I read with great interest Katherine Reynolds Lewis’s new piece over at The Fiscal Times called Workplace Wars. As the holidays approach, the usual battle over who covers what times and days reaches fever pitch. The issue? People without children feel like they’re always covering for those who have family duties: kids who need to be picked up from daycare, sick kids, school breaks, and so forth. In the past it was more or less assumed that mom — who wasn’t working for pay — was dealing with all these things. But these days, mom is working, and dad is often stepping up to the plate as well. Net result?
In this time of tight budgets and lean staffing the left-behinds are saying “enough.” They flock to online forums like The Childfree Life and STFU Parents to vent about being taken for granted because they have no children. “You can work all the holidays, you can take the weekend trips, you can work late when your colleagues have to run home for the soccer practice or the recital,” said Laura S. Scott, Roanoke, Va.-based author of “Two Is Enough” and founder of The Childless by Choice Project. “There’s an assumption that the childfree don’t have lives outside of work. There needs to be an acknowledgement that all employees, whether they have children or not, need work-life balance.”
This is one of those tricky issues where I can certainly see both sides. I think parents benefit when flexible work arrangements aren’t just about kids. Indeed, some offices have found that people of all genders and family situations pitch in to figure out flexible arrangements when the issue is framed in terms of planning for snow storms, terrorist attacks, etc. In many offices, the vast majority of workers could work at home on occasion, and may need to in some circumstances. The fact that parents do it because of sick kids or school holidays doesn’t have to enter the conversation.
Also, people in general are willing to work more when they have some control over their schedule. I sound like a broken record citing the recent IBM/BYU study finding that people who could work from home sometimes and set their hours could work 57 hours per week before feeling work-life stress. Those stuck in their cubes? 38 hours. Why talk about the mommy track when you can talk about getting all your employees to work more?
I also, as a parent, cringe when other parents use their kids as a carte blanche to get out of anything. I will go to great lengths to not do this. Once, I convinced a babysitter to leave her real job at 3pm to pick up my older kid at daycare when it was closing early for snow (unexpectedly) and I had to give a speech (perhaps she worked with parents and they understood!). One of the main thrusts of 168 Hours is that it is entirely possible to work full time and still spend plenty of time with your family, exercise, volunteer, sleep enough, etc. That means that children are not an excuse for letting all the other parts of your life go.
On the other hand…. I have attended tons of work-life balance panels, and often there is some attempt to include a single man or woman who volunteers or does triathlons or what have you. No one ever asks this person questions because fundamentally, the audience is thinking this: there is very little, besides elder care or caring for another sick family member, which approaches the 24/7 nature of parenthood. Someone has to be with small children 168 hours a week. If it’s not you or your partner, then it’s someone else that you or your partner has arranged. A triathlon or 10-hour per week volunteer commitment does not place the same demands on a person. Even if you worked 60 hours per week, and slept 8 hours per night (56 per week), this leaves 52 hours for other things. More than enough time to devote 15 hours to athletic training. I think this is why panel audience members never find this particularly impressive.
And then there is the larger question of which extracurricular activities society should privilege. If no one did triathlons, the world would limp along. If no one had babies, the species would die out. Perhaps some people would be OK with that, but it’s hard to build a society without the breeders. And the reality is that all childfree folks were once children themselves, who someone bothered to tend and nurture — even if it occasionally meant asking a colleague to cover.
I’m curious what other people think of this.