Karen Grisby Bates calls it “the kid card.” In a Slate essay about how workers with children have to stop assuming workers without children will pick up the slack every time a family moment beckons, Bates, an LA based correspondent for NPR describes parents as constant whiners. “I need time off; I have to have this holiday; I need to leave a half-hour before everyone else does, every day,” she describes them as saying.
I agree with Bates. Parents should not be the only ones making these demands.
After all, as Bates herself is quick to point out, it’s not like parents are the only people with pulls beyond the office. “Perhaps they share the care of an elderly parent or grandparent,” she supposes. “Or maybe they’re taking graduate courses to better position themselves in a competitive market. Or swing dancing, for God’s sake..."
Yes. Maybe they are. Because while it is easy to frame this as a spat between those with and without children, what it really is is a disconnect between workplaces and workers. Time was when there was a logical fit. The non-agrarian, non-industrial workday (the one Bates is talking about) began at a precise time and ended eight hours later. Workers generally had someone else at home managing housework and family. Lines were distinct -- work couldn’t follow you home, home didn’t intrude on work.
Now the shape of work has changed. It doesn’t start and end so much as ooze, blurring what used to be clear boundaries. Downsizing means fewer people dividing the same amount of work. Technology allows us to be reached around the clock. Though we use 21st century tools and face 21st century demands, we still, inexplicably, cram those into a construct created in the 19th century.
And the best way to change that is to open your mouth.
Parents spoke up first -- because they were the most desperate, and had the most out-of-the-office responsibilities. Over the decades they chipped away at the edges, gaining some flexibility and accommodation in the process, and also gaining the reputation as whiners that Bates ( a parent herself) invokes. This despite the fact that, as even Bates points out “parents may well return to work via their laptops after dinner is over and the kids are tucked in.”
The way parents work -- moving home and office around like pieces of a “slider puzzle”, openly declaring that they are sometimes needed elsewhere, trading conventional blocs of time for less conventional ones, still getting the job done-- that’s the way all of us should work.
Parents who redefine their working day are not whiners, or slackers. They are modern employees doing the best they can. And the answer is not that parents must stop declaring that their life outside of work counts -- but rather that everyone else should be permitted to declare it more.