Part 1 of our work-life balance series ended with the research-based conclusion that everyone suffers when work conflicts with life. Yet the idea that childfree people need and deserve balance as much as their parent counterparts is too often overlooked by employers, policy makers, and by employees themselves. This needs to change.
But it’s different when you’re a parent!
It’s true. Parents and the childfree have different lives and may have different priorities.
Also, children need their parents. Of course, sometimes they need their aunt or their uncle or their big brother or sister or some other non-parent adult in their lives. And the under-18 crowd doesn’t have a corner on the market of need. Elderly parents need their adult children, partners and friends need their support people, and sometimes we (all of us) just need a little goddamn time to ourselves. All of these needs are legitimate. None of them is unique to parents (ok, except for that very first one).
Laura, a librarian in her early 40’s who was quick to note that she does favor parents having the flexibility needed to be involved in their children’s lives, told me,
I don’t want to sound like I’m not in favor of this because I am but if someone needs to have time off for going to their children’s event at school, or parent-teacher conferences, or whatnot, those seem to be given priority over someone who is childfree wanting to have an afternoon off to do something else. I really do believe that jobs should be much more flexible so that parents can take the time to go to the events, those are very important to children, but I just think that if I’m choosing to take an afternoon off to do something else, that doesn’t mean that my choice is less important than their choice.
Ames, a project manager in his mid 30’s, said parents are sometimes treated differently from non-parents in his workplace:
In the workplace environment, there are concessions made to people with children that aren’t made for people without children. Like, someone will say “I have to stay home because my child is sick” or “I have to leave early because my child is sick.” These are understandable situations, but it’s also an easy excuse for people. There’s a certain amount of respect that is given to people with children that sometimes is not given to people without children.
Placing a higher value on how one employee chooses to spend her or his time outside of work over another’s choice is a slippery slope. Unless employers want to be in the (possibly illegal, definitely immoral) business of judging the relative value of employees’ private lives, there has to be a more effective way to handle requests for time away from the office.
Flex-time, not Family-time
While it may be true that life and priorities differ for parents when compared to non-parents, it is also true that we all have lives and priorities outside of work. Instead of thinking of “life” as representing children or families, we should expand our thinking to including a broader range of priorities and activities.
Work-life well being expert Cali Williams Yost recommends flex-time policies as an effective strategy for meeting the work-life balance needs of all employees, whether they are parents or not. Social science research confirms the efficacy of these policies. Taking the burden of having to weigh the relative merit of employees’ requests for time away from work out of the hands of managers eases the stress on everyone.
Though I’ve argued in the past that we must re-think our narrow image of what count as family (and still feel strongly that this is important), thinking of the time we spend outside of work as exclusively family time places unnecessarily severe constraints on how we think about our lives and our leisure. What employees need is flex-time, not family-time.