The new workplace wars: parents vs. non-parents

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.


16 thoughts on “The new workplace wars: parents vs. non-parents

  1. Thanks for blogging about my story. It’s such a tough issue.

    I think you’ve put your finger on the knot of the problem: the parents have an edge in the workplace wars because caring for small children trumps almost any other obligation in terms of intensity of demand. However, that does not mean that every child-oriented obligation trumps every non-child-obligation. I have argued that skipping your child’s field trip, soccer practice, etc. can be good for you and your child — and your workplace.

    And certainly, people without child or elder care responsibilities still have to go to the doctor, wait for the roof repair guy, etc. Those needs don’t go away and deserve their attention.

    Bottom line: in an ideal world, employers would empower each employee to make a judgment about which personal needs were important enough to skip (or shift) work and which events/needs can wait or be ignored. Each person takes responsibility for making sure the work gets done regardless. And nobody compares or judges whether the parent’s emergency is more important or worthy than the childfree person’s extracurricular activities. The work gets done, everyone is happy.

    Now where did I put that magic wand?

    1. @Katherine – exactly, we need that magic wand! I agree that we’ve fetishized being there for “every moment” of a child’s life. I get annoyed at those recollections from some folks that “My dad never missed a baseball game” setting this up as the ideal when life seldom works like that. Really, in 10 years he was never sick, never had to work, never was taking care of another kid, never was visiting his mother, etc? We are all going to miss something, so the question becomes how we prioritize.

  2. For me I have to disagree with you that people who are parents should be given an advantage when it comes to asking colleagues to cover for them at work when they have parently duties to attend.
    I think when a person applies for a job, they are presented with the duties and expectations for that position. Wheather the person is a parent or not, it is their responsibility to fill those requirements as part of their job. If having children impairs them from being able to do so then they are at the wrong job or need to be given FEWER responsibilities. I understand there are times when parents and non-parents alike face emergencies that take them out of work and co-workers should empathize and try to accommodate. In general it is up to you to fulfill your duties at work, and if you can’t do that because you’re a parent (or any other very busy person) then you should find a more accommodating job as it is not fair to the others who work with you.
    As for your argument that we should allow more leeway for parents in the work place because they have taken on the noble duty of propagating the human race, I agree raising a child is a noble duty, but I also think that you need to teach them important values, such as integrity, or what’s the point. Not fulfilling your job’s duties and expecting that your co-workers should be able to cover for you because you cannot manage your time properly, is not integrity.

    1. @Andrea- thanks for your comment. I think my point is somewhat nuanced… I get annoyed at other parents who don’t fulfill their job duties as well. If you think that you have to attend every soccer practice, then no, you probably shouldn’t take an intense job, because it isn’t fair to your colleagues or organization. I just think that attempts to equate non-familial extra-curricular activities with parenthood misses the mark.

  3. I see this less as a problem between employees (or even between employees and employers) than it is between employees and themselves. My husband and I both used to work in demanding high-tech jobs, yet (no matter what employer we worked for) one of us was generally home on time, had adequate notice for business trips and was able to schedule vacations, while the other was up early every morning and working late every day, flying off on last minute trips and never able to take vacation.

    In our case, seeing this pattern helped us realize that the crazy work schedule wasn’t due to employers’ demands or colleagues’ sloth, but our own issues. (In this case, a lack of boundaries and an inability to say no.) And what worked was not pointing fingers and placing blame on others for our own problems, but doing some assertiveness training and taking control of our lives and time.

    I’d suggest that anyone who has a resentment toward a colleague because that colleague is (for whatever reason, kids or not) able to leave work when they need to, ought to look at what they themselves might be contributing to the situation: are they clear about what they need and are they communicating and negotiating that effectively with their employer? Can they set boundaries and say no? Are they using their own work time efficiently and effectively? If not, it’s time to work on those areas.

    1. @Amy- great points (and I like your diplomatic language… I’m curious which one of you had the boundary issues!) Whenever we have work issues, it’s obviously easier to point the finger at someone else (parents, a bad boss, society at large) than to figure out what’s not working and what we personally can change of that.

  4. It’s all about autonomy. I want to give my company my best hours, not the 8 they’ve dictated as “work hours”. I’m not a parent, but I’m also not a morning person.

    So, if one of my coworkers gets the concession of coming in late “because of the kids” and then makes up the time from home, that’s fine. I just want the same concession. To the business, we’re both “useless before 10am”, I’m just expected to have my butt in my desk chair because my preferred flavor of “useless to the business” doesn’t involve running kids all over town. I just get the added guilt of being useless while “on the clock” so I still end up staying late to make up the time.

