Sometimes People Have Both Jobs and Families

Oh boy, the number of blog posts I wrote in my head while I was gone easily exceeded the number of justices who will probably vote to uphold the health insurance mandate tomorrow.

Should I comment on Jim Fallows’ provocative assessment of the Roberts Court? And Ta-Nehisi Coates’ corrective re-contextualization of Fallow’s observations from the perspective of our racial history? And the continuing discussions between them?

Nope.

Because I am not saying anything about the Supreme Court, or health care, or even about democracy until the decision tomorrow. Not even about democracy.

I also read this whole magazine while I was gone. The cover story, about how it can be hard to be a mother with a job, inspired some reactions.

The summary for my working parent friends who don’t have time to laze around airports, reading the Atlantic and eating overpriced burritos:

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a top wonk in Hillary Clinton’s State Department on sabbatical from Princeton, quit her job. Her teenage kids needed more than one excellent parent. She felt replaceable to the government, but not to her children. So she went back to her academic job, with the flexible hours (though, honestly, hah hah, maybe that’s a Princeton thing). And then she encountered condescension, disappointment, anger, and misunderstanding. And she found herself unable to answer honestly young feminist questions about balancing career and family.

The article is gratifying. It blends Slaughter’s compelling personal narrative with a thoughtful dismantling of our long-held myths about working mothers. It frankly discusses a feminist generation gap, in which her decades-old message of empowerment was simply rejected by ambitious 20-something women. It describes different ways to be feminist (which the NYTimes has shamefully depicted as a cat-fight between Slaughter and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg). It discusses seeking opportunities despite the realities of family life and seeking opportunities that adapt to the realities of family life. It is specific about class and privilege. And it offers practical ideas for changing our culture of work to help men and women find more balance.

Yeah, the cover photo is annoying. But the Atlantic needs to sell copies. “Sad White Babies with Mean Feminist Mommies” (yay Jessica Valenti!) sells. “Mommy Wars” and “Feminism has FAILED!” rhetoric sells. And then people read the actual article and learn that even in feminist icon Hillary Clinton’s staff, even when kids are teenagers, even when the dad does most of the kid-wrangling, it can be impossible to satisfactorily blend conventional working and parenting.

Even more gratifying is the explosion of commentary on the article. Lots of smart people are talking about women! Arguing about how to talk about women! Articulating different kinds of feminisms!

And this time, the “What about the MEN!?!??!?!?” reaction to most feminist salvos is more like, “What about the men who ALSO want sanctioned and respected family time!” Yeah!

My favorite part of the article was Slaughter’s commitment that, when people introduce her at public talks, they mention her policy wonking, Clinton, Princeton, etc., and that she is the mother of two children.

It seems odd to me to list degrees, awards, positions, and interests and not include the dimension of my life that is most important to me—and takes an enormous amount of my time. As Secretary Clinton once said in a television interview in Beijing when the interviewer asked her about Chelsea’s upcoming wedding: “That’s my real life.” But I notice that my male introducers are typically uncomfortable when I make the request. They frequently say things like “And she particularly wanted me to mention that she has two sons”—thereby drawing attention to the unusual nature of my request, when my entire purpose is to make family references routine and normal in professional life.

This is a simple way to make visible the experiences that working parents are supposed to keep private. Experiences that women have generally been punished for making visible. Experiences that men are praised for making visible.

My only wish is that she had entreated men to do the same. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world in which everyone believes that parenting is an accomplishment on par with working in the State Department, or making tenure, or making partner, or winning a national election. But we should try to imagine it.

So yes, try to change the culture of face-time at the office. Advocate for meetings to be held only during school hours. Use technology to let work be more flexible for everyone. Offer sensible family leave and flex time options for men and women. Engage in simple changes like Slaughter’s habit of announcing her parenting career at her lectures. Try to make parenting more visible and demand respect for it, as long as your job is not threatened. Sometimes small changes in our habits can lead to big changes in our work culture.

Publicize the bejeezus out of studies challenging the notion that overwork is better work. From Slaughter’s article:

As I write this, I can hear the reaction of some readers to many of the proposals in this essay: It’s all fine and well for a tenured professor to write about flexible working hours, investment intervals, and family-comes-first management. But what about the real world? Most American women cannot demand these things, particularly in a bad economy, and their employers have little incentive to grant them voluntarily. Indeed, the most frequent reaction I get in putting forth these ideas is that when the choice is whether to hire a man who will work whenever and wherever needed, or a woman who needs more flexibility, choosing the man will add more value to the company.

