The Load Not Taken

Everyone seems so starved for time. We quietly seethe. We get angry and cranky. We gulp antacids, painkillers and anti-depressants. We inhale the scent of calming herbs; we meditate and listen to the soothing sounds of dripping water.

In the workplace, stressed-out parents and nonparents, certain they are the ones getting the short end of the stick, privately snipe at each another. But everyone, in fact, is working too much and leading disturbingly unbalanced lives. Few of us realize that the problem lies beyond and outside of ourselves.

The fact is, we live in a post-industrial world in which two-income families are more often the norm than the exception. But most of our offices and businesses operate as though some mythical matriarch is still at home, taking care of errands, chores, children, elderly parents, and, of course, the patriarch who provides for all of them.

The result? We try to squeeze ourselves into a world designed for an earlier period in history. When people work a traditional 40-hour week -- roughly 9 to 5, Monday through Friday -- there is simply no time for anything resembling a balanced life. And so we become overwhelmed, our nerves get rattled, our children feel neglected, our communities disintegrate.

Americans have always preferred individual solutions and resisted using government for social welfare. As a result, we simply don't have policies that ease the burdens of parents. Family leave, still unpaid, benefits just a few. When new parents need time to take care of an infant, most places of business just shift the work to other employees.

Consider the situation of Elena, Mary, Michael and Alex, four people who work in the same government agency and enjoy the warm, collegial atmosphere their boss, Marc, promotes. Beneath the surface conviviality, however, silent resentments simmer.

The reason? Each of these individuals feels overworked but quietly blames the others for their acute sense of deprivation.

Marc, a wiry, athletic 45-year-old, is a brilliant leader, much admired by his employees. Married to a hard-working attorney, he long ago decided to create a family-friendly workplace. In his view -- a rarity among managers -- the workplace must be flexible and accommodate the needs of families. When his 6-year-old daughter needs to be picked up from day care, he simply ends or leaves a meeting.

He happily allows new mothers to work from home. When parents ask to share a position, he expertly juggles job classifications and shows baffled bureaucrats how it can be done.

Marc means well. What he doesn't understand is that his family-friendly policies irritate the childless employees in his agency. The work the parents leave undone ends up on the desks of the nonparents. But Marc doesn't have the resources to hire additional staff or the authority to restructure the agency he administers.

Elena, a 34-year-old Russian immigrant, is a tall, svelte woman who loves working for an employer who honors parenting. When she had her first baby, she worked from home for a few months, then gradually returned to the office part-time. After her second child, she did the same. Now that both her children are in school, she has resumed a five-day work schedule. Recently, she was promoted to the managerial ranks.

Elena counts her blessings -- a flexible employer, a husband who shares the child-rearing and housework, and, most importantly, an enormous, extended family whose members appear the instant they are needed.

Mary, 20 years her senior, watches Elena with a mixture of awe and resentment. Still married to her childhood sweetheart, Mary regrets that she delayed having children until it was too late. Now she winces whenever her younger colleagues talk about their babies. She's also furious at the ``privileges'' that young working parents now enjoy. ``I'd have a lot less work if these parents didn't constantly come and go,'' she complains.

Though bitter, Mary is also proud of her distinction as a policy expert in employment issues. ``I pride myself on being a pioneer. Through my activism, I helped change public policies that really improved the lives of working women.''

Michael, a 52-year-old recreational mountain climber, has two grown children in their 20s. He knows what young parents like Elena and Marc face. He appreciates their time constraints; he empathizes with the relentless responsibility they bear at work and at home. He knows what it's like when the school nurse calls and says you need to take your ailing child home. He remembers what it's like to stay up all night with a feverish kid. He knows how many evenings it takes to explain algebra to a musical genius who thinks she's the dumbest kid in the class.

But he's tired of working so much, which he attributes, in part, to covering for desperate parents. He wants to socialize with friends without dozing off when they talk with him. He wants to climb all those mountains before he's too old. And he wants to have time to visit his ailing parents. ``After working so many years,'' he says, ``I just want a more balanced life.''

Then there is Alex, a strapping 32-year-old who excels at tennis and golf and proudly describes himself as child-free, as opposed to childless. Alex doesn't like children, doesn't want to hear their noise, doesn't want them to live anywhere near him and certainly doesn't want to hear about them at work.

He's incensed when Elena leaves early to attend her daughter's soccer games. He's livid when Marc allows new parents to work at home. He's furious that he's viewed as the last person who, at the end of the day, should turn out the lights.

