Life/Work - Issue 38

"Is parenting the highest social calling?"

Every once in a while, someone comes along who rocks you back on your heels and manages to turn some of your most cherished assumptions inside out. That's what happened when I read Elinor Burkett's entertaining, merciless, pungent, angry, and often irrefutable polemic The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless (Free Press, 2000). What Burkett challenges — and ultimately decimates — is the righteous assumption of parents like me that we're entitled to special privileges and hallowed status simply because we're simultaneously working and raising children.

It all started when I received a letter from a reader named Jeffry Still. "I've noticed in your column [ that ] you tend to value work-life balance only in terms of family," he wrote. "Judging from your writings, all it takes is being the father of two ... and we're immediately to assume the subject has a much nobler calling than the rest of us: parenthood ... Those of us who are childless by choice should not be ignored in the quest for bringing meaning to life beyond work. As a gay male, I enjoy spending time with my partner, studying for my MBA (part-time), traveling, exercising, renovating our home, and being with our dog. These are valid ways to spend my free time and balance a hectic work life, but your reporting tends towards sainting the happily married with kids among us."

Until Still and Burkett (who is married and without children) provided a wake-up call, I had looked at the new wave of "family-friendly" benefits as evidence that smart companies were finally taking into account the broader needs of their employees. I had viewed on-site child care, extended maternity and paternity leave, flexible work hours, matching grants for tuition, and time off to attend child-related functions as examples of progressive management.

I still feel that way. What I hadn't stopped to consider, however, is that these benefits are available only to the minority of employees who have young children. Only one-third of the nation's workforce has children at home under the age of 18, and fully one-fourth of baby-boomer women will never have children. Meanwhile, a broad array of government-sponsored tax breaks not only exclude the childless (and those with grown children) but also overwhelmingly benefit middle- and upper-middle-class working parents, rather than helping lower-income families, who most need assistance.

Burkett's brief focuses mostly on fairness, and she isn't one to mince words. "The bottom line is that all of the endless hand-wringing and angst about the state of the nation's children isn't being directed toward kids at the greatest risk," she writes. "It's a charade designed by and for parents who aren't thrilled with the consequences of their own choices, who feel guilty that they don't spend enough time with their children — and who, after decades of funding welfare for the poor, no matter how parsimonious, are demanding theirs."

All of this would be acceptable, Burkett argues, if people without young children received comparable benefits. Instead, she says, this oppressed majority is expected to abide by what she calls the "Ten Commandments of workplace etiquette in family-friendly America." To wit: "Thou shalt volunteer to work late so that mothers can leave at 2:00 PM to watch their sons play soccer." Or: "Thou shalt take thy vacations when no one else wants time off so parents can take theirs during the summer, over Christmas, or on any other school or 'family' holiday." You get the idea (and the attitude).

Burkett also offers evidence that she is speaking for a large and increasingly angry constituency. She cites a study conducted by the trade magazine Personnel Journal, for example, in which 80% of the readers polled said that employees without children are being left out of workplace benefits programs, while nearly 70% of those polled said that corporate America should expect a backlash from single employees. In a Conference Board study of 78 companies that offer extensive parental benefits, 57% of the companies acknowledged that nonparent employees felt some resentment toward colleagues who had children.

I was especially fascinated by Burkett's description of the current working environment at one of my former employers, the New York Times. Both my wife, Deborah, and I were working there in the early 1980s when we had our first child. A year later, overwhelmed by raising an infant and working long hours, Deborah asked the Times if she could cut back her hours to a four-day workweek at a prorated salary. Eventually — and reluctantly — the Times agreed, but it then stripped Deborah of her seniority and her benefits. That seemed extreme and unnecessary, and a year later, Deborah left the newspaper for a more flexible job.

Since then, Burkett reports, the pendulum at the Times has swung to the opposite extreme. On the reporting staff, a number of mothers work four-day weeks with full benefits — and, in some cases, with no cut in salary. For a while, many of those employees were exempt from working nights and weekends. But in 1997, a reporter named Joyce Purnick, who happens not to have children herself, was named metropolitan editor. Dedicated to the principle of fairness, Purnick, who is now a columnist for the paper, decreed that all reporters would have to work their share of weekends and holidays. She further fanned the flames when she gave a graduation speech at Barnard College in which she had the temerity to suggest that it wasn't necessarily possible to have it all.

