Put Work at Risk

Kate Bowles offered a moving reflection on work and family. Her critique is grounded in her experience as a faculty member in higher-education, a career path generally lauded for its flexible work schedule.[1]

Flexibility is the latest panacea for the perennial work-family balance problem.[2] Like the panaceas before it, however, flexibility seems to have further burdened the very people it was advertised to help. Ruth Schwartz Cowan offers a brilliant critique of technologies that were supposed to address work-life balance in the home: More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave. Ian Bogost’s Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User over at The Atlantic makes similar points about technology. If academia, the traditional home of “flexibility,” doesn’t foster a better work-life balance (and it doesn’t: How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang or Academic scattering), there seems little reason to expect for-profit businesses to encourage such a balance. Far from easing the work-life tensions, flexibility in the academy seems to exacerbate them, encouraging faculty to work all the time.

Flexibility, technology, or panacea-of-choice cannot solve the problem because it is question of values. We live in a culture that values and rewards most those who work most—clearly those who do not have extra-work commitments or choose to ignore those commitments enjoy accolades and promotions. Choosing not to work as single-mindedly as the unencumbered, therefore, is difficult. It means not being valued.[3]

Rather than looking for a simple solution like flexibility that will cure all our ills, we need to decide how we will spend our finite and ever-diminishing lives. To reduce work to just one of the things we do, and perhaps not the most important thing, requires courage. But we need to do something.

As Kate Bowles puts it:

Hope is the alibi for inaction: what we need is the courage to put work itself at risk.

  1. The post is more specifically about the nature of labor in the university and the culture that demands ever more from faculty without compensating them for their time and effort. Two further contributions to the discussion are: god bless us, everyone and On courage that is in-and-against work. The three are well worth the read.  ↩

  2. The latest post to argue for flexibility comes from Professor Scott Behson: An Interview on Fatherhood, Work-Family Balance, and What Makes a Good Dad  ↩

  3. You might even be accused of squandering your education, i.e., your expensive college degree. Despite all the Hallmark-y expressions about education for education‘s sake, a college degree, at least in the U.S., is intended to help you “get ahead in life,” e.g, get a better job, make more money, buy a faster car, buy a bigger house, improve your standard of living.  ↩


Reflections on Career vs. Family

A few days ago a friend praised me for being so involved in #1’s and #2’s lives. She, a mother of two who had put her successful career on hold to raise her children, complimented me on having achieved a wonderful balance between spending time with my progeny, helping around the house, and a successful career.[1] I smiled and thanked her for the kind words but felt uneasy about them.

Since then I have been wondering: Do I have a successful career?[2]

Judged by external categories such as opportunities for financial improvement or professional advancement, my current job could be described as dead-end career. Judged by internal criteria such as likelihood that I will achieve what I had hoped to when I began, my career is at best a modest failure.

I have a job, yes, that contributes ca. 50% to the family income. Barring any horrible missteps, I can count on modest salary increases that will hover right around the cost of living. In other words, judged by my income, my career has peaked, or rather plateaued.[3] I hope I like my current standard of living because any real opportunities for advancement have long since passed.

I decided to participate as fully as possible in raising #1 and then #2. Because my career allows me more flexibility than the Mother’s, I have spent and continue to spend much more time with our progeny. Like all decisions, mine came with various consequences, both intended and unintended. With a sense of poignancy I have come to realize that one of the unintended consequences was career stagnation.[4]

Too often absent from the discussions about work-life balance, about the merits or costs of dual-income or single-income families, about the importance of having a stay-at-home-parent, about leaning out or leaning in, is any robust discussion of the psychological toll that imposed career stagnation takes on professionally motivated or ambitious parents.[5] Clearly, the partner in such a relationship as well as any children will end up suffering collateral damage.

I have made peace with my choices. But I lament that our society forced me to make those choices. Until we change the value structures in our society, however, too many parents will have to choose between successful professional lives and successful family lives.

