Long Commutes Take Toll on Family Life
by David Gibson
The life of a long-distance commuter is complicated. Every commute to work is time-consuming, even when it goes smoothly. But often things do not go smoothly, and commuters find themselves stuck in traffic or in a stalled train or bus.
It is not just the time lost getting to work that disturbs a commuter, however. The considerable distance a commuter works from home poses its own difficulties. What is a commuter to do if an emergency arises back home during the day? Will a commuter find it possible to attend a child’s 4 p.m. sports event or mid-day school presentation?
Long commutes are not as friendly to marriages and family life as one might wish. I know, because for some 37 years my daily commute consumed an average of 70 minutes each way.
Still vivid in my memory is a late supper of popcorn consumed as I made my way down an overcrowded highway to a high school sports event after a difficult deadline at work.
Apparently, though, my long daily commute did not qualify me as a megacommuter. The U.S. Census Bureau defines megacommuting by combining a commute’s length in time with the distance traveled: 90 minutes and 50 miles.
New Census Bureau statistics released March 5 show that nearly 600,000 full-time U.S. workers are megacommuters. They rank among America’s early risers, more likely than others to depart for work before 6 a.m.
Added to the megacommuters counted by the Census Bureau are several million others whose one-way trip to work is at least 90 minutes or 50 miles, but not both.
Much more typical are commutes of about 60 minutes. The Census Bureau says that 10.8 million Americans travel an hour each way to work. They may drive to work or rely upon public transportation.
The bureau reported that “about 8.1 percent of U.S. workers have commutes of 60 minutes or longer.” On average, though, a one-way daily commute for workers across the U.S. is 25.5 minutes, it said.
The Toll of Commuting
The benefits of employment are many, but the benefits of commuting are more difficult to identify. For families, the sheer cost of commuting to work is a frustrating fact of life, whether these costs are incurred through high gasoline prices or expensive rail tickets.
Added to the money spent are the human costs incurred by commuters as a result of always feeling hurried and under stress. For many, the image of a harried commuter calls to mind a driver weaving in and out of busy traffic in a determined effort to save only a few minutes on the way to work.
Father Eugene Hemrick, a syndicated columnist in the Catholic press, once wrote that while there may be times when a little “hustle and bustle” is a necessity in life, too much of it “tends to suffocate us.”
Observing commuters rushing through Washington’s Union Station prompted him to ask: “Is this what God meant when he said we must work by the sweat of our brow? Are we condemned to a life of perpetual hustle and bustle?”
Effie Caldarola, another Catholic press columnist, talked about the commuter’s life in a 2007 Catholic News Service column. She thought that having people spend “a large part of their day in one place and the more private, familial part of their day in a place hours and miles away raises questions.”
She wondered where the real community in a commuter’s life is found. Caldarola said that nowadays “our lives are subdivided in so many ways, it is no wonder that we often feel scattered and unfocused,” and that life’s important community dimension “eludes us.”
Families Struggle With Priorities
Many couples and families are forced to wrestle today with some degree of competition between the priorities of the workplace and home life. Mixed together with all of this are the pressures and necessity of commuting to work.
In their 2009 national pastoral letter titled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” the U.S. Catholic bishops recognized that in contemporary society conditions “do not always support marriage.” They noted, for example, that “many couples struggle to balance home and work responsibilities.”
Among other factors, the conflicts and misunderstandings “found in all marriages” can reflect “the conflict between work and home,” said the bishops.
They urged “couples in crisis to turn to the Lord for help” and invited them “to make use of the many resources, including programs and ministries offered by the church,” which “can help to save marriages, even those in serious difficulty.”
Pope Benedict XVI suggested in June 2012 that to reconcile the competing demands of workplace and home, couples and family members need to exercise a little creativity.
In remarks during the World Meeting of Families in Milan, Italy, he said the priority of the workplace is fundamental, as is the priority of the family. He urged employers “to think of helping to reconcile these two priorities.” In addition, he recommended that families, aided by “a certain creativity,” take steps to harmonize these priorities.
Thus, the pope asked parents and family members to try daily “to offer some element of joy to the family, some attention, some sacrifice of one’s own will in order to be together as a family, to accept and overcome the dark moments, the trials … and to think of the great good” that the family constitutes for them.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.