Mon June 3, 2013

Work/Life Balance: When The 'Kid Card' Gets Old



I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're mixing it up this week and bringing you our parenting conversation a day early. Today, we're talking about something that affects a lot of people in the workplace. Many parents who work outside the home have taken off early for a teacher conference or maybe they've come in late because their child is sick or the babysitter's late. In her recent piece for the online magazine Slate, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates says she gets annoyed when working parents pull what she calls the kid card. And she's a mom herself. Her piece is called, "Why working parents should not pull the kid card." And she's with us now. Welcome.


MARTIN: Also with us is Phil Lerman. He's author of the book "Daditude." He's a dad of one and a step dad of one. And Bridget Johnson's also with us. She's Washington, D.C. editor of PJ Media. That's a conservative news and commentary site. And she's not a parent yet, if you don't mind my saying it that way. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

PHIL LERMAN: Thanks for having me.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So Karen, I'm just going to read a little bit from the column. And it starts with another column in Slate where it - which featured a letter from a young attorney who was seething with resentment because coworkers, she says, in her law firm, regularly left the office early because they had things that they needed to do with their kids. And you write, "I get annoyed when the kid card is played. As a working parent who, for years, struggled to juggle my professional obligations with my parental ones, I've paid babysitters to stay late and forgone other things to do that, used vacation time to attend grade school graduations and traded off early departures with other coworkers, not all of them parents, so my husband and I" - excuse me - "could go to award ceremonies, etc.", and of course, as you go on to say. What made you want to write this piece?

BATES: I don't know. I was sort of - I was looking at the reaction to the attorney. And there's a lot about this we don't know, you know, that clearly she's on, like, the lower rung and you expect to be worked to death. I mean, you have a law degree, you know how this goes. You go to a firm and they just basically use you up until they decide they're going to put you on a partner track. And then you work even harder and hopefully you get made partner. But it's kind of a little slice of hell for the first five to seven years. So we know that she's sort of - we - that she's - sorry - we know that she's kind of at the bottom of the rung there. What we don't know is whether the people who are, in her view, ditching to go and do things with their kids are her colleagues at a similar strata, or whether...


BATES: ...they're partners who've spent a whole lot of time doing what she's doing now and have said, I've earned it...


BATES: ...I'm going to go see my kid.

MARTIN: Well, presumably, you thought through all that. So you still have something you want to say, so...

BATES: Yeah, basically, there's - we live in a culture of entitlement, at this point, in terms of parenthood. And, you know, as you've said I am a parent. I've been doing this for a long time. And I think sometimes we look around and say, well, I have to have this because I'm a mother or a father. Well, okay, people who don't have children have, maybe, elderly parents they have to take care of or maybe there's something else that they need to do. And I think that the attitude of, what I'm doing is way more important than what anybody else is doing, is what rankled.

MARTIN: Let me just point out that I do not have a law degree, although I'm flattered that you think that I do. My husband is a lawyer.

BATES: I think that everybody from Harvard has a law degree.

MARTIN: Okay, you've just outed me on all kinds of levels here. But Phil Lerman, you were an executive producer and you are also a parent, so presumably you've addressed this question from both sides. What do you think of that?

LERMAN: I think that once you get to the point where you have two sets of workers who are resenting each other - I don't care if it's parents and singles, whites and blacks, men and women - once you, as a manager, allow the kind of resentment to happen, that's your problem and that's your mistake you've made in the workplace.

And this is a really easy problem to solve for a manager because all you got to do is go to that single person and say, hey, you know what, you worked three nights this week. I really appreciate it. You know what, we got two tickets at the corporate box at the Nationals. It's two in the afternoon. Go get your girlfriend, go down there, have dinner on me, and go to see a ballgame. Thanks a lot for your hard work. And the problem's solved.

