You’ve come a long way, baby-sitting issues

As work habits change, moms - and dads - juggle child-care demands

It’s not just gender roles and parental expectations that have changed in recent years. Jobs and workplaces have transformed, too. It’s not just gender roles and parental expectations that have changed in recent years. Jobs and workplaces have transformed, too. (Istockphoto)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / August 6, 2009

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Given the gravity of the situation, the comment went mostly unnoticed. Except by working parents and work-life balance advocates, that is. To them, it called out loud and clear.

Attorney Alan McDonald was introducing the cops who’d assembled to show support for the officer who’d arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr. when McDonald dropped this surprise: The president of the Cambridge Multicultural Police Association couldn’t attend the press conference, the lawyer explained, because he had “baby-sitting issues.’’

The statement - delivered casually and causing no stir onstage - shows the degree to which the workplace has changed to recognize the needs of working parents, according to human resources professionals. And although they’re quick to add that difficulties persist for working parents, that moment at the podium would seem to mark a notable if slight shift.

“It moves [child-care issues] from an excuse and a failing to a statement of fact that we all deal with,’’ said Cali Yost, author of “Work + Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You.’’

“I think it’s very powerful,’’ she said, particularly since the “baby-sitting issues’’ claim was not only made in regard to a man, but one working in a traditionally male-dominated field “where life and work never used to intersect at all publicly.’’

The conversation about men and child care has picked up since Barack Obama took office, Yost added, although the president himself may have an easier time being an involved dad than do his staffers, according to a July 4 New York Times story, “ ‘Family Friendly’ White House Is Less So for Aides.’’

Time was, of course, when child-care problems were thought to be the mother’s alone. It’s hard to imagine a “Mad Men’’-era dad in a gray flannel suit hustling home because his child had to leave school with a fever.

But it’s not just gender roles and parental expectations that have changed in recent years. Our jobs have transformed, too. Armed with BlackBerrys and laptops and VPN networks that allow employees to work from home during the day - and at night and on weekends - there’s a growing acceptance that, for many white-collar professionals, the work will get done, no matter where or when it happens, said Alexandra Levit, career coach and author of “They Don’t Teach Corporate in College.’’

“People have to get their work done,’’ she said, “but there’s not this concentrated 9-to-5 you have to be there.’’

That’s a helpful change for many families who have two parents working full time.

“We are now in a world where the typical family has all their adults working in the labor market, which means there is not a parent home to deal with a sick child or a child-care crisis,’’ Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University School of Social Work, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “I think parents speaking up about this is a very positive development - so long as both men and women are able to do so.’’

Of course, that’s much harder for blue-collar or hourly workers, Yost points out. “Right now too many hourly and non-exempt workers don’t have access to the work-life flex tools that [managers] have, even though their jobs could accommodate some form of all of them.’’

Observers also say that a double standard still exists. The child-care excuse still sounds different coming from a man than a woman, said Nancy Nelson, a veteran human resources consultant.

“If a man made that comment [about baby-sitting issues] you’d think he’s a really committed dad. ‘Look, he’s making an effort to be with his family.’ ’’ Nelson said. “With a woman, the concern is raised: ‘I really can’t depend on her.’ ’’

Lisa MacGillivray, managing director of the hospitality practice at Marlo Marketing/Communications, and the mother of a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old, said she’d rather tell a client she has a “conflict’’ than reveal she’s struggling with child care.

“You always want to come across as professional at all times,’’ she said, recalling the time her 5-year-old son answered the phone at home when a client called. “Helllooooo,’’ he crooned into the phone. MacGillivray heard the two having a conversation on the speaker phone and dashed over. “Thankfully the client was amused,’’ she said, “but it was embarrassing for me.’’

Contrast MacGillivray’s sensitivity with Eric Berman’s confident approach to being a working father. He’s not embarrassed to tell co-workers he’s got responsibilities for his two young children, said the communications director for the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

“We’re talking about my children. If I need to be there for them, I need to make that work,’’ Berman said. “I’d be a little offended if someone were to question that, to be honest with you.’’

It’s a good thing he doesn’t work for Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric.

“There’s no such thing as work-life balance,’’ the business guru told an audience at the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference in New Orleans on June 28. “There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.’’

So, where does “I’ve got baby-sitting issues’’ fall in the work-excuse spectrum? Nelson, the human resources consultant, says it’s more acceptable than claiming car trouble, and mentioned that other family-related excuses were also becoming more prevalent, including elder care and pet bereavement. Said Nelson: “Everyone loves their dog.’’