upper-middle-class stay-at-home moms, concluded her mother was not doing her best.
Social class may enter in yet again through the relative importance oi extended kin ties. In Spotted Deer, the fairly rural company town I studied, an employee’s occupational rank was strongly linked to the geographic proximity of kin. The company recruited its managers and professionals from a national pool of applicants, but recruited its unskilled workers from the local community. This meant that most managers lived far from their kin, and most factory workers lived close to their kin. Indeed, Janey King, the manager’s daughter, was cared for by a paid babysitter and by the personnel at the Amerco childcare center, janey’s mother had moved far away from her parents and siblings, and the couple was estranged from Kevin King’s nearby but dominating and disapproving father and mother. Hunter Escala,
dropping. In the course of my time with them I observed several episodes of eavesdropping, and Hunter eavesdropped on my interviews with her mother.
Spotted Deer was not a town in Sweden or Norway where childcare has long been a guaranteed right, readily available and publicly subsidized. Both the Kings and the Escalas made many anxious phone calls and visits to people concerning childcare. So both children got the message that childcare didn’t happen automatically. It was a problem.
Beyond this, there were differences between the two homes in systems of care and in the ways parents arranged it. While her parents worked, Janey was cared for by providers at her childcare center and by Cammy, a college student taking some time off. Hunter’s care came mainly from relatives. In one conversation I saw Janey overhear her mother speak glowingly of Cammy, “Cammy is great. She’s got great people skills, and she’s wonderful with the kids. I’d like to get her a job at Amerco.” Vicky had searched, janey knew, far and wide to get Cammy. Now that she employed Cammy, she was also offering extra kindnesses, including helping Cammy think about a future career with Amerco. But how did this conversation seem from Janey’s point of view? First of all, Janey’s mom didn’t say, “Cammy is great. She’sjust the person to take care of Janey.” The world of Janey’s care was shown to be a sideshow next to the main attraction of Amerco. Someone of real talent, the kind of talent her mother admired, shouldn’t be taking care of a kid. And from this conversation, Janey might also conclude that, friendly as Cammy was, Cammy wasn’t going to be caring for her forever. Also, Janey knew that her mother paid Cammy to take care of her and that this was probably Cammy’s motive for taking the job. With Cammy a temporary person in janey’s life, and her father a permanent but distracted one, Janey’s mother became the main show in town. So she complained to her mother.
By way of contrast, Hunter overheard talk about her paternal grandmother, someone with whom she had a long-term relationship, but with whom her mother had strong differences in the philosophy of childrearing. Hunter was showing her doll how to scramble an egg and putting the doll to bed near the couch her mother, Deb, and I were sitting on as I interviewed Deb. At one point in this adult conversation, Hunter looked up, interested, though she said nothing. Deb was confiding reservations about letting Hunter stay in her grandmother’s care. “Grandma lets Hunter eat candy before meals and doesn’t break it up soon enough when [Hunter’s older sister] teases her.” Hunter could probably surmise that her mother and grandmother disagreed on these issues but that the bond between them was not on the line. The deal about sweets might change, but the deal about Grandma’s care would last.
So why was Hunter more content with her parents’ work schedule than Janey was with hers? Maybe Hunter felt surrounded by her two grandmothers, a series of aunts, and a friend-babysitter next door, all of whom seemed
permanent and in whose worlds she felt central. Part of being in this network was overhearing gossip, complaints, and endless stories about the people in it. Like Janey’s parents, Hunter’s parents paid her babysitter, but the sitter lived across the street and was a friend. There was more of a village community feel behind the deal of pay for service. Not so for Janey.
When a child eavesdrops on conversations about deals parents make concerning her care, the child learns specific facts (Mommy is going to get Cammy a different job, Grandma gives me too much candy). But the child also gets the gist of a deep structure of care— by which I mean the tacit “social wiring” of care. There are many different kinds of care, and like an adult, a child can distinguish between market care and kin-friend care, and all different kinds of each. Children can discern market care that is kin-like, and kin care that is market-like. They can tell the difference between market care by a neighboring friend and market care by an esteemed professional, or market care by “the only one I could find.” They can distinguish nonmarket care by a resentful, overburdened relative from nonmarket care by kin as a loving friend.
