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Towards a Family-Friendly Workplace

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.

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Photo from the Obama-Biden Transition Project.

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8:44PM PST on Nov 7, 2010

Families are the future for therein lie those who will becomes our leaders, our artists, our great thinkers and great human beings! Please let us begin to realise this!

9:04AM PST on Feb 21, 2010

My father would have done exactly the same thing! three cheers for President Obama. If only we had a man like him in Italy!!!!

12:01AM PST on Feb 18, 2010

balance is important regardless of gender for both women and males.

2:07PM PST on Feb 17, 2010

It is sad to see the resentment of some posting that they feel that because they don’t have kids, they shouldn’t have to support those people who do. Work life balance is important for everyone. Being able to take a couple of hours for dinner each day is not just about spending time with your family, but also having a break yourself. It is something all of us should be entitled to, family or not. So I applaud Obama for leading from the top.

I also believe it is something that we need the courage to ask for. Sometimes the guilt is self imposed, rather than coming from others making us feel negligent of our work.

6:45AM PST on Feb 17, 2010

A balanced life makes for a productive employee. True for both men and women.

4:33PM PST on Feb 16, 2010

I do my best to make up for the work I haven't done at work by bringing a lot of things to do home. And reminding myself, everyone has things outside the workplace to take care of, for sure.

1:28PM PST on Feb 16, 2010

I too think the First family is a good role model for Americans and the rest of the world. Having said that, I also think that with having children comes responsibility and a good dose of reality before doing so.

All children are our collective responsibility so I don't mind all the taxes I have paid for them even though I have never had any of my own. I also didn't mind making exceptions for the mothers and fathers who work for me. There is always something a person without children needed so I always felt it pretty much balanced out.

As in everything else we just have to find a balance to keep things fair.

12:02PM PST on Feb 16, 2010

I disagree with this. It puts a burden on the workers who don't have kids- we have to pick up your slack! Maybe if people who cut out early and often are payed less when they do it, and the ones who have to make up the work are payed more for the more work we do, then it might be possible and fair. But if not, no way!

11:25AM PST on Feb 16, 2010

Sometimes, family oriented work places are very inconvenient for workers that don't have a family, because they are expected to work, in place of the working parent.

9:45AM PST on Feb 16, 2010

Thanks, I think this is a really important article. "Work-family balance" gets totally ignored for fathers and used against mothers as a reason they're not fit to be "real" workers.

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