Parents, nonparents work up a rivalry

March 31, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

In this corner, weighing in with two kids, an unpredictable baby sitter and a wall calendar of ballet recitals through 1994: the working parent.

In the other: the colleague with no children, facing 60-hour workweeks, evenings spent schmoozing with clients and a nonexistent social life.

The stressed-out workplace of the '90s may have its newest casualty: relations between parents and nonparents. As employees work harder and longer with less job security, these two groups have found themselves squabbling like siblings at times.

Who gets to leave early? Stay late? Get ahead? In the diminished corporate climate, such questions have created friction for colleagues with very different personal lives. Companies have responded by altering benefits programs and creating more equitable social activities and work policies.

Compounding this tension is a more family-friendly atmosphere -- and a lauded family leave bill -- that at times has left employees without children wondering whether all work lives are created equal.

"It's family-status warfare," says John Haslinger, director of flexible benefits for Buck Consultants in New York. "Singles are resentful. They're asking, 'Why are you taking care of somebody who made a lifestyle choice?' "

Hostility has surfaced on both sides of the water cooler.

With Americans feeling overworked, employees without children often see themselves shouldering more of the burden -- working more weekends, pitching in on more last-minute projects and being asked to travel or even relocate more frequently.

Some working parents, experiencing the family-career crunch, envy their less-encumbered colleagues but also criticize them for letting work take over their lives.

For four years, single lawyer Spencer Gordon watched colleagues at a Baltimore law firm leave at 4:45 p.m.

"They proudly marched down the hall proclaiming, 'I've got to go watch my child play in a Little League game.' That was perfectly acceptable and encouraged as an act of grand selflessness.

"Whereas when I left at quarter to 5 to play in my own softball game, I had to pretend I was going to a meeting. Otherwise, it seemed like a selfish act," says Mr. Gordon, 35, who works in the Office of the Public Defender in Howard County.

"It irritates me, this notion that my life is somehow of less importance because I don't have a family to go home to."

What irritates him even more is the idea that some working parents want his support for the fact that they have to juggle such things as school assemblies, snow days and day care mix-ups.

"That's the lifestyle they chose. You take the good with the bad. I don't feel like I get much sympathy for the downsides of being single and in that scene," he says.

Such comments irk working mother Sharon Sweeney Keech.

"Equating softball and child care is not fair," says Ms. Keech, publisher of Baltimore's Child, a monthly newspaper about parenting. "Child care is a more important and immediate need. Sure, people need a social life. But you can play softball on Saturday."

Clearly, parents have become a force in the workplace. In 1990, nearly 60 percent of mothers with preschool children were working, up from 30 percent in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But striking a balance between work and family isn't always easy.

Child care responsibilities affect the productivity of half of the women and more than a third of the men responding to eight company surveys, according to a 1991 report by the Conference Board, a business research organization.

L Workplace distractions can be a problem for nonparents, too.

"Just because a worker has children doesn't necessarily mean they have more commitments. . . . There are situations where singles have two jobs," says Joseph Coale, spokesman for Crown Central Petroleum Corp. and a father.

But how do managers make decisions involving an employee's outside interests? Whether workers like it or not, the personal does affect the professional.

"If a manager has two employees who need to go on leave, one wants to travel the Himalayas and one wants to be home with a newborn infant, are you going to give more weight to the parent? Probably," says Jim Keller, spokesman for IBM, which is considered one of the most progressive companies with regard to employee benefits.

In a recent study of working mothers with flexible schedules, researchers found that nearly all faced criticism from colleagues, some of whom didn't have children. Their peers considered them less serious about their careers and resented the bargains they had struck with bosses.

"Men in the organization would refer to them as 'the mommies,' " says Marcia Brumit-Kropf, the director of research at Catalyst, a national organization that examines working women's issues and that commissioned the study, which will be published next month.

Jessica Strauss might as well have been a participant.

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