Monday, September 03, 2012
Parenting: Work, Leisure, or "It's Complicated"?
Thanks to Dan and all at prawfs for inviting me back! I've been reading Jody Madeira's and Cynthia Godsoe's thoughtful posts on work and family issues with great interest, and thought I'd mark Labor Day and back-to-school by contributing something along this theme. The NYT Sunday Business section this week featured an article by Hannah Seligson entitled When the Scales of Work and Life Weigh Unequally. It explored the tensions that can build when workplaces implement flex-time policies, specifically non-parents' resentment when parents skip out for kid-related obligations. The Seligson piece focused on several law firms and interviewed the founder of a consulting firm, Flex-Time Lawyers. According to consultants quoted in the article, flex programs are more successful if the conversation is "de-parent[ed]" and "de-gender[ed]" so that employees can get time off regardless of the nature of the family or personal obligation. Supervisors also stressed the importance of communication and transparency, so that all team members know who is taking time off and when (although not necessarily why). Seligson asked: "who gets priority . . . if one employee's son has his back-to-school night on the same night as another's poker game?" The interviewees' answer was that co-workers cover for one another, regardless of the reason. This all seems very sensible as a human resources strategy. I wonder, however, about the broader implications of equating care work with other personal activities, such as hobbies.
Some amount of care work (for children, yes, but also for ill, elderly, or disabled loved ones) possesses social utility and fills a gap that exists because of our collective decision not to invest in social services. Yet we tend to discuss parenthood as if it is solely a personal lifestyle choice, not a social contribution. Maybe some of the push-back is due to the hyper-intensive model of parenting prevalent among privileged parents, the one described by Madeline Levine in her recent book, Teach Your Children Well. The examples of parental flex activities given in Seligson's article were childrens' swimming lessons and soccer practice. These parenting obligations look a lot like leisure, at least relative to activities such as, say, taking your kid to the doctor. Indeed, Bruce Feiler had a piece in the NYT this Sunday entitled It's O.K. To Skip That Bake Sale, suggesting that volunteering at your child's school has become "a status symbol of sorts."
Of course, less-privileged parents face a more fundamental kind of work-life balance: earning a living while ensuring their children's safety and adequate supervision. One of the employers interviewed in the article stated candidly that, when hiring employees for her business, she looks for people who can "fall back onto their own systems" if a family issue arises. Working people with care responsibilities know exactly what that means: you're on your own!
Posted by GiovannaShay on September 3, 2012 at 08:25 PM | Permalink
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I disagree. The reason employers should set up a system where employees cover for each other at times regardless or reason is not because poker night has as much social utility as child raising or caring for a sick parent; of course it doesn't, and if there was a direct conflict on one night between picking up a child that would otherwise be left stranded outside the daycare to be hit by a passing car or going to poker night, of course the former should win.
The reason employers should set up a culture of employees mutually covering for each other is because work shouldn't be treated as a 24-7 obligation that you can get out of for the direst of emergencies. It should be something that takes up a reasonable amount of our time, and which can be a bit flexible when something else important is going on (and, of course, conversely sometimes other things in your life will give when something extra-important is going at work). Treating employees' outside-work commitments more-or-less equally isn't about the comparative value of those commitments; it's about the best role of work in our lives.
Posted by: Katie | Sep 3, 2012 10:04:12 PM
Thanks, Katie, for this thoughtful comment. Just to be clear: I'm not suggesting that employers should give priority to one activity or another based on social utility. My question is whether equating care work with leisure in this manner has broader implications for our social discourse and decision-making--either in what it reveals about our views of care work, or in how it shapes our attitudes towards it.
Posted by: Giovanna Shay | Sep 4, 2012 10:00:33 AM
I think that it's telling that most of the people cited in the article as having parenting commitments were in their 30s, whereas the people complaining about it were in their 20s. This matches my experience as well -- my friends in their 20s always kvetch about how unfair it is that the daddies and mommies get preferential scheduling, whereas my friends in their 30s take advantage of the fact that most workplaces are more accommodating when you need to leave early for a family commitment.
All of this to say that the "zero-sum" perception is a bit off. It's too static. Yes, before you have kids you'll probably be lower on the scheduling totem pole than someone with them. But then you'll probably have kids at some point, and you'll get that "advantage"!
(And yes, I know that many people choose not to have children, or cannot have them. This gets into the fundamental question of whether we should encourage childbearing and childrearing as a social good -- and the flip side, of course, which is whether we should effectively discourage the decision not to have children by witholding those incentives. I express no opinion on that question.)