So if your boss can't figure out how to do that, then that's the problem and the resentment you're feeling for your coworker is because you've got a bad manager who doesn't know how to balance and be fair. As a manager, you've got to nurture your best and you got to be fair to the rest. And if your manager can't do that, then you're allowing these kind of resentments to build up, but your resentment's in the totally wrong place.

I've had single people who also have needs. You're right, you have single people whose parents get sick. I was one. My father got sick when I was in - when he was in New York. My boss said, go, go up there, don't come back till you got him in a nursing home. If your boss can't do that, then he's the problem, not the parent.

MARTIN: Bridget, what do you think about that, as a person who's presently single but also has an active, you know, interests, you know?

JOHNSON: Right and being a journalist my whole professional life, you know, first of all, I'd have to exclude, you know, my current job in independent media. It doesn't really have the same sort of leaning on each other that a newsroom does. The newsroom situation, you have something break, you need all hands on deck and so you almost - first of all, you tend to see this sort of self-segregation of, like, you know, a friend gets pregnant who was on the news desk. Suddenly she moves to features, has the day hours, etc.

But, you know, we do have things that we have to leave for every once in a while. You know, going to the vet, you know, with - for the dog or something like that. But I think a lot of it is - the attitude that sometimes comes with the request for you to be the person to always work every holiday. And I worked every holiday for a very long time and was told things like, even when I was working 14-, 16-hour days, that I don't know what busy is because I don't have kids.

So in one respect, it would seem kind of, you know, off-putting, but in another respect, I saw it as an opportunity because I saw if these people weren't in the office, then I had a chance to get a leg up and show the boss that I was always the person there working.

MARTIN: Let me - can I ask a - let me just sort of take the caveats that Karen laid out as a - first of all, to take them at their word - first of all, the young woman who sparked this critique - first of all, my take on it would be, you don't always know what your colleagues are contributing.

BATES: That's true.

MARTIN: I find it noteworthy because, as an attorney, that there are clear measures of performance and - in terms of billable hours and money brought in. So my take on it is that colleagues often don't know what their colleagues are contributing in terms of the work that they bring in, the contributions that they make, so that's thing one. And it does - Phil, you pointed out race - it does remind me of some of the racial conflicts we sometimes hear about where people say, well, I know I'm a superior candidate to this person and then you find out that maybe you aren't. You know, maybe you aren't.

But the second - but the radical question I wanted to point to here is maybe it is more important being a caretaker than collecting stamps.

I mean, Karen, you point out in your piece - you say that children, like a lot of other delightful things in life, are usually a choice and the decision to have them implies you're willing to make adjustments and the world does not adapt to your needs all the time. But what about the radical thought that maybe caretaking for a senior or a child is more important than collecting stamps and that societies that don't recognize that, like Japan for example, where the birthrate does not meet replacement for the population, are undergoing some real struggles. What about that idea?

BATES: Yeah, I think there's some merit in that but I think that this whole business of putting children above everything else, you know, so your, you know, six year old who's in a ballet on Wednesday night is more important than somebody else's 90-year-old mother who's on life support. How do you make that kind of decision? And that's when we see...

MARTIN: But you didn't talk about, you know, in your piece, though, you don't talk about people caretaking seniors. You talk about kids. You talked about playing the kid card.

BATES: No, there's a piece...

MARTIN: You know? Mhmm.

BATES: ...there is a piece in there about caretaking seniors and what I said is, what, you know, people who don't have children may also have other obligations. They may have frail, elderly parents that they have to look after. So I deliberately put that in because there are more and more of us who are being placed in that position, you know, sort of - or if you have children, even sandwiched between that and sometimes you have to make a pretty wrenching decision about which to do.

But I think Phil is right. And one of the things that managers are going to need to do is to deal with what they're dealing with in a transparent way that people understand. You know, I think part of the resentment is, oh, so-and-so seems to be ducking out early every day because she's got soccer one day and this another day and whatever. You know, the manager maybe says, yeah, but she's in here at seven o'clock in the morning and works a full day. She just works a different shift than you. So, you know, go back to your work.


