Making Work And Family Work Better
Thank you so much for publishing Kathleen Madigan's commentary "`Family' doesn't always mean children" (part of "Work and family," Special Report, Sept. 15). Childless by choice, my husband and I constantly find that people assume that our schedules are therefore completely flexible.
People without children--even married people without children--have busy schedules, too. We do volunteer work, we run our own businesses, we have hobbies that require us to meet with other people at specific times and places, we have responsibilities to aging parents, and we even have regular jobs where a flexible schedule is not possible (unless one counts the employee's flexibility to work overtime). Somehow, "family time" has come to mean "time with children." The need to spend time with a spouse seems to be of little consequence to those who trumpet "family values."
As a union lawyer, I have often encountered feelings such as those described by Kathleen Madigan. Those of us who are childless and employed feel exploited when employers help others with child-care needs. This reflects our labor market's failure to integrate parenting and wage-work functions. We still do not have an economy that permits employees with children to live decent lives. Most parents must choose between a harried juggling act and relative poverty.
Employers who make even modest efforts to alleviate the stress created by these situations risk a backlash such as that described by Madigan. Why should we be penalized, goes the thinking, simply because we have chosen not to have kids?
The reality is that people with children have substantial time-off needs and cannot afford to lose pay as a result. In the postwar years, a growing economy--and strong unions--ensured that single-paycheck households would be viable. Now, mothers need to work to make ends meet, but the resulting time crunch has become unbearable. Simply put, it takes too many hours at the job to pay the family's bills.
What's needed is a substantial restructuring of work hours for people who have children. This is a social responsibility that must be spread around.
As a working mother, I found your articles on various work-life programs' successes and failures comforting, if only because it reaffirms that my husband and I are not alone. But a question for you: Are you really surprised? The media and politicians may think this country's current economic state is paradise, but you would be hard pressed to find an average Joe who would agree.
Conditions today are good only for making corporations--and their senior executives--richer. It would seem that average Americans are right in their belief that life is getting tougher, not easier. This is the foundation of the greatest public-policy irony of the '90s: If family values are so wonderful, why have so many welfare mothers been forced back to work? Those children need the attention of their mothers as much as or more than any others. The answer: Family values are fine until they cost someone money. Corporations feel that flexible work schedules hurt productivity and therefore the bottom line--and I don't see how you would ever convince them otherwise. I know I have yet to succeed in convincing them in my little corner of the world.
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