  1. There were two unspoken comparisons in her statement. First, in comparing me to herself, she privileged career status. Second, in comparing me to her husband, she privileged spending time with the family. In the way she constructed the comparisons, I came out looking great. But if she had applied just one standard—either career or time with family—I would have, at best, come out even—she spends more and no doubt higher quality time with her progeny and her husband is infinitely more successful in his career by almost any metric than I can at this point ever be in mine.  ↩

  2. Of the three facets of life—family, household, and career—I am least comfortable with my career.  ↩

  3. In real world dollars, incomes in my profession have been steadily falling for the past 25+ years. So perhaps a better description is: my career has gone into gentle decline.  ↩

  4. My experience is not special. Most women who have chosen to become mothers and have taken on considerable childcare responsibilities have experienced (suffered?) various forms of career stagnation. See, for example, “The Glass Ceiling Is Self Inflicted.”  ↩

  5. Unfortunately, retrograde, essentializing gender categories—e.g., referring to a nurturing instinct as somehow more important in women or invoking ambition and or bread-winning as somehow more important in men’s self-definition—often mar these discussions.  ↩

Field Trip or Office?

Last Monday I had agreed to chaperon #1’s field trip to the museum. Last Monday I was certain the week would be productive. Last Monday, I knew that I would need a break by Friday. Last Monday ….

By Friday, however, things had changed. I had achieved nothing I had planned to accomplish. By Friday I had lost the week in a quagmire of meetings and busy work. By Friday I needed a day to myself to work. By Friday ….

I sat in my car at #2’s school, conflicted by incompatible yet equally fulfilling obligations. I couldn’t simultaneously fulfill the promises to myself and my job, on the one hand, and those I had made to #1 and his class, on the other hand. It’s not like I would be missed at the museum. Other parents had promised to chaperon. But it wasn’t like I would be fired if I didn’t complete my work Friday. I could work Friday night and Saturday. But I wanted to go to the museum. I wanted to spend the day with #1. Yet I also wanted to finish my projects. I had to finish them. There was no easy solution. Either I deprived #1 of time with me or I deprived me of sleep and time on the weekend.

I turned right out of the parking lot and headed to the museum. I chose #1. Although I paid the price for that decision later, seeing #1’s face light up when he saw me, hanging out with him for the day, made it the right choice.

Where are the Fathers?

We are never going to have a real discussion about family-work balance unless mothers and fathers bring their experiences to the table. So far only one father seems to have contributed to the “National Work & Family Month featured page on The Huffington Post.” Perusing The Huffington Post for the broader “Work Life Balance” category turns up only a few more fathers’ voices.

Why do fathers self-censor? How does their absence from these discussions reflect societal prejudices? And how does their silence impede interesting progress around issues of balancing work and family?

Pew Study on Parental Labor

A recent Pew survey — Parents’ Time with Kids More Rewarding Than Paid Work — and More Exhausting (also available as a PDF) — provides interesting reading. We learn that a similar percentage of parents consider child care (62%) and leisure activities activities (59%) very meaningful.[1] We also learn that mothers spend 78.2 hours per week and fathers 85.3 hours per week contributing to family life.[2] Excluding leisure, mothers spend 53.7 hours per week maintaining the family and fathers 57.8. Buried in those numbers as I have listed them are, of course, considerable differences in how mothers and fathers spend those hours.

I worry about how the categories the Pew uses (presumably just borrowing those categories from the American Time Use Survey) reinforces gender stereotypes and shapes the results and how the Pew study’s reporting on the results further underscores those stereotypes. For example, why are inside tasks such as cleaning and laundry examples of “cleaning” while outside tasks like lawn and garden considered “repair”? Why do some regularly occurring “Housework” tasks get cordoned off into different stereotypically gendered categories? Both the classification’s label and the examples reflect and reinforce gender roles. Contrast:

  • Cleaning: Laundry, cleaning
  • Repair: Interior and exterior maintenance, lawn, gardens, vehicles

Why not consider cleaning, laundry, lawn, garden, shoveling snow, raking leaves, etc. all under a single heading “Cleaning”? Those are all tasks that occur on a regular basis and reflect the overall “cleanliness” of a house. The overall time spent on “Housework” would not change, but how would our perception of that work begin to change if the categories used did not seem, well, so retrograde.

