Solutions to our juggling act

June 07, 1998|By Sara Engram

Long before she held elective office, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend looked for ways to nurture public debate on issues important to society. But if the dilemmas surrounding her long-standing interest in human rights or criminal justice can seem daunting, it's doubtful that they touch the daily lives of as many families as the topic she tackled last week.

That subject was the balancing act faced by millions of working mothers. These are the people who, no matter how committed they are to fulfilling their obligations to their children, their jobs and their communities, will forever worry that they are shortchanging one -- or remain convinced against all evidence that if they just get a little better organized, they could cover all the bases with a little more aplomb.

Townsend's summit

On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Townsend convened a "national summit" in College Park to bring together women from government, business, academia and other areas to discuss the pressures faced by working mothers. The summit was billed not as another talk fest, but as a search for solutions to women's juggle for time.

As some participants pointed out, that topic cast a wide net -- and didn't always seem relevant to the lives of women on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, for whom a hectic schedule is the least of their worries.

Others noted research suggesting that many women like the juggling act, the challenge of playing simultaneous roles of mother, wife and career woman.

No wonder. The juggling act is partly a reflection of the fact that women have wider choices than they did a generation or two ago, and partly a result of a changing economy in which more households need two incomes to make ends meet.

In terms of solutions, this summit was better than many similar discussions, which feature only hand-wringing.

One common-sense suggestion was to reframe the "day care" debate in terms of education.

This deserves support. Given what we are learning about brain development in infants and young children, there is little reason to continue to honor a bureaucratic wall separating child care regulations from educational oversight.

Other suggestions centered on ways of handling elder care, a concern for increasing numbers of working women and men.

Lt. Gov. Townsend intends for the summit to spur efforts to push these ideas toward practical applications.

Not just a women's issue

Let's wish them well. The balancing act between family, work and community has no big-picture solution. But that doesn't mean nothing can be done.

It helps to remember that mothers aren't the only people caught in this blind. So are fathers -- as well as all employees who try to balance their working hours with other commitments.

Employers need to recognize that workers who care about and fulfill obligations to family and community are almost certainly bringing and equally strong commitment to their jobs.

Helping them balance those commitments creates worker loyalty. More than that, that approach can be good for business by releasing more creative energy in the workplace.

For wise employers, that's old news. But for those who need common-sense backed up with research, a study released in 1996 by the Ford Foundation shows similar results.

Summarizing their findings, the authors said: "Our research shows that it is possible to pursue a dual agenda in the workplace -- one that considers both the employer's and the employee's needs -- which not only eases employees' lives but also leads to enhanced productivity and other tangible business benefits."

In other words, it's still possible for businessesto do well by doing good.

Sara Engram is a deputy editorial page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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