Now that our time tagging along with families has wrapped up, we have started mulling over what we have learned from spending time in people’s homes, as well as going along with them as they shopped for food and took their children to school and various appointments. One unexpected theme is the perception and use of time.
I was one of the main points of contact for a couple of the families we observed, and was able to talk with the moms at the end of our time with them to find out what they thought of our presence in their lives. Some of the topics we spoke about included: did you do anything differently while we were around? What did you like and dislike about the observations? Is there anything we can do to improve the experience?
The caregivers I interviewed appreciated how we, the researchers, were flexible and always willing to reschedule visits when things came up in their lives. I was surprised by this response because I had taken flexibility for granted. It was part of our job description as researchers to schedule our visits at the best times for the families. Something I hadn’t considered was how many families are used to being on other people’s schedules: from employers, doctors, speech therapists, and case managers to WIC counselors, the housing authority, schools, or other organizations that families interact with.
Sociologist Megan Reid, in her research into the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, came up with the term temporal domination to describe when institutions make clients wait – and wait and wait – in order to weed out the “deserving” from those deemed undeserving of aid. Those who can dictate other people’s time have a great deal of power. So when the families we visited found that they could “call the shots” of when the visits would happen, some may have felt like they had regained power over their own time.
Those of us on the other end of this time bargain occasionally found our lack of control over time frustrating. Some of us are in graduate school where we’re used to controlling our own schedules. We live off of deadlines, be it for writing grants, drafts for journal articles, research papers, or reading assignments. Like the caregivers we observed, we are working on other people’s schedules, but we are seldom made to wait for others. This reversal in temporal domination was exasperating in the moment but really helped us to appreciate how much we depend on being able to control our own time.
Of course, even if the families we spent time with had control over our visits, they still had a lot going on and our presence in their lives was one more thing to juggle. Some of the families regularly forgot about our appointments when we called to confirm a visit. This “absentmindedness” can come off as not being able to plan ahead, but it can actually be a rational response to uncertainty, according to neuroscientists Joseph Kable and Joseph McGuire. Children produce uncertainty in our lives – we never know if they are going to wake up with a stomach bug or if they are going to like the food we’ve made for them. Not knowing if there will be enough money for groceries or the monthly bills is also daunting. Waiting (in doctors’ offices, WIC offices, among other places) also causes uncertainty. And if your life is filled with uncertainty, be it the uncertainties of time or economic uncertainty, it’s hard to plan ahead.
People with money on their minds have trouble concentrating on other things, psychologists and economists tell us. In experiments on New Jersey mall shoppers, those who were busy thinking about money (such as expensive car repairs) received lower scores on memory tests. Some of the families we spent time with were just getting by. For these families, our scheduled visits were just one more thing on a long list of worries and to-dos. They told us that they appreciated being reminded of our scheduled visits, so we made it a priority to call or text in advance to confirm our appointments.
In the end, it was a compromise. We accommodated families’ schedules as best we could and the families graciously accommodated our presence in their homes. Our time with them has certainly been a learning experience, both humbling and enlightening, bringing to light something as invisible as time.