    1. @Beth – I agree on wanting to give your best thinking hours to work… Of course the issue of our best hours is one that gets into the reality of parenting being so all consuming. I used to not be a morning person, and now my kids get up before 7AM almost every day. My husband and I trade off going back to sleep on weekends, but it’s like another hour. I do get enough sleep, but I used to be able to stay up late working, and I can’t do that anymore.

      1. I’m personally not sympathetic to this argument. It seems to me you want the freedom to make your choice (be a parent) and then be able to hold other people accountable for your choices. Did you not think parenting would be a 24-7 role when you signed up for it? That does not mean, whether I have children or not, that I am responsible for your dilemmas. It is a different thing entirely when I am doing a favor for someone I respect or I am empathetic towards. However, I find it pretty self-righteous to hear another person suggest that someone else is responsible for the natural consequences of his or her choices (instead of said person being able to reap the natural benefits of his or hears). Most people will want to help others in need, I would think, but that is not because it is somehow intrinsically deserved.

  5. OMG, I love you! I was just thinking about this today and the other day, about how as a woman I feel a tremendous divide between myself and my childless colleagues and friends. It is not something I am proud of, but it is very very hard for me as a working woman with young young children to relate to my childless friends, married or single.
    I sometimes feel this defensiveness, almost animosity towards these women and then also sometimes, pity.. like you see them sending emails at 8 p.m. or 7 p.m. or wee into the night and I think that I could easily be that person who works all the time or maybe exercises 3 hours a day but I just can’t be that person b/c I want a family (I chose both of my children, neither were accidents so I accept responsibility for that). Then on the other hand you think if the stay at home parent who has chosen to accept the full-time parent role and how demanding that is — and also how hard it was to be a woman in pre Betty Fr America, pre birth control America… where no one expected you to even be able to say self actualize…b/c once you had kids or even the having a womb itself pretty much meant no working or self actualizing for you..
    So it is a fine line and we live in a society that is so individualized — — that works so hard to make all choices about individual choice — and yes, we choose to have kids, but how much harder as a society do we want to make it for folks to procreate.. and I quote you Laura here — “””” If no one did triathlons, the world would limp along. If no one had babies, the species would die out.””””

    and it really does take a village. And parents do a lot for work life balance…. I mean if no one were able to use kids as an excuse, what would work look like. I am a much much more productive worker b/c I know i Have to work only 40 hours a week right now. Yes, I would like to work 50, but I would hate to have to not work at all.
    I think also as parents we should not hold others who do not make the same choices as us hostage and try to be honest that children are a mess, and exhausting, they whine, become teenagers, etc. And in this sense only a parent can respect the great choice that the childless have made… but can’t they sort of cut us the same slack? This idea that raising a child is your problem is kind of ridiculous — it is society’s problem b/c children become adults… And it is really only when you become a parent and realize how helpless a baby is – or how dangerous a toddler is– or how crazy those teenagers are — that you begin to respect what good parenting means… and we should celebrate it. And unless we want everyone one welfare and our taxes to go up..we should try to make work the option for parents. I mean how would these childless folks feel if their taxes went up b/c once we all had kids (those of us who do) we just got in line for our welfare checks… what would that cost THEM?
    Like these folks who do not have kids seems to want to punish people who do have kids and many bosses who either don’t have kids or what “ideal” workers can really make life difficult for those with kids who

    1. @Cara- glad you liked the post 🙂 I know I am more productive post children, because I think through what I have to do, think through what needs to happen for me to go to an event, etc. And they’ve given me more to write about. I never would have written 168 Hours if I hadn’t had kids. As I’ve said in my other comments here, I get annoyed when people use their kids as an excuse for flakiness, tardiness, etc. But I have gotten really upset when I’ve moved up a baby’s feeding so I am ready to go for a call and then someone else flakes!

  6. Yeah and I also wanted to just stress the entrepreneurial mentality.. the billable hours idea. I stop when I have to stop but I also don’t get paid when I stop… I think if all people looked at work more this way we’d all be happier and more productive. There is a point of diminishing returns for all of us with or without kids…. and there is a certain amount of work required… lot of wasted time in a set scheduled job. So the idea that that person who has to take their kid to the dr is messing around is not exactly correct… We all have the capacity to waste time or get in the billable hours… and we all have waste… And if you are just sitting there checking your personal email and that other worker with kids “worked” 6 hours and you “worked” 8 and you want to start a movement about how “lazy” they are that is no good.
    Also if you have kids or have had them you know how hard those of us who have them work to get in our work…. those of us who are really working… and you wouldn’t disrespect it… Nobody has the stamina of the working mother who really loves her job and wants to be there and nobody has moved more mountains to make it happen no matter what their income levels… so I would take this worker at 30 hours a week over the face time worker at 50… and of course this worker at 50 would be amazing but she might also be childless!

