Towards a Family-Friendly Workplace
The President breaks for band recitals.
His daughter’s, that is, and other school events, the February 14th New York Times reported. Last month, in the midst of a “marathon negotiating session” about overhauling the US health care system, President Obama informed his staff that he had to “ditch his own health care talks — temporarily, at least — to slip off to Sidwell Friends School for a few hours to listen to Malia play the flute.” When 6 p.m. rolls around, the President has made it clear, he’s done working (till 8 p.m., at any rate) to have dinner with his family (after all, he does “‘live over the store,’” as he himself noted).
Is it right for the President to put affairs of state, all the business of the nation, world politics, etc., etc., on hold to attend to his fatherly duties? Sure, his choices do reflect “attitudinal changes about fatherhood that are typical of men in his generation.” But, as the New York Times points out, let’s be realistic, Obama does have an extremely important job. Can he keep on “slacking off when the country is in need,” when untold generations of politicians have “sacrificed their families for their jobs”? The White House is “family-friendly,” but really only to the President’s own family, as his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, himself pointed out.
As a working mother, I applaud the President for taking “time out” to be there for his children at significant moments in their lives (although I suppose having one’s father as President would make many a moment “significant”). Obama, as the New York Times notes, is hardly the first First Father to take time away from his very numerous duties to spend time with his children. But beyond extolling Obama for “doing the dad thing” amid everything else we’ve elected him to do, it would be something if such stories get beyond the “Style” section of the paper, and into discussions about the workplace and jobs, about family leave and gender roles. How can we make these truly, actually “family-friendly,” so that there’s not that twinge of guilt in saying we have to leave the meeting early for a child’s dentist appointment, a choral performance, an unexpected illness?
For almost every year since I finished school, I’ve worked mostly full-time, and that includes the time since my son was born in May of 1997. (For the record, I have worked part-time in varying degrees here and there.) My son is 12 1/2 years old, and so at the age when children typically are more independent and have their afternoons and weekends filled with, for instance, practice for athletic teams, music or other sorts of lessons, time with friends. As my son Charlie is moderately to severely autistic, he still needs childcare after school, which—at the moment—is provided by my husband Jim and me. After-school and weekend activities for Charlie are few and far between and require our presence.
We’ve been fortunate that, with Charlie getting older, Jim has been able to arrange things at his job so he can be home more than ever for Charlie. But how can we make it the rule rather than the exception that parents in general and dads in particular can “break” for their children, and not be apologetic or defiant? We need to nurture a culture in which the workplace is first and foremost “family-friendly”: Because, and this will be contra-logical to some, sometimes you can find yourself working better, getting more done, understanding how to do things best, when work’s not the only thing on your mind.
Photo from the Obama-Biden Transition Project.