An American Epidemic
By Katie Brooks, LCSW
In thinking about this today though, it reminds me that most couples in America experience this same scenario day in and day out in a variety of contextual arrangements. Each day the average American will return from work having experienced a full day of appointments, paperwork, meetings, and interactions that drain even the most energetic and positive of individuals. Most people wait for the whistle to blow, counting down the seconds as if it were the end of a marathon that was held in a desert devoid of water. At 5pm the mass sigh of relief rings across America only to be inhaled once again upon returning home. Unfortunately, as each individual opens the door this inhalation contains stale air as they are engulfed by their chaotic homes. This stale air includes the realization that the work day is done, but there is much to be done personally to conclude the day. The average American will walk into their home only to be greeted by unwashed dishes, dirty hungry children, laundry piled high to the ceiling, and a need for nourishing food to be supplied. Then the panic arises when the realization occurs that no one is well rested enough to satisfy the household demands. How in the world is it possible to look at the love of your life with passion and desire when stale air has just invaded your body?
In the August 2010 issue of The Journal of Personality, Kennon M. Sheldon, Robert Cummins, and Shanmukh Kamble stated that, “Unbalanced lifestyles are endemic to Western culture. Modern people work longer hours than ever before, and the task of integrating work life with family life and child rearing is becoming ever more difﬁcult, especially given the increasing percentage of dual-career couples. This phenomenon has been referred to as the ‘‘scarcity hypothesis’’ (Chapman, Ingersoll-Dayton, & Neal, 1994), in which the over allocation of time to work leaves less time and energy available for other domains, such as family.”
This epidemic has spread across our nation based upon the binding constriction of time, energy and money. The value of our relational experiences is limited to the amount of time and energy we have. Due to the demand of Capitalism, every American seems to be infected with the idea that the amount of enjoyment in our lives depends upon the amount of time and energy we put into our careers. The more we get paid the better life we have. This idea fogs our thinking. If this were true then that would mean that our careers are a higher priority then our relationships, but in reality they are competing forces both requiring time and energy. I feel that it should be the other way around and so do most parents. According to a November 2010 journal Article posted in “Community Work and Family”, “Most fathers reported being involved in household work and wanting to be close to their children. Mothers stressed the importance of achieving a minimum of gender equality in relation to their partner.”
I believe that our careers provide us with currency to maintain our livelihood with our loved ones, but our loved ones are WHY we work. They are the priority. If American's held true to their belief system then no one in their right mind would work harder than necessary. But I think people don't realize that we do not need material items or large quantities of money to have successful lives, which includes the quality of our relationships. We should work in order to maintain a life that is comfortable and at the same time not deplete the energy and time that should be spent with or on our loved ones. I cannot tell you how many mansions in Orange County I observe with no lights on as I take my evening run. It is dinner time, but it is oddly quiet. There are no children playing, no sweet smells wafting from chimneys or stoves, no one yelling or ringing a bell that the food is ready. Even if there were, it is so obvious that there is absolutely no one home to enjoy it. Doesn't it seem funny that money, the very thing that we think is set up to make our lives with our loved ones more enjoyable, is really ruining our ability to give and receive love. If we are constantly working to make money who do we spend it on?
My husband and I recognized that we were short with each other due to our lack of energy at the end of the day and were able to recover easily. But what about other couples with children, a mortgage, and jobs that require more than 8 hours of work a day. What about those relationships? How do they recover? Do they recover or does it turn into a bitter tirade of remarks that carries on for days at a time? And does this occur in other cultures? Adam and I were lucky enough to leave the American life for one year and I was be able to experience what it would be like to spend my time and energy in areas of my life that have been neglected or minimized for years. We traveled to South America, Asia and India. The people in these countries work so that they can enjoy life and each other’s company. It seems they have not caught the bug. Working long hours to buy stuff that fails to bring us happiness is completely illogical. According to my observations, I feel that this epidemic is cultural. It manifests itself in other countries on occasion due to survival needs, but most American’s aren’t hungry, homeless, or unwillingly separated from their loved ones. American's must be missing something. We must be missing something.
For the sake of this article I am going to define Life-Balance as a state of satisfaction/gratification in multiple roles of a person’s life; with little or no effect in competing roles. In order to gain life- balance there are numerous steps that one can take in order to become more fulfilled:
Choose a career interest rather than an optimal salary.
Choose a career that does not overwhelm your life.
Leave work at work. Limit the amount of time you think about work when you are not working. Make note in a journal or find an affirmation that you can say to yourself every time you catch yourself thinking about work. For example, “I enjoy my time at home.”
Be present in every activity that you do.
Do not use the phone while you are out to dinner with your spouse.
If you are spending quality time with you children try not to get distracted by things like
the TV or email.
If you are exercising or relaxing turn off your phone and spend some time with yourself.
ASSESS AND PRIORITIZE
Assess how you spend your free time and prioritize. Maybe you need to cut a day of watching sports to play sports with your kids. Or maybe instead of getting a professional massage you can offer or ask your husband/ wife for one.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Balance your time between family and friends. Your children are important, but so is your need for adult time. Vice versa holds true as well, the relationships that you maintain with your friends are important, but if you haven’t spent any time with your children this week, now is not the time to leave them with a babysitter.
Breaking through gender roles can be of help as well. Maybe this week you and your spouse can take turns cooking and putting the kids to bed. This way one of you can finish some work, exercise or have alone time. Or maybe, since your husband’s job is not paying as well, he can drop to part-time while you maintain the higher paying full-time job. Spice it up!
EXERCISE AND RELAXATION
Don’t forget to schedule in exercise and relaxation. Often times these are the areas of our lives that get neglected, but are primary triggers to melt down. If your body or your mind is not getting the exercise or rest that it needs one or the other will let you know. Sometimes there is a whisper, other times there is a knock, and unfortunately, at times you may even get hit in the head with a baseball bat. Don’t let yourself be hit with a baseball bat... listen to the whisper.
EATING HEALTHY FOODS
Of course you couldn’t satisfy any of the high-energy demands of life without proper fuel or nourishment. Take the time to eat healthy food. Getting fast food to cut down on time only further delays your progress by creating lethargy and drowsiness. How can anyone perform in this state?
All of these are helpful hints to balancing your already hectic life schedule, but all in all it helps to track your roles/ domains by creating a chart that delineates how much time you spend in each area of your life. Try using something like the Happiness Pie developed by Michael Frisch, Ph.D.:
Happiness Pie Exercise
Once you establish a baseline you can easily see what areas of your life are being neglected or are over dominating the rest. If you find that your work or life schedule just cannot be changed and you become stuck or feel like there is no way out, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or a variety of psychotherapeutic treatments can be a valuable tool when provided by a licensed clinician.