If you are a working parent, is your company family-friendly? Take a minute to think about what you think family-friendly really means--in your ideal world (we're not talking reality, here). You can make a list, as I make my students often do in class, whenever I want to challenge them to think about a topic. Some things I would put on my list would be:
1. Good affordable health care benefits for families (including dental and vision)
2. Flexible work time
3. Extended leave for pregnancy/illness
4. Ability to bring children to work on school breaks
5. Family-friendly "atmosphere"--meaning company activities, picnics, functions where I feel my children are included and welcomed
Then compare your list to what actually is family-friendly about your workplace. If I were to do the exercise, I would then proceed to cross four of the above items off my list. I really should cross out five, because "flex time" when you teach and parent is but an impossible illusion, really.
Before I became a parent I didn't think much about what family-friendly meant. Back when I was a graduate student and the student manager for the writing center on campus, I was impressed and touched that my boss encouraged me to bring my new baby (L.) with me into work. I had grand visions of going about my business with my baby happily gurgling to himself on the blanket on the floor next to me. Of course this vision clashed with the harsh reality of having given birth to a very high-needs baby--one who liked to be held all the time; one who cried lustily at the sight of fluorescent lights; one who slept only fitful minutes at a time. And if you've ever tried to type AND nurse an unhappy baby at the same time, you know what I mean.
But I appreciated the gesture my boss made. Ever since then, I have thought long and hard about family-friendly workplaces, and what those mean--to all parents, but to working mothers in particular--because, let's face it, women are most often the ones still impacted by discriminatory practices at work. Once a year or so a local parenting magazine in my area publishes a multi-page spread on family-friendly workplaces. I always read through all parts of the section, even the pages of spreadsheets with the company names, and the family-friendly benefits they offer, and the ratings they are given. Partly I am curious, partly I am jealous. While there is much I do like about where I work, I have never much liked the fact that it is very family-unfriendly, a fact revealed to me in startling ways the summer I started working full-time, when T. was seven months old. During the faculty orientation workshops I dutifully toted my portable breast pump from bathroom to bathroom in an attempt to find a private place to pump. When I asked a few younger female colleagues about where I could go I was met with blank stares; one suggested it was more "appropriate" for me to use my office--all well and good if I had been given one at that point. In the end I settled for a cramped stall in the least offensive bathroom. I latched the door and perched myself on the toilet seat, trying valiantly to conjure up images of my sweet smelling baby over the whirr-whirr of the pump, and the clenching of my stomach muscles each time I heard the outer door swing open.
Many working moms have similar tales to tell--I know I am not alone. Now when I think back to that pumping experience I realize it makes for a funny story, as do the endless other stories I have accumulated over the years of tactless and outright discriminatory practices--some stories so outrageous I can't publish them here, some that are still so fresh the sting hasn't left them yet. But perhaps I shouldn't be laughing at all? When I read through the spreadsheets detailing how company after company is stepping forward out of the dark ages and into an better understanding of how family-friendly benefits them (family-friendly workplaces boast less employee turnover and more worker satisfaction--no surprises there, right?) I begin to feel anger instead of bitter amusement. Family-friendly shouldn't be the exception; it shouldn't be a pipe-dream, an ideal we working parents only dream of. Family-friendly should be the norm, no matter where you work and who you are.
The more we parents--we mothers in particular--are told to leave our kids at the door, that we shouldn't allow the messiness of family life to spill over into our workplaces, that we can't possibly do our jobs well and be mothers at the same time;the more we are told that offering our children concrete exposure to what we do outside of the home and how we use our talents is unimportant, the more we turn the clock backwards for all of us, and kick square in the face all the progress made so far.