  7. This is kind of a tangent, but I always felt it was questionable policy in YNYC to have to get all absences “approved” by the conductor, as if we were all still in elementary school and had to bring in notes from our parents explaining why our absence was more “legitimate” than someone else’s. No one likes to feel their every move is being judged by their peers, so in any organization, the way to avoid resentment is for the same rules to apply to everyone, so no one is put in the position of “judging” how appropriately those rules are being followed on a case by case basis. Among adults, once it’s been made clear what the rules are (e.g., you’re allowed 2 absences per semester, 5 personal days per year, or whatever), it should be a private decision how each individual follows those rules, not a matter for public discussion and negotiation among co-workers. If co-workers don’t know all about each other’s outside commitments, then they can’t judge or make comparisons that lead to resentment. A “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that makes it clear no explanation of time off is required or expected–as long as the work gets done on time–will over time reveal who can and can’t keep up with the workload without imposing value judgments about why or why not.

    1. @Gwen – I agree… except if I were working at a traditional job, my 5 personal days would be spent cleaning up baby vomit. Not doing something fun, personal, and relaxing. The first year when Jasper was a baby was a doozy – between my husband and me, if we didn’t have jobs we could do from home, we would have missed 4 weeks at least between the two of us. Again, this is why it’s so important to have a system for working at home if at all possible, because in a traditional company that was forcing me to take an absence, that would have been grounds for firing. But is that a good idea? Anyway, I do think that some reasons for being absent are better than others. But I do say that as someone who absolutely tries to keep my commitments (I never missed a deadline despite the 4 weeks of having a sick kid home with me). As for YNYC – I missed one rehearsal when Jasper was born, because I was actually in labor. I didn’t miss any rehearsals when Sam was born, because I gave birth on a Thursday, so I came for half the time that next Tuesday.

  8. For me, it isn’t so much that I think my time is more important than anyone else’s — it’s the assumption that my hobby is not important at all. Even if that hobby does not require as much time as raising children, it is imperative that I have time to do it. And if, due to illness, stress, or just needing to NOT be at the office until 9pm, I ask to leave early, I should be allowed. I rarely take time off.

    I’ve been lucky in all the jobs I’ve had that bosses have been pretty good about not expecting me to work more than anyone else. (Well, there was this one guy, but he was General Jerk, and I eventually left the job entirely.) I’ve also worked with parents who were willing to miss the event if I couldn’t cover for them. They’d always /ask/ me if I could cover X shift for them, or if it was an emergency, offer to take an extra shift in order to let me go home early/take the day off. An acknowledgement that my life is just as important as theirs, that my needs and hobbies and whatever mattered just as much as their children’s went a long way toward my willingness to help them out.

    For instance, I hate morning shifts. LOATHE THEM. SO when I got them, one co-worker who had children who would often need to leave earlier asked to trade with me so that I didn’t have to get up early, and she could leave early. See how that worked out?

    Also, my current job has the most awesome system ever, created by a woman who is a parent. We request a day off on a calendar, at least two weeks prior to the date. If that date can be covered, we get it. If it can’t be, we don’t get it. She doesn’t prioritize parents over non-parents, and we are all expected to, like adults, discuss conflicts and resolve them in a way that allows everyone to get the fairest deal possible. It leads to much less stress than the parents expecting the non-parents to just suck it up.

  9. Late to the game. But I think what is at issue, for those of us who are childfree, is that having children ultimately is a lifestyle choice. Great, you choose to have a family, then have the balls to take responsibility. You decided to have children (I’m speak to the metaphorical breeder who takes advantage of the workplace) and I have decided to have a cat – BOTH are lifestyle choices.

    As someone stated above, to expect others to pull extra hours whilst you are busily tending to your Bruschetta and Mozarella, that is beyond selfish. My time is just as valuable as some breeder’s. Ultimately there is no medical requirement to get pregnant, there is legal requirement, it is truly a lifestyle choice and a rather selfish one – wanting to propagate your genes.

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