Posted by: Parent of three | Sep 4, 2012 10:41:16 AM
Breeding represents social dis-utility; there is almost no world problem that wouldn't be ameliorated by putting a damper on the wanton breeding.
It would be a dis-utility even if we taxpayers weren't spending some $15000 or god-knows how much for the annual mis-education of each kid, many of whom can't find a job after college and sure don't come around here asking to mow my lawn. We need far fewer expensive kids and far more potty-trained immigrants willing to work.
What breeders don't realize is that many of us have chosen the non-polluting child-free lifestyle and considering our choice to have lower social utility is a joke. It will be a cold day in the nursery when I cover for the breeders at work!
Posted by: Jimbino | Sep 4, 2012 10:43:05 AM
I'm struck by an interesting intersection with debates about the commodification of caretaking - although I think you're right that something like taking your child to swim lessons is seen as leisure, I think it's also seen as something that the parent doesn't *have* to do; a working parent could simply pay a babysitter/nanny/au pair to chauffeur the child to such activities. By contrast, a childless employee can't pay someone else to enjoy her poker game for her. I think this view isn't necessarily right, as I agree there is a social utility to parenting and I think the emotional aspects of childcare are given short shrift, but I wonder whether thinking of caretaking time as lost work time underlines a calculation of the employee's time; "this hour would have been worth $X, so if it would cost less than that to get someone else to take care of your child, you really should have been at work."
Posted by: Dara Purvis | Sep 4, 2012 11:34:33 AM
I've seen the issue from both sides, as an employee without children and as one with children. Because people no longer work largely for one employer and instead work at a number of different places of employment, "turn-taking" over decades doesn't work as a means of providing fairness to employees. I spent six months doing two jobs while a co-worker was on maternity leave (and she found a another job with more flexilibity, so she didn't return), and I wound up leaving that job before I had children, so I wasn't able to take advantage of a great parental leave benefit.
I also think that that many parent who take advantage of flexibility actually give a lot to the job. As a lawyer, I worked flexible hours, arriving more than an hour after the other employees did, but I stayed later, and I often wrote briefs into late night hours, while my children were sleeping. While I did use flexilibty in scheduling, I actually worked as many or more hours than my colleagues.
However, I do think that there are many parents who feel guilty about working and therefore try to minimize (if not do without) childcare, so they ask their colleagues to work around their children's school schedule. I do think that sometimes parents have to be flexible and recognize that other employees have needs, and sometimes they many need to pay for childcare or ask for help from friends and relatives.
Parents also need to recognize that others have needs as well, and that they may need to be flexible at times as well. Maybe they can coach soccer one season, and step back from coaching another. Maybe their child can go to swimming lessons on the week-end. Maybe they can carpool with another family and go to swimming lessons every other week. And it doesn't hurt for parents to say "thank you" and appreciate it when others step in to help.
Posted by: Been there | Sep 4, 2012 1:14:14 PM
One thought in response to Dara's comment (and thanks for that comment, Dara) - As you know so well, the social construction of family, work, and gender roles add additional layers of complexity to the economic calculus. So the employer's and co-workers' intuition might not be simply "this hour would have been worth $X, so if it would cost less than that to get someone else to take care of your child, you really should have been at work," as you posited, but also "if you are earning $X, and doing a job this demanding, your stay-at-home spouse should handle this anyway." So it's not just paid out-sourcing that is in play here for privileged parents. It's also all of the economic and social pressures that encourage one parent to "opt out."
Posted by: Giovanna Shay | Sep 4, 2012 1:26:47 PM
Thanks for this thoughtful post, Giovanna. One thing that wasn't raised above and yet I thing is significant is the gendered nature of caretaking. Although things have certainly changed, the majority of caretaking, both of children and parents, is done by women. I think this can result in increased tensions for women in balancing work and family, as well as resentment towards all women who some see as potential drains on the workplace, even if they do not currently have caretaking obligations.
Posted by: Cynthia Godsoe | Sep 4, 2012 4:51:14 PM
Benefits in general and parental leave and accommodation policies unfortunately lead to an artificial bifurcation of the labor market.
Single and childfree, I have worked almost my entire life as an independent contractor, paid by the hour, with no benefits except 401K that usually kicked in around the termination date of my contract. Of course, for all the lack of job security and benefits, I was paid double the hourly rate of the "captive" employees with whom I worked--a standard rate now over $100 per hour in silicon valley.
I rarely was asked to work overtime, which paid time-an-a-half or double time. Being an hourly worker who punched a clock, formally or informally, I could take off without complaint at any time, which I took advantage of to take care, half-days, of my ailing father.