According to Burkett, Purnick said, "If I had left the Times to have children and then come back to work a four-day week the way some women reporters on my staff now do, or if I had taken long vacations and leaves to be with my family, or left the office at six o'clock, instead of eight or nine, I wouldn't be metro editor. Should women and men who have taken the detour of the Mommy-Daddy track be as far along as those who haven't? Would that be fair? I reluctantly have to say that it would not be fair."

How fair is it, Burkett goes on to ask in her book, that working mothers at the Times are entitled to extended maternity leaves but that reporters who seek leaves to write books are routinely turned down?

Actually, these issues are more complicated than Burkett acknowledges, or than Purnick's speech suggests. The reality is that merit figures into the equation. The Times, for example, has granted book-writing leaves and other accommodations to stars whom it does not want to risk losing. One of them, Anna Quindlen, rose even more rapidly through the ranks than Joyce Purnick did — even though Quindlen had children and sometimes took time off to be with them. But Burkett and Purnick are right in arguing that most working parents who elect to devote less time to their careers and more time to their children ought to expect that their decision will put them at a competitive disadvantage at work in the short term. We have a phrase for that: It's called making tough choices.

Burkett travels closer to home to illustrate the sense of entitlement that even the most affluent working parents feel when it comes to tax breaks. The example that she uses is Michelle Gaboury, who happens to be Burkett's sister-in-law. Gaboury and her husband, Paul, live in a $500,000 home in a manicured Boston suburb. They ski on winter weekends, take vacations in France, and have a combined six-figure income. Still, they are entitled to a $500 tax credit for their 8-year-old son and to a $1,500 tax credit for their daughter, who is in college. Also, because Gaboury works two nights a week as a psychotherapist, they are entitled to a child-care deduction of nearly $1,000. "I think that we need to look at the social value of families," Gaboury says. "Children are an investment in the future. There are a lot of risks for people who have kids. Having a family is outrageously expensive. Maybe the childless take the brunt in some ways, but this isn't about justice."

But is parenting the highest social calling? Do we really want the government to offer incentives to people to have more children? How salutary would it be for an already-overpopulated planet if every couple suddenly decided to have 10 children — or simply upped the current average to 3 or 4? And should the government really be offering family-friendly tax advantages to the parents of the 3 million kids who are neglected, abused, or abandoned each year?

Burkett had her own brush with exclusion while she was covering the AIDS crisis for the Miami Herald. During her assignment, she grew close to a number of people afflicted with the disease. At one point, she wound up as the primary caretaker of two young Cuban men who had no other family or friends. Under the Herald's benefits plan, Burkett could neither take a family-medical leave to help the two men nor work more-flexible hours. "We need to recognize that parenting is not the only legitimate activity that people can undertake outside of work," Burkett says. "I don't want to be forced to defend my lifestyle, but it's ridiculous to say, as we now do, that going to a child's baseball game is more important than taking a dying friend to see a doctor."

Burkett also argues persuasively that most family-friendly tax advantages don't benefit the families who need them most. For example, families that fall into the poorest one-third in the nation get no relief from tax deductions, simply because their incomes aren't taxed. Much as I favor the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives working parents the right to 12 weeks of unpaid time off in the event of a child's birth, adoption, or illness, how many parents with incomes under $25,000 can afford to take 2 weeks off without pay — much less 12?

The risk of making an issue out of the current inequities? Companies could respond by cutting back benefits for parents whom they would love to avoid underwriting anyway. That would make it even easier for critics to dismiss Burkett as a selfish, bitter scrooge. In fact, her solution is not cutbacks but a level playing field. Rather than supporting benefits that reach only certain groups, Burkett advocates lump-sum benefits plans, in which employees are given a certain dollar amount that they can allocate for whichever benefits offered by the company best suit their needs. Her solution is choice for everyone, not privilege for a few. "You can't bolster the rights of a single segment of the population by diminishing the rights of another," she explains.

Ironically, the tide may be about to turn Burkett's way. The same baby-boomer parents who have gained the most from family-friendly benefits are about to fall off of the benefits-and-deductions gravy train as their own children reach adulthood. Self-interest is no small motivation, and, in the years ahead, Burkett's fiercest detractors may well become the most impassioned converts to her cause.

Tony Schwartz (tschwartz@fastcompany.com) is the author of What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America (Bantam, 1996).

Add New Comment

0 Comments