Not a Hobby

They’re not like taking up skydiving.

I was subscribing to a business magazine for women in 2001. I remember the year because I got laid off and had to cancel all my subscriptions, though the magazine’s name is lost in the mists. Anyway, that was the verdict of an article they published on combining children and work, that having children isn’t a hobby like skydiving.

The author wrote about endless frustration with having employers act as though children are an inconvenient hobby to indulge, and a really far out hobby at that, instead of the only way you insure the existence of a future workforce.

Parenting is normal, but the business world still treats it like a disorder.

I didn’t have any children when I read that article, and don’t yet, but the author’s metaphor has always struck me as a desperate plea for mercy for working parents. I was in my mid-20s, single, working 60-80 hours a week and spending most of my weekends catching up on sleep. It was hard enough taking care of myself, why wouldn’t an employer get that having other people to take care of wasn’t just some whimsical pastime?

Then I started to notice that the receptionist at work got talked about as being unreliable because she had occasional childcare emergencies that she had to take off for. I wasn’t thought of in the same way when I took a half day for personal reasons and shifted my hours around to make up for it.

In our office hierarchy, I was a trusted, salaried professional. She was treated like an answering machine. Machines only get attention when they break.

It’s hard for everyone.

I thought about that article sometimes after I got laid off a couple months later. It made me more grateful that even when times were tough, it was just me that had got stuck in a difficult situation.

While I didn’t have kids, I had been one. My sibling and I weren’t a hobby to my parents. They’d worried and sacrificed for us, we were their world.

It’s been harder as women integrated into the workforce to assure that parents could still be there for their children. The idealized, standard model of an employee is still tilted towards a single person or a married male partnered with a full-time parent and homemaker.

The first generation of women who came to the workforce as parents had to do two jobs, as many, many people before me have pointed out. Not only was childcare still seen as women’s natural job, but because of ingrained wage discrimination, it hurt families more in the pocketbook for men to cut back on their work obligations to handle childcare.

You’ve probably heard all the reasons why this was bad for women, and it was, and they realized it quite quickly. Too bad it took such a long time for men to realize that the situation was bad for them as well and always had been.

Attitude adjustments happen.

The necessary flipside of expanding women’s roles in family and the society is expanding men’s roles. Yes, there are women who’d rather work more when the children are young, like Republican vice presidential nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin. There are also men who’d rather spend more time with their families when the children are young, like Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden.

Even as late as 2006, a state like California, which has a fairly progressive family leave policy saw relatively few men take advantage of it. The financial responsibilities men continue to be saddled with by cookie cutter gender expectations and wage inequality still leave many men feeling torn between paying the bills and staying away from their partners and new infants during an important and emotionally intense time.

You know how the saying goes. Who wishes on their deathbed that they’d spent more time at the office?

Fortunately for them, and their families, nearly 70 percent of men would consider staying home to be a caregiver if money wasn’t an issue. Those numbers reflect a society where women’s advances give men a greater range of acceptable options, but even though the numbers have increased, only around 330,000 men in the U.S. are stay-at-home dads.

That’s not even one percent of adult American men. I count it as yet another market failure, for there to be such a significant gap between what today’s families want and what they feel they’re able to handle.

And we aren’t talking about wanting extravagant perks out of life, this isn’t a call for free skydiving lessons for everyone. We’re talking about the ability of parents, both birth and adoptive parents, to provide healthy, secure relationships with their children and keep the basic necessities covered at the same time.

This is something fundamental to being human and you don’t need to have kids to appreciate it.

Where are our leaders?

The United States continues to be the only Western nation without paid family leave, with 163 other nations offering paid maternal leave and 45 providing paid leave for fathers.

Current law only forbids employers from treating women worse than men, who are themselves severely penalized if they want to give their families more of their time. Current business culture often looks at leave suspiciously, as a threat, a frivolity and an opportunity for employee cheating.

Both government and business are behind the times. More than that, they’re adding to the strain on families in a hard economy. And if I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a hundred times, you can’t have a healthy economy when your workforce is stretched to the breaking point.

This is a nation that needs, almost all of us, to spend more time with our families.

Meanwhile, our institutions include a business community that prioritizes executive bonuses and congressional pay raises over boosting living wages for typical families. Working and middle class families get squeezed for both money and time, and their basic quality of life suffers.

Even before the current financial crisis, only a third of Americans believed that the future would be better for their children than it was for them. Something has to give. People need some assurance that their children’s lives can be better than their own again, and a good start would be making it easier for families to meet both their caregiving and financial responsibilities. A good start would be paid leave and gracious accomodation for one of the most important family decisions many of us will ever make.

America’s families are the real fundamentals of our economy. Our leaders need to act like it.

About the Author: Natasha Chart has been blogging about the environment, social justice and various other political topics since 2002. She currently writes at and works as an online marketing consultant in Philadelphia.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.