The report unhelpfully slides between numbers with decimals and inconsistently rounded off numbers.[3] Let’s look at how the report rounds off some numbers:

  • 40.5 becomes 40 when comparing the number of hours fathers work to the 23 (22.8) hours mothers work.
  • 40.5 later becomes 41 when reporting on the “biggest share of [fathers’] non-sleeping hours.”
  • 27.5 becomes 28 when reporting fathers’ leisure time.
  • 24.5 becomes 24 when reporting mothers’ leisure time.
  • 13.5 becomes 14 when reporting the hours mothers spend on child care.

It is unclear what rounding rule the report uses here to deal with x.5 cases.[4] Clearly it wasn’t the simple round up, otherwise 24.5 wouldn’t have become 24. Equally clearly, it wasn’t the round to the even number, otherwise 40.5 wouldn’t have become 41. And most disturbingly, rounding was not consistently applied even to the same number, otherwise 40.5 wouldn’t have become both 40 and 41.

I don’t really understand why any of the numbers were rounded off. Later in the report, values are frequently reported with one decimal place.[5] For example, we read that mothers “spend 5.2 hours per week tending to children’s physical needs, about 2.6 times as much as what fathers spend in these activities (two hours per week).” If decimals were important, presumably we would have read that fathers spend 2.0 hours per week. Precision was not, apparently, the goal, otherwise we would not read that 5.2 hours is “about 2.6 times” [my emphasis] 2.0 hours. We would read that 5.2 hours is 2.6 times 2.0 hours. In other cases, the numbers are simply translated into prose, e.g., 7.1 becomes “about seven hours per week,” which is “more than three times as much as … two hours per week.”

Unsurprisingly, the Pew’s study has already attracted attention that interprets it in gender normative ways: Mom’s are tired, but maybe they want it that way. The Pew study adds little new to the discussion about distribution of family and parental labor, responsibilities, and self-imposed tasks. Unfortunately, but adding little to that discussion, the report simultaneously reflects and reinforces assumptions about parental labor and responsibilities. I would like to read a study that struggled to upend the easy gendered categories both in how it framed the questions and categories and how it summarized the results. And I would like to see reporting on that study that didn’t fall into normative assumptions about mothers’ and fathers’ strengths and weaknesses.

  1. It is unclear what if any overlap there is between child care and leisure activities. Although an appendix lists examples of both activities, the appendix does not indicate if parents at least for the purposes of this survey thought of “TV and other social” or “Sports” as exclusively adult/parent activities. While I assume I could dig through the American Time Use Survey to learn the details, I would have liked the Pew study to state explicitly whether or not leisure activities included children.  ↩

  2. I consider leisure an important facet of maintaining the family life. I know that I am a better parent when I have enjoyed some leisure time, though rarely does that include many of the activities the survey lists as examples. And the Mother is happier when She has been given Her time alone.  ↩

  3. Remnants of an early training in quantitative methods made me, perhaps, particularly sensitive to this aspect of the report. The use of precise values and rounded off numbers might be nothing more than laziness or sloppiness. Whatever the reason, it colors how we read the report. Those numbers undergird some of the report’s generalizations and serve important rhetorical functions. Maybe I’m just a nitpick.  ↩

  4. There are various ways to deal with the “tie-breaking” cases.  ↩

  5. One explanation could be significant figures. But given the lack of any recognition that rounding off should be applied consistently and according to some rule, I doubt significant figures played any role in report.  ↩

Not Juggling Work & Family

Recently the Today show interviewed Samantha Power and asked how she balances career and family.[1] Dodai Stewart at Jezebel points to some of glaring double standards in this interview. Meredith Carroll underscores the problem: We regularly ask women how they balance career and family but only rarely ask men (and I would guess even more rarely in the kitchen with a kid sent into the scene to gaze at knives). Carroll calls for interrogational parity:

But the fact is that a man in Power’s position or the equivalent would never be interviewed in the same setting or with the same set of questions. And that’s the problem. Let’s create some gender quality [sic.] in that we ask men how they do it all, too — and sympathize with them if they don’t, and applaud and learn from them if they do.