In over 40 years working as a highly paid computer designer, I worked with no women, supervised no women, and had only 2 female supervisors (childfree lesbians) the entire time, with the result that I never had the option to fill in for breeders.
This artificial bifurcation caused by tax and benefit rules has the effect of separating highly paid childfree, single male independent contractors from the pool of married male and female breeders.
Posted by: Jimbino | Sep 4, 2012 5:12:42 PM
Another gender angle is that approximately zero men feel comfortable requesting things like paternity leave and flexible schedules. The thought is they will be seen as wimps who are insufficiently dedicated to their careers. Informal polling by me suggests that many men believe such requests would harm their career advancement or even lead to them being fired.
While women have to figure out how to juggle multiple roles, our society for the most part doesn't give men that choice. Even when people are annoyed at women who try to balance work and life, they usually respect their choice. Not so for men.
NB: this post isn't meant to apply to academia, but rather private sector white collar jobs.
Posted by: GU | Sep 4, 2012 8:10:12 PM
There are other ways in which single persons contribute to the welfare of families and care-taking. For example, married and/or persons with children can take higher compensation in the form of health insurance benefits.
Furthermore, as an unmarried person without children, I cannot take FMLA leave to care for a sick friend or non-immediate family member, even though these people are my family of choice. And, perhaps even more distressing is that these people would not be entitled to take leave to be with me in my hour of need, should that occasion arise.
All in all, married people and those with children enjoy tremendous benefits in our society. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is worth noting that we have often chosen to distribute these benefits by burdening the single or childless persons in close proximity to those with children (i.e., co-workers), rather than distributing the burdens across society evenly (i.e., by providing well-staffed and publicly funded childcare services).
Posted by: Anon childless | Sep 5, 2012 12:09:24 AM
"There are other ways in which single persons contribute to the welfare of families and care-taking. For example, married and/or persons with children can take higher compensation in the form of health insurance benefits."
Single people can and do take large chunks of their compensation as tax-free health insurance benefits. And families pay higher health insurance premiums than singles. Not sure what point you're trying to make.
Even if families benefit more on average from the tax exclusion of employer-provided health benefits than singles, the benefit does not spring from the kindness of singles' hearts. This would be like arguing that families hit by the "marriage [tax] penalty" are promoting the welfare of single individuals.
Posted by: Doug | Sep 5, 2012 10:58:11 AM
Families, at most employers, get to pay a single, higher price for family coverage, no matter how large the family. But, more importantly, the employer contribution for families is correspondingly higher -- the employee does not make up the difference herself. This extra contribution is a direct subsidy from the employer to the family.
As for the so-called marriage penalty, it does not apply in all cases. It is far outweighed by the tax benefits given to married couples and families. For a good rundown, and a cite to Lily Kahng's article, see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bella-depaulo/the-truth-about-taxes-unc_b_537861.html
Posted by: Anon Childless | Sep 5, 2012 4:02:31 PM
"Families, at most employers, get to pay a single, higher price for family coverage, no matter how large the family. But, more importantly, the employer contribution for families is correspondingly higher -- the employee does not make up the difference herself. This extra contribution is a direct subsidy from the employer to the family."
This depends entirely on the employer. In fact, it's why we chose my employer's plan instead of my spouse's -- my employer increased its contribution proportionately for families, whereas my spouse's didn't.
"As for the so-called marriage penalty, it does not apply in all cases. It is far outweighed by the tax benefits given to married couples and families. For a good rundown, and a cite to Lily Kahng's article, see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bella-depaulo/the-truth-about-taxes-unc_b_537861.html"
This argument doesn't mesh well with the subject of the post. Yes, one-income families are tax-advantaged (which as a member of a two-income family, I think sucks). But those are the families least likely to take advantage of the "mommy and daddy perks" that this post was about, because one member is a full-time SAHP.
Posted by: Parent of three | Sep 5, 2012 4:21:10 PM
Anyone interested in reading some excellent tax scholarship on the topic of taxing individuals and families, should start here: Boris Bittker, Federal Income Taxation and the Family, 27 Stan. L. Rev. 1389 (1975); Daniel Shaviro, Households and the Fiscal System, 23 J. Soc. Phil. & Pol'y 185 (2006). It is a lot more complicated than "marriage or children shouldn't affect your tax liability."
Or you could read a HuffPo diatribe by an author whose schtick appears to be "singles have it so bad!"
Posted by: Doug | Sep 5, 2012 8:14:35 PM
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