LERMAN: Yeah, part of the problem here is that this fury we have in entitlement in this country - oh my God, there's somebody taking advantage, quick, we have to squeeze that person and make them work harder because that's the problem in the office. That's not the problem in the office. Most of the parents in the office place are working so incredibly hard and doing so much to juggle what they've got, as are the single people trying to juggle all that they've got. Those are the people you have to focus on and those are the people you have to help.

If you can nurture your good workers and your hard workers, single and parents, well, then you're going to be fine. You keep saying, well, why aren't parents just as important as kids. They are. And if you as a manager take care of the people who need to take care of their parents as well as you do the parents who have to take care of their kids, then you're not going to have this conflict.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us we're talking about pulling the kid card, the juggle between parenting obligations and professional ones. I'm talking with NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, who wrote about this issue for the online magazine Slate. Also with us, Bridget Johnson of PJ Media and Phil Lerman author of "Daditude."

Bridget Johnson, the other question I had for you is, is it possible that parents just become more vocal about - well two thoughts I actually - I had - is it possible that parents are just more vocal about their needs and are more transparent about it because they've learned to speak up more, whereas perhaps people who don't have those obligations don't speak about it as much? And I'm also wondering whether Karen used the word, sort of, entitlement, since parents are now a minority among households, I wonder if in part there is a sense of being a minority?

JOHNSON: I think, at least what I've experienced in the newsroom setting, that there is sort of, you know, I'm going to raise my voice above the din sort of attitude on the parents who want to take off early. But again, I think that there's a lot of really staying away from the whole argument that, you know, my kids are more important than whatever we're doing here because, you know, we don't want to get into that argument of like look, you know, we're covering revolutions, we're helping the cops solve crimes, you know, we're doing really important work here, we're helping political prisoners, you know, etc., so let's not get into this comparison of who has the more important job. But we're all employed at the same place, so, you know, we need to find a way to work on it.

MARTIN: In your experience though, do you think that people who are taking care of seniors are as vocal about it? Is it something that we talk about as much. I mean there are a lot of parenting conversation, roundtables, magazines, like there's Working Mother Magazine, for example, there's Parents Magazine, but I don't know that there is a magazine for people who are taking care of seniors, even though there is a lot of overlap in that group. I'm just kind of wondering. Bridget I'm asking you this.

JOHNSON: Yeah, and I'm afraid...

MARTIN: ...it doesn't feel as visible or surfaced, right?

JOHNSON: At least at nights in big newsrooms you would actually, I think, hear about that more than you would about the kids. Because, you know, it's very much a family environment, especially after five o'clock has gone and there are people left, you know, on the night desk. And you would actually hear a lot about, you know, what people were almost kind of escaping at home by being there at night. And needing some time away and, you know, needing to be there with the job, you know, with the newsroom family, etc. So...


MARTIN: That's interesting, Phil what you say?

LERMAN: I think, you know, I worked every Christmas until - most of the time when I was on the desk because the Jewish kids worked on Christmas, that's what we did.

And - but I had a guy - I'll tell you a story that now nobody will hire me again, if I tell you the story, but I had a single guy call me up say, hey Phil, you know how I've worked every Christmas so that the parents can take some time off - I said yeah - he said, listen I'm at Rehoboth and I just met this girl over the weekend and I want to stay a couple of days, you cool with that? I said I'm cool with that. This was not a dying parent, this was not a kid's - this is a guy who said, you know what, I want to take a couple days off. I gave him a couple days off, did that make him entitled, did that make him lazy?

I will tell you what that made him, that made him feel like, I will bust my butt for you and you will bust your butt for me. And that's what a work relationship should be. He became one of the most hard-working guys on that desk for a couple of days off. That's an easy, easy exchange for a manager.

MARTIN: Karen go ahead, I wanted to sort of hear some more from you on this. Because I want to ask the same question, I mean, is part of it that - part of being a parents or part - is that parents tend to be older and they've learned how to speak up and they've learned how to speak up for what they need?