To his co-workers, Alex says nothing about his resentment. To anyone else, however, he's quick to explain why he feels so cranky about working with parents. ``Why should I have to do one more minute of work, just because other people decide to have children? That's their responsibility, not mine.''

All these people actually like each other, and none of them openly complain. The nonparents worry about offending the parents. They want to maintain the friendly, cordial atmosphere they have enjoyed.

Sadly, the lack of discussion means that these resentments simmer. No one thinks about how they might transform their workplace. Nor do they realize that each of them feels starved for time, that they do, in fact, have more in common than not.

Meanwhile, public debate pits these parents and nonparents against each other. Elinor Burkett, the author of ``Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless'' (Free Press, 2000), has made quite a splash by arguing that nonparents are the ones who are shortchanged in the workplace.

In her view, parent-friendly policies and tax breaks for child care discriminate against childless employees. Who, she asks, has to travel on a moment's notice or work during the holidays or cover while a father leaves early to coach his son's Little League team?

Burkett has hit a nerve. Members of a group called ``No Kidding,'' an international support group for childless adults, are positively apoplectic about the perks parents supposedly receive in such great abundance. ``Family leave is bad enough,'' argues one self-proclaimed ``child-free'' advocate, ``but if Clinton gets his way, my tax dollars will pay for that family leave.''

``Mothers,'' adds Burkett, ``expect childless people to cover as if it's an entitlement. The fact that it's an inconvenience on me never registers. I've yet to meet any parent who felt at all guilty about ripping off a childless person. Why am I expected to do more because someone else chose to do too much?''

Like other child-free enthusiasts, Burkett has little sympathy for what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called ``the stalled revolution'' the fact that women have far greater access to education, economic independence and political participation, but still return home to a ``second shift.'' As a result, their lives often turn into a joyless cycle of relentless responsibility.

Nor does Burkett appear to notice that parents often squeeze enormous amounts of work into their day, sacrificing chats and breaks with co-workers. Nor does she notice how much work they take home with them and how little they sleep.

This is what worries Peggy Orenstein, the author of the recently published book, ``Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World'' (Doubleday, 2000). ``Juggling'' is probably too tame a word for those working parents who need two incomes in order to raise a family. Through extensive interviews, Orenstein finds that women, in particular, are torn between their desire to nurture their families and the hours they must work outside their homes.

Flexible and shorter hours are an obvious solution, but it's also an expensive one. In many northern and western European countries, both private companies and government agencies contribute to child care and add temporary staff and employees when parents take paid leave. Under these conditions, the childless -- even the defiantly child-free -- don't feel burdened by extra work.

Most American personnel policies, however, create a no-win situation. What you don't do jumps into my ``in'' box. What I leave undone turns into your workload. So, of course, there is resentment on all sides.

What should be done? For a start, we need to acknowledge the secret strains that threaten to transform friendly relationships into openly hostile antagonisms. Until we name the problem, we cannot debate the solutions. Until we realize that everyone is working too much, we won't be able to imagine how we can, together, forge a strong and united demand for shorter hours and more flexible schedules.

We also need to realize that our lives have witnessed unprecedented cultural and social changes that have radically altered life at home and work in our society.

Today, a majority of adult women work outside the home. Women in the workplace are no longer novelties or exotic tokens. We are everywhere.

Now that there is a critical mass of women in the workplace, we need to reconsider how to rearrange the relationships between family and work responsibilities.

Most Americans, for example, no longer expect to work at the same company or even the same job during their lifetimes. What we fail to realize is that people should also have the option of choosing different patterns and rhythms of work. Some parents may slow down for a few years, return to work part-time when children are in school and then go full blast when their children leave home. Others may rush to the top, have children, slow down, and afterward resume a fast-track work life. Still others may wisely choose to balance their life at every stage of their lives.

We do live in a half-changed world. Even politicians are starting to recognize this fact. Republicans, for example, speak of family values but are noticeably silent about spending real money for actual social policies that would help America's families.

Not to be outdone, the Democrats are now promoting a strong image of family loyalty and cohesion. They talk the talk, but will they really produce the health and child-care policies that families urgently need?

Meanwhile, neither of our presidential candidates ever challenges American society's current priorities, in which work trumps everything else in life.

Here's the question that we -- and the candidates -- must now answer: How would we transform our economic, social, cultural and institutional life as if parenting and families really mattered?

Come to think of it, perhaps this should be the first question put to the presidential candidates at the first national debate.

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