12/24/2014 05:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'The West Wing' and All of Us In The Hole Together

Last Friday was like most of my days -- essentially -- but with some unique details. I was finishing up the update of my ebook, Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy, so I was making edits and chasing after approvals from various interviewees in between my double and triple-checks for typos. I also had a call with one of the mothers in the book, Hawaii State Senator Jill Tokuda, who was juggling gingerbread-house making in her older son's classroom with preparing for her new post as Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. We talked about working families, the economy, and how to reframe the state's perspective to truly consider the economic value of working parents. After that call, I texted my older son, who is a senior, and confirmed his college application progress. Thankfully, my husband took our younger son to the orthodontist that afternoon.

At some point, I sifted through my emails and saw that The Huffington Post had sent out a link to Leo McGarry's speech from The West Wing's "Noel" episode, noting that it was a tragically under-ranked Christmas Special. Since the final chapter of my book -- which presents over thirty interviews with working women, mothers, and fathers -- includes a recitation of the "Guy In a Hole" speech, I was kind of surprised.

I totally didn't really realize that the speech was a "thing." To me, it just perfectly described the lives of parents.

The speech comes toward the end of my introduction to the final chapter of Lean On and Lead.


In This Together

When making professional choices, most parents hope to identify opportunities that not only improve their current financial situation, but also provide the potential to improve their future earning power. Many parents also seek to serve as positive role models for their own children -- as both parents and workers -- and they work hard to provide whatever additional support their children may need to become successful adults themselves, whether by helping at school, stepping into volunteer capacities, or being able to support educational opportunities such as college.

Ironically, though many parents are willing to give their children everything and believe that they should provide them with whatever support they need, when it comes to themselves, they tend not to ask for help.

In fact, many of the prevailing characteristics of our culture relate to individualism, independence, and self-reliance, and many of us believe that not only are our accomplishments our own, but unfortunately, so are our difficulties. We believe that our problems are not just our own responsibility to solve, but they are also a result of our own failings. At the same time, in our highly commercialized, competitive, yet strangely "feel-good" society, we get the message that we we shouldn't actually have any problems, regardless of economic or social realities.

So if we have not been able to "have it all" or "do it all," our failures must be due to character flaws, bad choices, mistakes, or lack of trying. Thus, it's not surprising that we do not like to complain. When we're trying to figure out how to meet our work and financial obligations, while also getting our children to soccer, a driving lesson, or a medical appointment, not to mention grocery shopping and cooking dinner, we blame ourselves when we feel like we're not up to the task. When we feel inadequate for not getting enough exercise or improving ourselves in some other way, we believe it is up to us to find ways to do it all better.

We look inward for the solutions to our problems and focus on self-help strategies for improving our ability to survive and prosper -- from better time management to healthier diets. Yet, so many of the root causes of our frustration are related to the social, economic, and even physical infrastructure of our lives.

No matter how much we change our attitudes or improve our efficiency, or feng shui our homes, there are still only twenty-four hours in a day. If the only day care available for our kids is fifteen miles in one direction, and our work is twenty miles in another, no amount of self-improvement will make it easier to get our family home at the end of the day. Two adults working forty plus hour weeks means that no matter how efficient and elegant our planning, there is no time for housework, helping the kids with their homework, or exercise unless we give up the little bit of leisure time that's left. If one or both parents travel for work, time and distance are immutable factors that have major impacts on our ability to reconcile the needs of work and home. And God forbid if someone gets sick.

These are important issues. We all want and need our work, family lives, and relationships to nourish us. Maybe this is a first world problem, or certainly a problem resulting from first world lives, but either way, the solutions to the problems need to go beyond scotch tape and paper clips.

Creating Time

As a society, we need to relearn how to create time -- time to spend with our partners and our children; time to build relationships in our communities and to support each other. For families who lack resources, parents need jobs that provide enough financially so they have time to both support their families and nurture them. For families in higher income professions, they need jobs that don't demand that they put in sixty-plus hour work weeks in order to demonstrate their commitment to a job or the desire to excel.

And we all need time to actively know and collaborate with our neighbors to make our communities safer and stronger. We need time to work with city planners, advocacy groups, unions, businesses, and policy makers on creative solutions to reduce commute times and to improve schools and day cares in ways that build community instead of isolate individuals and families. And we need time to reach out ourselves to our neighbors and neighboring communities to find ways to lean on each other. Of course, creating time will take time -- and that's exactly what none of us has.

Getting out of the Hole Together

I heard a joke on an old episode of The West Wing recently:

"This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out.

"A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

"Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

"Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole.

Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'"

We are definitely in a hole and there are actually lots of prescriptions for getting out -- paid leave, job flexibility, smarter community designs -- and people working hard on those efforts. And there are surely lots of people praying and hoping for ways to get out of the hole -- whether with regard to finances, health, or their relationships.

And there are literally millions of us who have been down here before. And while many of us have been successful in at least figuring out partial fixes, we're going to need to work creatively -- and together -- to address the interconnections of economics, culture, public policy, and family life that have dug the hole in the first place.

And yes, getting out of the hole matters -- not just for the families who are down here -- but for our society and our economy.

To learn some prescriptions for getting out of the hole and read stories from people who've been there, download Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy, a multi-layered, interactive, and robust collection of first person narratives that provide a deep and personal portrayal of what it takes to significantly participate in the 21st century economy while raising children.

The second update to the ebook was published today at the Apple iBooks Store.

"Job of Being a Parent" Poster By Work Projects Administration Poster Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons