This past January marked 20 years since Bill Clinton first took office as the first baby boomer president, and as one of his first actions he signed the Family and Medical Leave Act. The Act mandated that employers allow either or both of the new parents the ability to take unpaid leave from their work to take care of their newborn baby. In many ways it was the country’s official (albeit, belated) acknowledgment that the world had changed and that families with two working parents were the norm.
At the time when the Act was passed, I was an engineer working at Los Angeles County Public Works and my wife (a pharmacist) had just found out that she was pregnant with our first child. I was just three and half years out of college and as a young dad was ready to take on the challenge of fatherhood in a new era. The plan was that my wife Thuy would take off for the first four months and then I would take off for the second four months.
However, County Public Works, as I found out, had not yet made the mental shift to this new era. I got well intentioned advice that this might not be a good move, various skeptical questions checking to see if I was somehow “gaming” the system and finally, reluctant permission. As it turned out, I was the first dad in the organization to take this new leave and my request was somewhat understandably met with bewilderment by my engineer bosses; men who had been dads in an era when roles were different and young ambitious engineers (like I was) followed a standard regimented career path void of such distractions.
Then in 1997, my second son was born and in four short years perspectives had already changed. By this time I was in management and rising. I had a key role in managing a couple very large and visible contracts. I again, requested time off, however this time the reaction was different. Not only was I granted time off, but my boss worked with me so that I didn’t have to take unpaid leave. Instead my boss created a flexible part time schedule, mixed with my accumulated time off and telecommuting so that I could both cover staying at home with my son and continue to manage those key contracts.
What created such a big change in such a short time? Well, probably several factors, but one big difference was that my boss was a mother who had raised two children and experienced the juggling act of balancing parenthood and career first-hand.
However, what seemed like the best of both worlds, turned out not to be so simple. And I found that in reality there is no free lunch. There are reasons babies aren’t found in a workplace and being productive in my new home-based workplace was no easy task. Juggling work, nap time, feedings, work calls and crying is hard. And it is not always a win-win-win. Most of the time I lost (in the form of lack of sleep and late nights of work), but to be honest, sometimes my employer lost by work not getting done on time and sometimes my son lost (in not getting my attention when needed).
Fast forward to March 2013, Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo and who in the last year became the first women to steer the ship of a fortune 500 company while being pregnant), put the whole issue of family flexibility back on the front page. Mayer, now a new mom, changed Yahoo’s policy regarding telecommuting and flexible work schedules. It was part of her effort to increase productivity at Yahoo and get them profitable again.
The internet was all abuzz with talk about how Mayer (who within weeks of giving birth was back at work) was putting a wrecking ball to the modern family friendly workplace that is flexible, productive and a win for everyone. And from none other than the first pregnant CEO of a major corporation (let alone a major tech company).
Well, I don’t know the specifics of her decision and what her rationale was and how it even affects Yahoo parents with little ones at home (or daycare). I do however run my own company of 15 or so full time staff members and I do set the policy for us. And as I experienced when I had kids 15 plus years ago, there are no easy answers.
We have a fairly parent friendly workplace, where a parent can work out pretty flexible accommodations. And well, sometimes it works well and sometimes not so well. A few times, we have had a child come to work for part of a day, because a parent was stuck without daycare or a nanny had problems or some other unexpected coverage issue arose. And to be honest, work suffers; there are distractions, but an emergency solution is found and accommodations are made.
The balance of work, life and family is hard. Just because we have figured out how to get real-time apps on our smart phone, video chat on our tablets, and are connected 24/7; doesn’t mean we’ve figured out how to stretch a 24 hour day into 25 hours or truly do two things at once.
Recently, Bill Clinton wrote in an opinion piece in Politico where he said that he gets more thanks today for the Family and Medical Leave Act than for any other legislation he signed. Clearly the signing of the Act by Clinton was an extremely important effort which finally acknowledged the modern family, but it was just the beginning rather than the end to this story. Solutions won’t come easy, but in the meantime an eyes-wide open discussion of the balancing act parents face seem like the least we can do if we really want to support our families.
*Photo courtesy of FBCA.