I agree with Carroll. If we are going to ask such questions of mothers who have careers we should ask it of fathers who have careers. That we don’t ask mothers and fathers the same questions harms both mothers and fathers.

On the one hand, asking mothers how they balance career and family reinvokes the parenting panopticon—that all seeing, ever-watchful self-imposed eye that pressures mothers into thinking they need to be doing more, that fills them with worry that they are not doing enough, that encourages them to use rhetoric like “fail” and “suffer” when talking about juggling family and career. I fear there are no good answers to that set of questions. Mothers who have more resources at their disposal are explained away as, well, having more resources. Of course with enough support, any mother could balance career and family.[2] Yet, we continue to ask mothers how they do it all—implying that they can do it all and that they should be doing it all and that other mothers are doing it all.

On the other hand, fathers are harmed in a different way. For the growing number of fathers who juggle career and family, not asking about how they struggle with family-career issues effaces their efforts. In some ways, this is the other side of the parenting panopticon: by not asking about balancing career and family we are denying that fathers have such struggles, we are discouraging the fathers who do struggle with it from speaking about it, we are not putting work into understanding how those struggles might look different for fathers and developing helpful resources for fathers.[3]

I would like to see us stop asking about career-family balance. As a pragmatic issue: What works for one person, especially a person appearing on the Today show, is unlikely to work for me. As a more philosophical issue: How one person juggles family and career has little impact on me, and I shouldn’t dictate to them how they to juggling those facets of their lives.[4]

Rather than asking fathers how they balance career and family, let’s stop asking mothers.

  1. According to Dodai Stewart at Jezebel, the question was: “Is it harder than you thought it would be to be a mom of two little kids and have this huge new job?” Let’s assume that the Today show knows its viewing demographic—something I can’t be bothered to go find—and knows that this question will resonate with that population. I would like to know: For what group of TV viewers is that an interesting question? Why? What do they share in experience and aspirations that they want to see the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. asked the stale how-do-you-balance-work-and-family question while standing in the most gendered of domestic spaces, the kitchen? What fears or fantasies does this population of viewers share such that watching the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. conduct an interview at home while children meander in and out of the scene? How does that question simultaneously reflect those fears or fantasies, validate them, and reinforce them?  ↩

  2. I don’t track which mothers are asked these questions, but I think it’s a safe bet that only “successful” mothers are asked that question on TV or radio or in print publications.  ↩

  3. This silencing of fathers risks discouraging other fathers from trying to juggle career and family. Not only do they not get to talk about about the difficulties they might encounter, talking about such difficulties has been cordoned off as the mothers’ domain.  ↩

  4. The obvious qualification here: how the Mother balances these two has daily impact on me.  ↩

Working for Your Children

In our desire to provide for our children it is easy to lose sight of what they need from us. We work to give them a stable household, to ensure that they do not lack basic needs like food, shelter, clothing. We work to afford houses in good school districts (or pay private school tuition to send them to “good schools”). We fill their time with laudable extracurricular activities, sports, arts, music lessons, language tutors, etc., all of which cost money, which requires that we work more. We indulge them with more luxurious comforts, the latest must-have toys, iGadgets in different sizes and colors and the apps that go with them, cable TV, bicycles, summer camps, cars, and trips to Europe.

Here on the Main Line, the pressure on parents to provide for their children is intense. Parents work incredibly long hours. Even when they aren’t traveling for business, one parent is typically absent for much of the day and will work late into the night even at home, usually in some home office. I suspect the experience here is not unique.

We do such things out of love for our children, or what we justify as love for our children. But have we ever stopped and asked our children what they want from us? How often have we asked them what they need from us? And how often do we take them seriously when they answer?


Listening to Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” this morning, I am reminded of how easy it is to mistake our needs and wants for our children’s needs and wants. They don’t want us to buy them another ball. They just want us to teach them to throw.

Like Chapin, “Frankly this song scares me to death.”