When Pope Francis made his historic trip through the U.S. last week and sent a message that strong families are the foundation of a healthy society, he left me to ponder the predicament America finds itself in.
Can strong families and successful companies co-exist? Can we raise our children with values, break the cycle of poverty and care for our elderly parents while adding jobs, building sales and meeting customer demands? In our global, technologically driven, constantly changing economy, have we sacrificed strong families for a modern-day definition of success?
In most American workplaces, parents struggle with balancing jobs and family needs. Parents are frowned on, even docked in pay, for taking time off to care for a sick child. They are expected to be on time for aftercare pickups or to make it to teacher conferences regardless of whether their bosses allow flexibility. They are torn between progressing in their careers and making room in their lives for caregiving.
“For Americans, life has become all competition, all the time,” wrote Anne-Marie Slaughter in a Sept. 20 article in The New York Times that had the headline “A Toxic Work World.” She notes that the model of “winning at all costs” doesn’t make room for caregiving, and she points out: “When an abundance of overly rigid workplaces cause 42 million American citizens to live day to day in fear that just one single setback will prevent them from being able to care for their children, it’s not just their problem, but ours.”
Yes, America. We have a problem. Here we are in the 21st century raising our kids or caring for elderly parents while trying to please our customers and bosses, working crazy hours — and still, the workplace demands more. We are stressed. We are exhausted. We are on an unfulfilling search for happiness, and our families are weaker for it.
Molita Cunningham wants a strong family. She is a 56-year-old Miami home healthcare worker who puts in 12-hour shifts. She wants to enroll her three children in an affordable after-school program, supervise their homework and make them a healthy family dinner. But that’s not compatible with her job demands. She has no sick leave or flexibility, and she hasn’t had a raise in years: “Every month is a struggle to pay my bills, and my kids want to know why I’m always working.”
Government policies may be the first step toward strong families. Universal child care and other policies that make mothers’ work lives more achievable are common in other countries. child care for the roughly 11 million American children younger than 5 who need it is expensive, and standards vary widely.
At a town hall meeting in January, President Barack Obama said he wants to improve life for modern working families. He acknowledged the wage gap for women as well as a lack of paid parental leave and affordable quality child care, and he spoke about proposed laws he endorses to help Americans meet work and family responsibilities.
But government efforts are only one component: Corporations need to do their part. Karen Rubin, managing director of Talking Talent, which coaches companies on developing the female talent pipeline, believes workplaces could be more successful if they created a culture that retains talented parents. That cultural shift would need to start at the top, she said: “Senior leaders need to truly accept that individuals can be evaluated based on performance, not just on being present.” Most companies aren’t there yet, she said: “I see a disconnect… A company may have put a generous leave or flexibility policy on the books, but the underlying message is those truly committed are present and working 24/7, so the policies aren’t really working.”
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg said 43 percent of highly qualified women with children are leaving careers or off-ramping for awhile. Some channel their dissatisfaction with a rigid corporate America into fast-growing new businesses. Tere Blanca runs her own successful real estate brokerage firm in Miami and said flexibility is a key accommodation parents often can’t find at big businesses: “When you’re a small business owner like me, you can be flexible in how you let parents execute on work.” Working flexibly doesn’t mean not serving clients; it means that work is mobile or happening from a different place, she said: “Corporate America has to evolve.”
Of course, we must acknowledge that the role of American business is to generate value for owners or shareholders, and that means parents must show the value of the work they provide. Yet, most would say they could do that more effectively if work could be structured differently. We have a long way to go for America to live up to its role in creating the strong families Pope Francis envisions for our country. I would like to think that we are on our way.
Cindy Krischer Goodman writes weekly on work life issues. Follow her @balancegal, connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit worklifebalancingact.com.