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THE JAUNDICED EYE : The Epidemic of 'Family Time' Now Confronting America

October 22, 1995|Bruce McCall | Bruce McCall is a regular contributor to the New Yorker

NEW YORK — Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) has announced his retirement, after 24 years in the Senate, in order, he says, to spend more time with his family. In so doing, the soon-to-be-ex-senator becomes part of the greatest contagion of personal re-prioritizing in modern U.S. history.

"They used to resign 'to pursue other interests' or 'to seek fresh challenges,"' points out one veteran resignation expert. "Now there's one explanation and only one: 'Family, here I come!"'

Heartwarming? You bet, as one after another lifelong fast-tracker throws it all over for the joys of home and hearth. Family values have at last trickled down to the corridors of power. "How can you compare jetting out to Pebble Beach in the company Gulfstream, yet again, for another boring client-golfing weekend," asks one ex-high roller, "with wiping soggy Cheerios off the kitchen floor?"

Sales of barbecue equipment, sporting goods, Monopoly games and baseball collector cards have exploded as suddenly doting dads gear up for nonstop family fun. Yet, there are disturbing new indications that the Nunns of the world, in their avid thousands, are inadvertently fomenting social crisis.

From Yellowstone, from Aspen, from Disney World--even from the remote Galapagos--recent reports paint the picture of a paradise gone berserk: Happy, dad-led American families on such permanent bonding "highs" that their horseplay, food fights, sing-alongs and general mischief has become a public nuisance.

"I'd rather deal with a pack of Hell's Angels," fumes one NBA-arena peanut vendor. Nor is his plaint unique:

* The driver of one L.A. ice cream truck fled in terror when he was besieged by money-waving dads demanding to buy his entire stock.

* In Ohio, schoolyards in Shaker Heights became so clogged with doting dads getting an extra 15 minutes with kids at recess that police water cannons had to be mobilized to disperse them.

One New England divine sees early signs of a kiddie backlash against suddenly smothering dads. "Convent and monastery enrollments are skyrocketing," he says. "The number of 8- and 9-year-old nuns and monks is mushrooming daily!"--pathetic evidence of sons and daughters driven to slam the figurative and literal doors on their reborn paternal powerhouses, just to get some rest.

Where will it all end? According to one psychologist, fun burnout may soon replace career burnout as a social malaise. "You want to say 'whoa!' to all these guys," he chafes. "Make sure, before you abruptly resign to spend more time with your family, that your family is ready."

Take the case of Dave X. "Seven-day work weeks were my normal style before I bailed out to spend more time with my family." he recalls. "But that was nothing compared with these 18-hour days of family frolicking, Now I'm so exhausted from doing jigsaw puzzles and romping with the golden retriever that I don't have the energy to pay our bills, much less clean the soffits. We're going to the dogs--but, darn it, we're going together!"

Yet men resigning top jobs to spend more time with the family may only be another in an endless series of trends and countertrends that enliven life in this America of ours. Has a countertrend now begun? Generalizations can be hazardous, but it may be worth noting that requests to interview the final three dropout dads for this article were all flatly denied.

Each one, it transpired, had just accepted a once-in-a-lifetime new career opportunity, too exciting to pass up.*

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