Technology: Friend or Foe of the Working Parent?

Anne Tergesen

Over the past couple of years, BlackBerry-toting moms and dads have popped up everywhere: At sporting events and on beaches, playgrounds, ski slopes and baseball diamonds. When my son’s first grade class performed “The Emperor’s New Clothes” last spring, the school principal recited the familiar request that the audience “turn off cell phones.” But as I glanced from one beaming parent’s face to the next, I noticed a handful whose gazes shifted periodically from the stage to their laps, where they discreetly tapped-out messages on the other wireless devise that’s become a staple of the working parent’s mobile office--the BlackBerry. I’m sure these parents weren’t firing off emails about minor matters. But while sending messages to colleagues or clients, they also were inadvertently sending a message to their kids: I don’t really have time for this.

Despite my negative impression, I’m now reluctantly contemplating joining the BlackBerry set. Why? On the two days of my part-time work week when I’m at home with my kids, I sometimes don’t get around to checking my email until the late afternoon. By then, of course, so many messages have piled up that it can easily take an hour to dig out from under it all. And as any parent of a child six or older knows, spending an hour in the late afternoon on anything besides supervising homework can turn the homework-dinner-bath-bedtime routine into a total train wreck.

If by buying a Blackberry I become obsessed with my email, I’ll re-think this decision. But my past misgivings about owning a cellphone-—who wants to be reachable anytime, anywhere?-—have proven largely misplaced. In fact, I find it incredibly convenient to be able to return telephone messages from the nursery school lobby or the playground-—whether the voice mails in question are social ones left on my home machine or work-related ones retrieved from BusinessWeek’s system--or vice-versa.

Which brings me to my point: Technology is blurring the lines between home and office to such an extent that working parents increasingly have both their “employee” and “parent” hats on at the same time. Admit it: Don’t you routinely call your child’s doctor, teacher, or the parents of playmates on company time? And what working parent (OK, we’re talking mostly moms) hasn’t used the office computer to order Halloween costumes, birthday presents, or even the occasional groceries? Of course, technology has also made it possible to dial into the company’s computer system at night and on weekends (when I write this blog). Whenever I’m on email late at night, one of my working mom friends invariably pops up online too.

Is it good or bad that technology makes it possible to both order groceries from the office and work at the playground? Does this blurring of the demarcation between work and home make it virtually impossible for working parents to focus on either of our roles effectively? Or does it make it easier to juggle two demanding jobs? It depends, of course, on how we integrate everything. If I find myself sitting in my child’s class assembly surreptitiously tapping on a BlackBerry, email me this column immediately! But if I can manage to use technology in a way that frees me up at key times, without creating an obsession with minute-to-minute control over work, it will be a good thing. It’s up to me to decide whether I’ll be the master of my mobile office—or whether it will master me.

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