Families do the new math on time management

August 18, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Forgive me for sounding a tad ungrateful. After all, the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have just been granted a Small Necessities Leave. I should be part of the cheering squad.

Under the terms of the law that went into effect this month, any worker can get time off to deal with some family matter. Not a big matter like cancer or childbirth. A small matter, like a doctor's appointment or a school meeting.

How much time you ask? Well, here's where I hold those huzzahs. Twenty-four hours. A year. That's 24 hours a year of unpaid leave. Only if you belong to a company of 50 or more employees.

Let's do the new math. That's three hours to take your mother to the doctor, if the doctor's on time. Once. That's two hours for each parent-teacher conference. That's another three hours to sign up for the school project. My, how time flies when you're having fun.

This Small Necessities Leave Law -- small change in every meaning of the phrase -- is more than people get in 48 other states. It's what Bill Clinton promised the soccer moms as an add-on to the Family and Medical Leave Act. It's what Congress has so far refused to even grant a hearing.

Time off? Sure ...

Small change is, in short, what passes for progressive family policy in this country at this time. Must I say thank you?

My status as an ingrate is well-earned. I have just passed the 30th anniversary of the day I returned to work after giving birth to my daughter. Note that I did not say "after I returned from maternity leave." In 1968, there was no such thing.

Yet three decades later, our national family policy could still be summed up in one succinct phrase: You had the baby, you figure it out.

We now have a generation of adults who grew up with working mothers who are no more or less lopsided than those who had mothers at home. But our lack-of-policy is still based on the deep-seated cultural message that good mothers should be at home. We hold mothers so responsible for their "choice" that any scrap of policy thrown their way -- 24 hours a year -- is supposed to be gobbled with a condiment of gratitude.

Indeed, in 1998, I am not even surprised that a book about working mothers titled "Not Guilty," seems refreshingly new and daring. Not Guilty? Moi?

The cultural message

As Betty Holcomb attests in her book offering up the alternative and good news to working mothers, "The message that mothers do something wrong when they work outside the home is transmitted casually and constantly, through the social fabric of everyday life."

In the 1980s, Susan Faludi turned a jaundiced eye on the "Backlash." Betty Holcomb has done the same for 1990s backlash against working mothers. She picks apart the new mystique of motherhood, that a "good mother only works if she has to" and the old mystique of a good worker who "puts the job ahead of all other commitments."

She tallies the cost of being a mommy at home or on the job, the much-hyped tales of toxic child care, and the false but relentless media drumbeat about executive women who go from having it all to chucking it all.

Ms. Holcomb is particularly astute in dissecting the research and the media reports about the effects of working mothers on children. In one memorable section, she gets to the heart of so-called "attachment theory," which is used to suggest that any baby who doesn't spend the first year Velcroed to mother is doomed. This research is continually debunked -- life is not that simple -- but rises again to strike terror in the hearts of another generation of anxious new mothers.

This is not to suggest that every bit of other-care is super, that every child will thrive, that stress is just a matter of the mind, or that every mother should work outside the home. But it's pretty easy to connect the dots between the social messages and social un-policy that makes it so hard for parents -- mothers or fathers -- to balance work and family.

Keeping guilt going

As long as mothers are not supposed to be working, as long as feeling guilty is a "natural" side effect of postnatal employment, there's no anger or pressure for collective change. There's only small change.

Before I sound altogether ungrateful, I do wonder if it's possible to use some of those measly 24 hours of the Small Necessities Leave Law for collective action. Or is that a Big Necessity?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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