Over the last thirty years, the proportion of preschool children in paid care has increased while the proportion cared for by relatives has declined. So in the future, more children are likely to be in Janey’s situation and fewer in Hunter’s. Paid care generally differs from unpaid care, but often in strange and complex ways.15 In paid care, a parent pays for a specific service to be rendered within a relatively short period of time. In kin-friend care, a parent may ask a favor and expect a favor in return—but within a vague, tacit, extended time frame. In market care, the limits of the exchange are up front and clear. In market care, the acts of care are less fraught with intensely important meanings; in kin-friend care, they are far more so. When a parent complains about paid care, the complaint refers to expectations established by professional standards or by a formal understanding as to what a person deserves in exchange for a certain fee. (“This isn’t what I paid for.’1) When a parent asks a relative to babysit a child, the request appeals to a prior web of obligations, and a complaint refers to the assumptions a person makes about it (“That’s not being a good sister.”) Similarly, if a friend cares for a child, a complaint might refer to a prior notion of what a friend should want to give. (“That isn’t how she should act after all we’ve been through together.”) In real life, a child senses many kinds of relationship between parent and provider which combine different threads of each type of arrangement. When children eavesdrop on adult conversations, they are picking up scraps of evidence from which they draw a complex mental picture—not just of their two parents personally, though surely these loom large—but of the deeper structure of care.
For their part, parents don’t take “market” and “kin” arrangements readymade. They actively shape them.10 For example, Hunter’s parents culturally expanded their friendship with Melody, their babysitter. They paid Melody
just as Janey’s parents paid Cam my. But Hunter’s parents “friendified" this market bond. Melody had long lived across the street from the Escalas. She was a neighbor and mother of Hunter’s pal long bef ore she took Hunter into her family daycare. So it didn’t seem a big step to exchange gifts at Christmas and share birthdays, Easter egg hunts, and Halloween junkets. The Escalas didn’t celebrate Melody’s birthday, but they crossed tire street to celebrate Melody’s daughter’s birthday. In the grammar of these exchanges, the Escalas were saying, ‘You’re like kin to us.”17 By contrast, the King family treated Cammy as a college student and future professional, someone who was great with kids for now but who was just passing through.
So Janey found herself spending long hours with a babysitter she knew to be temporary, and this she knew by eavesdropping on enough conversations to get the gist of the whole scene, as Rufus and Catherine I’ollet did overhearing their mother talk to Father Jackson. With an emotionally absent father, a highly individuated and competitive sibling, and a very nice but dearly temporary babysitter, Janey concluded that Mom was it, and Mom wasn ’t there. Hence the time bind syndrome. Had Janey had a whole scene that was structurally organized more like Hunter’s, with a materialized sister, a kinified babysitter, and kinspeople on all sides, perhaps Janey would have experienced her mother’s absence with a greater sense of confidence that her world was intact and she was central in it. She would have seen a social wiring that promised her stable though diverse sources of what counted to her as real care.
If, as the saying goes, it takes a whole village to raise a child, we can ask what kinds of villages these two children lived in. In modern America, children like Janey and Hunter increasingly live in contexts that are villages in function but not in structure. This was more true for Janey than for Hunter. Janey’s daycare teacher, her playmates at daycare, her babysitter, her brother, her parents, her swimming teacher, her grandmother and grandfather, and the child of her grandparents’ neighbor, all these people functioned as her village. But most of these villagers didn’t know each other or cohere as a community’, janey did not live in a self-contained, cohesive, Durkheimian tribe, she lived in an urban village. Hunter’s “village” had more pieces, but they fit more coherently and stably together.
In the end, while children may be playing a video game, watching TV, or reading a comic, they are also doing something else: eavesdropping. Like Rufus and Catherine, Janey and Hunter caught scraps of overheard talk, picking up the gist of a deeper web of relationships on which their care was based. No matter how jolly a caretaker or engrossing the video game, children are often hard at work psyching out the deep structure of care. And this offers a lesson l or parents struggling to free themselves of a time bind syndrome. Part of the answer clearly lies in shorter, more flexible hours. But part of it lies in how we weave—and children read—our cultures of care.