Work and family: Thoughts on a cultural struggle

I had a very interesting discussion this morning with several girlfriends in an online conversation thread. It started with a comment on this image of Licia Ronzulli, a member of European Parliament, and progressed to a broader discussion about feminism, U.S. work culture and the way we individually and as a society relate to children and parenthood.

Some of us were mothers, some were not. We had very different perspectives (which did not align according to childbearing status), and it really got me thinking.

My reaction to the photo was, “Good for her.” In contrast, some friends felt it was inappropriate to bring your child into your professional workplace as a likely distraction to colleagues and yourself. The sentiment was something like, “Any woman who does this is asking for a loss of professional credibility.” And also, “No way would I be able to get any work done with my kids around. Work and parenting do not mix.”

Here’s the thing: I believe we do a terrible job in this country of finding the right balance between our professional lives and our family lives. We are a stressed-out culture facing issues of growing mental illness. The U.S. has grown up with the belief that hard work should and will be rewarded. Americans are driven to succeed. We admire professional achievement and dedication. Those are good things. But I believe this has progressed to a serious cultural problem with balancing work with personal time, and particularly time with our families. We have a work culture that rewards and often expects focus on work to the exclusion of all else. This has clearly become an issue for women, given they often carry the larger share of responsibility for children, but it also affects men.

One friend on the conversation thread this morning said she was told by her boss not to even mention her children at work, because it was career suicide. This raises my hackles, for myriad reasons. Yes, this manager was stating reality. But a man would likely not be given similar instructions, nor would he risk being viewed as less competent for having a child, as if parenthood had robbed him of his ability to function in the professional realm. But the problem goes deeper.

The moms on our conversation thread all have young children, and we have all chosen to leave various careers to stay home with our kids. But I was a working mom for the first 10 months of Corin’s life, and I hope to someday make some type of professional contribution again. And the reality is most moms do not have the luxury of staying home as we have. Many of these women are likely to be working for the employers least likely to make accommodations for the needs of children and family.

What happens when the demands of work leave little room for family? I suggest one consequence is a nation of highly-stressed, exhausted and dissatisfied adults. Another is an increasing number of women who, feeling they are facing a choice between career and family, choose the latter. A third is the notorious “mommy track,” in which capable professional women with families face stigmatization and narrowed opportunities. And on the male side of the equation, husbands and fathers are absent from family life because of the outsize demands of work.

I do not mean to suggest women who stay home are living with an unfortunate choice forced upon them. I chose to leave the professional work force because I believe this is the best thing for our family, love being with my kids, and have chosen this as my current full-time job. I suspect many full-time moms feel the same. However, as I mentioned, I would someday love to return to a greater professional contribution. This is no easy task for someone who has been out of the work force and is looking for an opportunity that will accommodate the continuing demands of family. Had I a better opportunity to maintain some level of professional involvement while raising young children, I likely would take it. (In many ways, this issue of work-family balance is related to my earlier post about the unrealistic expectations we have set for ourselves.)

I know the tension between career and family will never entirely disappear. There are huge challenges for any adult attempting to juggle the demands of a job and children, regardless of how family-friendly the culture or employer. I think we do a disservice when we communicate to parents that you really can “have it all.” However, we in the U.S. have a much greater problem with finding work-family balance than do many other cultures around the world.

I am familiar with the arguments against efforts to create a more family-friendly work environment. Often, a political argument frames the issue in terms of entitlement or asking someone else to solve what should be personal problems. Businesses argue that they cannot sustain the costs of more flexible and family-friendly policies. There seems to be resentment that employees who are fully compensated would somehow expect more from their employers, and a belief that family-friendly policies would damage our ability to compete in the global market. (This article makes an excellent argument for the opposite, as do real-world examples of top-tier companies such as Google.) But I think those lines of argument miss the point. Ultimately, the question seems to me to be: What values do we as a culture wish to embrace and encourage? We currently seem to be sending a very mixed cultural message that says, “Family is so important,” but that ultimately emphasizes professional achievement and material success at the expense of family life.

Obviously, the solution is not for parents to all bring their children to work. But I really believe we, as a culture, have to decide to place greater value on our families. More flexible schedules and part-time opportunities, a more open-minded attitude towards the co-existence of professionalism and parenting, a reward system that acknowledges hard work and achievement but also encourages a balanced approach… These are things I would wish for myself in the years ahead and even more so for my children in the next generation.

One thought on “Work and family: Thoughts on a cultural struggle

  1. Kelly says:

    Right on! When I saw that image, my first reaction was ‘good for her’, but then the next thought that followed very closely was ‘that won’t last for long, then what?!’

    This issue is one of the reasons we are living in Australia right now. The Australian government offers families significant monthly payments for families. In addition, should a mother return to work, there is a 70% rebate for child care and plenty of part time or job share positions. Living here makes staying home a reality. Plus there far less stress trying to juggle work and kids. Being able to do part time work on occasion keeps my craft sharp. I love so much about America, but this is one area where some change is needed.

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