In fact, while many of these issues are hard to quantify and measure precisely, the statistics seem to tell a different story. A seminal study of 527 U.S. companies, published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2000, suggests that “organizations with more extensive work-family policies have higher perceived firm-level performance” among their industry peers. These findings accorded with a 2003 study conducted by Michelle Arthur at the University of New Mexico. Examining 130 announcements of family-friendly policies in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur found that the announcements alone significantly improved share prices. In 2011, a study on flexibility in the workplace by Ellen Galinsky, Kelly Sakai, and Tyler Wigton of the Families and Work Institute showed that increased flexibility correlates positively with job engagement, job satisfaction, employee retention, and employee health.

Yes, Science has spoken: people with time in their day for their families, hobbies, and laundry are more productive during work hours than those who battle through endless 16-hour days, outsourcing or postponing their errands and personal life. It makes sense to me.

For your comic enjoyment, this is what I want to hear in the coming months:

Introducing former senator, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, our president, and father of two children, Barack Obama!!!

Introducing former governor of Massachusetts, founder of Bain Capital, and father of five children, Mitt Romney!!!!

Mr. President and Mr. Governor, every day American families must make difficult choices about balancing their work and family obligations, at great cost to their peace of mind as well as their bank accounts. What do you think about legislation requiring businesses to offer 6 months of paid or semi-paid family leave to any man or woman working in the United States for either the birth or adoption of a child, or the care of an elderly family member? Do you think this should be part of a health care or budget package, to offer much-needed relief to working families? If you think that market-based solutions are better, how might you use your office to work on such solutions?

Waddya say, Wolf Blitzer?

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8 thoughts on “Sometimes People Have Both Jobs and Families

  1. Melissa says:

    Thank you for saying all this! Thank you! Thank you! Although you were not explicitly talking about the very real work done by stay-at-home parents, you obviously value parenting as work — an attitude that is not universally shared. I was recently at a barbecue with friends of friends and was asked with some hostility if I am still staying home with my son. As you know, I am. The woman who asked me was openly judgmental. I asked her what she was doing these day. Products liability defense. Great. We both work hard. I also have a Master’s degree in education and would love to return to the classroom but can’t imagine balancing 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. days (plus weekends!) with parenting while married to someone who works law firm hours. So until I figure that out, I am enjoying this time with my child and working hard to be the best parent I can be.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Yes, in an earlier draft I put in my list of “takeaways” from the piece: don’t make assumptions about parents who work either in or out of the home. We have no idea why these decisions were made by men and women, and we cannot afford to presume anything one way or another. The only way to get real family-friendly policies even into mainstream discussion is to acknowledge that stay-at-home parenting is neither more nor less challenging than parenting while working outside the home. I’m sorry that lawyer was so disparaging, but I’m sure you get that a lot.

      That’s great that your friend is honest about blocking that time off with her son. I have known people who feel forced to pretend that kid-related appointments are actually medical.

      The article, and the collateral around it, give many examples of ways (subtle and not) that people (especially women) are punished for that type of thing. But most of us don’t need to read an article to know that.

  2. Melissa says:

    Also, I have a friend in a competitive corporate job who blocks her time with her son into her calendar, where everyone can see that she is not available for meetings after 5 because she is scheduled for time with her son. She also takes Wednesday and Friday off and refuses to be available on those days, again noting on her calendar that she will be with her son. Yes!

  3. Inder says:

    I too found this article to be refreshingly honest about the very real struggles that parents have to maintain a “work/life balance.” Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of the responses to the article (that I’ve read) have focused on Ms. Slaughters’ admittedly super-ambitious and privileged position, and rained scorn on her ideas as being totally irrelevant to us ordinary hard working American women.

    Well, she is super privileged, for sure. But I don’t think that means her ideas aren’t important. I personally have no ambition to be a head of state, but I still think it’s important that women be able to have a shot at those positions. Because those people write our policies, and while that world is this forbidding to women with family, who the heck is going to speak up for women with families (well, I hope some very ambitious men will speak up, but I’m not holding my breath)?

    In that way, I thought the article was depressing (but refreshing honesty often is). She portrays that glass ceiling as being pretty impermeable, and that’s a distressing reality for us ordinary moms who were hoping someone might look out for us at the high levels.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Yup. She has given some follow-ups too–interviews and new articles and such. Basically saying the same thing. We need to find ways to increase the leadership pools more equitably. And addressing family issues seem to be the most likely way to do so. And, oh by the way, they’d help men too.

      I agree!

  4. […] saying traditional media think so. And the proof is their trashing of the Atlantic’s lady coverage. I mean, its giving lots of space to reporting on marriage and  family. Which men care nothing […]

  5. […] key—nothing so occult as a secret—to their ability to marry motherhood and writing has been adequate child care, which remains the desideratum of every working mother, whether she’s a writer or something […]

  6. […] Another article about how women sometimes make some choices about how to balance work and […]

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