Wrapping up parenthood pleadings

May 07, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I think of it as being "mommified." After all, the word has such a nice, fusty, Egyptian-tomb sound.

This is how it happens. You leave work to have a baby and come back to discover that you've been transformed from a fast-track employee to a mommy. The assumptions have changed, the boss looks at you differently, your career future is suddenly as petrified as the Pharaoh.

Or maybe you're a mother being interviewed for a new job. The questions turn, discreetly of course, to child care or your willingness to travel. Someone without kids is found to be, well, more qualified.

Then again, maybe you're a father who leaves the office before the other guys. You want to coach Little League or oversee homework. You skip the night meeting, say no to the 60-hour week. Zap -- "daddified."

Such stories are rampant in the overworked workplace of the 1990s. Today 46 percent of all workers are parents, but employers often regard children as a distraction, a hobby you pick at your own risk, an attention deficit disorder. Many parents feel forced to choose between being "there" for the kids or for the boss.

Apple pie in sky?

This is the background behind a new push to ban discrimination against parents. A bill that sounds-- on the surface -- as controversial as apple pie and parenthood is going to be introduced in the next couple of weeks by Sen. Christopher Dodd with the backing of the White House.

It would let a parent sue if he or she were taken off "a career advancing path," passed up for someone without children or hurt by a policy against hiring single parents. It would make parenthood a protected status, like race or gender.

That seems like good news for all the parents "mommified" and entombed in lower echelons of the pyramid. And for a society worried about what happens when parents don't have enough time to spend with kids.

But there is a little hitch. The problem of balancing work and family in this country is not just a problem of parenting. It's a problem of care-giving.

Today's working mother or father is tomorrow's working daughter or son. You can be "mommified" one year and "daughterified" the next.

Do we want to protect those workers who take care of young dependents but not those who take care of elder dependents? Is taking a child to a doctor more important than taking a mother? Or for that matter, a spouse?

I am wary of a family-friendly policy that could pit one group of workers against another. Or for that matter, a policy that would pit one decade of our lives against another.

"It's very clear that the way work is organized is on a collision course with the way families are organized," says Paula Rayman, head of the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute.

"But to talk about the rights of parents in the workplace as opposed to the rights of others is a bad strategy. It categorizes one group of people as getting special rights and could create a serious backlash."

Potential backlash

The potential for backlash is not just among the young single people who have not yet felt the work-family crunch. It's from other family caregivers.

This is why the Family and Medical Leave Act is not the Maternal Leave Act. It was structured to include all workers with family crises.

Today's Congress is not exactly family-friendly. The House members can't even find a way to balance their own work and families. It took 12 years to get the Family and Medical Leave Act passed. And that only gives unpaid leave to people -- not just parents -- who work in companies with more than 50 employees.

There's little legislative will for making the kinds of changes already on the table. If we are looking for a next step, instead of a symbolic parents' rights bill, expand medical leave to workplaces of 25 or more. That would include another 13 million men and women. Or use what political energy there is to support paid leave.

The parents' rights bill is a product of good intentions and good politics. Soccer mom politics. But I have a real sense that it's a doomed distraction. For all the talk there is really very little movement on a family agenda. Leadership? That is what seems truly mummified.

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 5/07/99

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