BATES: I don't know that that's it at all. I think that part of it is just sort of, you know, your treated as this amazing vessel of life-giving whatever and it's like yeah, but I still have to go to work to feed the life I just, you know, gave birth to. I think it - for me it was encapsulated by this argument that happened online after this piece ran. This was one of the most viewed and commented pieces a couple of weeks ago when it showed up on Slate. It had something like 1,500 comments.

And one - a lot of the back-and-forth centered around this woman that says look, I'll just say it out loud, I have children and whatever I do is more important than anything that any of the rest of you will do, ever. That's the way I feel and that's the truth. And, you know, of course that started, well that's your truth but I also have, you know, a life even though I don't have children. I'm trying to get a degree so I can stay in the marketplace. I'm trying to do - and it just sort of took off from there.

So I think that it's the sanctimony, in some ways, that is very hard for people. Now as a working parent I did trade off with people for holidays. They wanted, you know, maybe Easter and so I worked Christmas at some point. You know, and got home in time to have dinner with the family and do some other stuff. As my child got older and there were people in my office with younger children, I would volunteer to do it because he wasn't so like - it was like, yeah, okay, I'll see you when you get home. And I think when Phil talks about this kind of trading among colleagues, that is really, really important. But I think it's deadly to say, well I have a kid that trumps every thing.

MARTIN: Well I'm curious though about your notion that there is this kind of hallowed status of being a parent in United States, when this is the country with the least generous leave - parental leave policies in the Western industrialized world.

BATES: I didn't say the employer looked at it that way.


MARTIN: But in terms of the- but just in terms of the culture, I mean, of the culture of that being a parent is somehow hallowed is just - I just - that's something that I think a lot of us are questioning. I don't know.

BATES: Well I would say within a certain income strata I think that the worried well-off may have that attitude. Where, you know, and that's the other thing that bothers me about this - if you're the lady who works at the cash register at the cafeteria line, you don't have those same options. You know, if you want to leave early to see your kid in a play, then you have to take a vacation day or, you know, beg your boss, you have to do whatever. But it doesn't have that kind of flexibility. And I think that often the people with the most flexibility are complaining the loudest.

MARTIN: Go ahead Phil.

LERMAN: But the ones who are complaining the loudest are really the minority and we shouldn't let them speak for all parents. You and I know that most of the parents we know in the workplace are working really hard and juggling and both of them are working because both of them have to work. When babysitter's sick, when the kid's sick, the parent is going like crazy - and look, I've had hundreds of people who work for me who've had kids. Mothers who are like, going in the back pumping milk, the dad comes with the cooler, takes the milk, goes, gets the babysitter, the babysitter takes - to feed a baby.

And you look at what these people are doing and you can say, oh look at how sanctimonious they are. They're busting their butt for me, so they can work and I should bust my butt for them, just the same as I would for any other worker. You can't let that fear of, oh my God somebody's taking advantage - somebody's being sanctimonious - somebody thinks they're better than me. You can't let that feeling make you harm the great majority of hard-working parents who are just trying to get by.

MARTIN: Bridget you want to have the final thought here?

JOHNSON: You know, I think that it's - this is something that's always going to be in the workplace, about, you know, people are going to have things that come up that they need to take time off for. But, you know, I don't know if there's a greater way to communicate that, you know, the people who don't have children, you know, also have lives, also have things that we need to take off for and also want to contribute a lot to the workplace and if...

MARTIN: I think you just it. Tell 'em Bridget. Bridget Johnson is the Washington, DC editor of PJ Media. She was here with me in our Washington, DC studios. Along with Phil Lerman, the author of "Daditude" - he's a dad of one and a step-dad of one. Karen Grigsby Bates is an NPR correspondent and mom of one, she was with us from our studios in Culver City, California. Thank you all so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

BATES: Thanks Michelle.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michelle Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR news. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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