The other day, my kids were watching The Cat in the Hat Knows a lot about That, a television show on PBS loosely based on the adventures in the books written by Dr. Seuss. At the beginning of most episodes, the children in the program ask their moms if they can go on an adventure and then head off after receiving consent. This morning my son remarked that he does not understand why the show wastes time with the children asking for permission since their parents always say yes anyway. Then, my daughter remarked that the mother is so busy trying to get her work done that this is why she sends her off. I looked up from my laptop (where I, of course, was working while they watched this show) and remarked, well your mommy is not too busy, right? And they both just said, sometimes.
As an academic who works from home often, I perceive my time here as allowing myself to be a presence in the household while getting work done. But, what if the work/home ideal I’ve tried to achieve is actually just perceived by the children as my being here but not attentive? Melissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, received much attention last week with her decision to return her company’s telecommuters back to the office in order to enhance creativity. Many saw this as a betrayal to her workers, some of whom chose the company because of this flexibility. Others were angry that Mayer, one of the first pregnant CEO’s to take over a high profile Fortune 500 company, as a betrayal to juggling moms all over. Still others, are especially angry about what they see as her personal hypocrisy. Rumor has it she is setting up a nursery next door to her office for her own baby. Although, that last critique I’m less troubled by. I think Mayer will get her own just punishment with the nursery office set-up. Quite frankly, when my children were that age (and who am I kidding, even now) the only time I got to eat my lunch in peace was the 15 minutes in my office where I was also catching up on the reading for the class I was about to teach (I call that my “me” time).
We see here a conflation of telecommuting with the work-life balance. Telecommuting is not necessarily the answer to the work-life balance. It is simply one piece of the puzzle. Corporations should take a look at academia. We’ve been doing the telecommuting thing before it had that name. We frequently work from home and summers (which start in June) are sacrosanct (there is no faster way to work up a faculty than schedule some mandatory workshop day in July). Yet, as my children have illustrated to me- just because you work from home does not mean that you automatically achieve work-life balance. I have a friend whose job allowed her (after much paperwork, justification, and overall fuss) to telecommute two days a week. Her kids were in school and she was at home working and it was all great until she had another baby. Then, she realized that she could not work at home while taking care of her baby and even having the baby at home with someone else caring for him was a distraction (are you listening Mayer before you put the finishing touches on your nursery?). Yet, she did not want to give up her hard-earned telecommuting rights (she might never get them back) so she had to change her arrangement and ultimately found a solution that works for her. She found a nanny share arrangement where the baby spends half the week at the other mom’s home with the other baby and nanny and his home on the other days. Another mother (a lawyer) told me that she needed the daycare because she wanted the house to herself a couple of days a week so she could get her work done in total peace and quiet (and some bonus laundry time as well).
While we can have outrage over Mayer’s blanket decision, the discussion should focus less on her personal decisions in her company but on acknowledging that solving work-life balance is about more than simply being allowed to work from home. That may be first step but figuring out what to do with your children is still a hurdle. It needs to be about flexibility, about both fathers and mothers, and about access to and support for childcare and daycare that arrangements that make everyone comfortable. I wish I had answers but the best step to finding solutions is to broaden the questions we ask. Now, I’m off to eat my lunch in my office (in peace!).
Laura Tropp, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Communication Arts Department at Marymount Manhattan College. She writes and teaches on motherhood issues and is the author of the book, A Womb with a View: America’s Growing Public Interest in Pregnancy.