11/17/2010 02:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Business of the American Family Is...

Last week, I heard Judith Martin -- Miss Manners -- speak at a conference on the future of the American Family held at Emory University in Atlanta. She is a delightful speaker and dispenses nuggets of humor and wisdom warmly and affably. The one nugget that stopped me cold, however, was her telling us that she in recent days, she has been receiving literally hundreds of emails in which people seek her advice on the proper way to avoid being with their families for the holidays. Yep, it seems that while so many of us are dreaming of a White Christmas and a turkey with all the trimmings, there are plenty who would classify such nocturnal fantasies as nightmares. I was, and am, puzzled by this to some degree but as Miss Manners continued, things became a bit clearer.

It appears that Irving Berlin and The Butterball folks have become persona non grata because they represent not time away from one of the top stressors in many people's lives, but an exacerbation of it. And what is that stressor? Ask Professor Charles (Chuck) Darrah, chair of the anthropology department at San Jose State University in California.

When Chuck Darrah tells us about families in America, his statements are not based on a few interviews or a handful of questionnaires. Darrah and his research group spend more than 2,500 hours shadowing each family they study (that means living with and following family members from wake-up to lights-out for a year of more). He knows American families at a depth rarely achieved and the thing that he finds to be the primary characteristic of modern American families might come as a surprise -- or not. The major activity of the American Family appears to be "busyness." We do things. We don't just live in a family, we produce a family! We perform a family. But wait there's more ... not only is busyness the major family activity, Darrah also notes that it appears to be the primary goal! And not only that, but busyness seems also to be among the major criteria for judging family success in the eyes of American society. Families simply must be -- or appear to be -- busy all the time. Busy driving kids to activities, busy in activities, busy planning activities, busy looking for activities, busy working, busy playing, busy, busy, busy. The good family is the busy family. The good parent is the busy parent. The good person is the busy person.

Most of us would expect that there would have to be a cost to all this busyness. We would likely believe that this cost would reside in the reduction of leisure time for family members, especially mom and dad. However, University of Maryland Sociologist John Robinson has been studying census information since the 1960's and he has reported, are you ready for this, that the number of hours of leisure time for average Americans has not changed since 1965. It was about 35-40 hours per week for the flower children and it's the same for us. What is different is that unprecedented levels of connectivity have blurred, even erased, the once-clear boundaries between home and work, between home and car, and between car and work. As a result, our leisure time (defined as unstructured time to do with as you wish) has become invaded with possibilities heretofore unthought of. Busyness is now possible everywhere and at any time. Hmmm, let's see, what can I do with my free time? iPod? iPad? Google? E-mail? i-spouse? i-kids? i-family? No wonder it feels as if we have less leisure time, even if we don't. It was President Calvin Coolidge, who famously said in 1925: that "The chief business of the American people is business." In 2010, it seems that Chuck Darrah's findings would call for an adaptation of this aphorism: "The chief business of the American family is busyness."

Back to why all those people writing to Miss Manners want to avoid those darn holidays? The holidays are simply more busyness. Busyness buying those gifts, busyness cooking and eating food, busyness talking to people when that's all people do in some way all the time, busyness paying attention to people that can be hard to deal with -- busyness trying to be busy. They need a rest from all this! They need to get away -- perhaps to the Caribbean -- on a small boat -- unplugged, blacked out, in a womb room in their mind. A going-out-of-busyness sail? (Sorry!)

"Listen," we might hear them say, "Mom, Dad, all you relatives with your candles and fluff. You dream of the White Christmas! Me? I've got YouTube! A portable hearth. A Virtual Flames video. A video of snowfall in a peaceful Oregon neighborhood. Another in the piney woods. I'm streaming in a white Christmas, the only one I want to know. Where the ipods glisten and children listen to iTune downloads on the go....

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