Family Matters… Outside Our Circles

Some years back, when I was “safely” ensconced in a corporate career, I was one of many first time moms-to-be in our 30s.

Generally speaking, we had anywhere from 5 to 15 years of experience behind us, we felt secure in our knowledge and our positions, and while the focus at work was the tasks at hand, to occasionally discuss husbands and pregnancies felt utterly normal.

Once we had children, we discussed them – not excessively – including our scheduling headaches that might require phone calls and time off when childcare arrangements fell through, when a child was sick, or when a teacher required our presence.

We took care of family first – because we had to.

So. Is it okay to talk about these family matters outside our usual close circles – specifically, in the workplace? Aren’t they more  often the issues that preoccupy us?

It’s easy to say “it depends” – on the environment, our individual situations, the roles we play in the organization, and a number of other variables including the who, what, why, and when – not to mention the “how.”

And what about the men? Are the variables the same? Are there more restrictions on husbands and fathers when it comes to raising family issues with a boss or colleague?

Should We Talk About Family in the Workplace?

I’ve discussed the fact that motherhood doesn’t belong on the resume – unless it’s relevant. And I mean that in a larger sense, in that raising issues of marital status and children in any professional setting is a judgment call. I believe women do it too much, too easily, and indirectly we dilute the ways we are perceived as leadership material – or even, available.

This is especially problematic in a tough economy in which it’s a buyer’s (employer’s) market.

Yet even as I make a statement of this sort – the need to refrain from speaking of family – I’m conflicted: In a world where the boundaries between work life and home life are so blurred, I doubt there’s a hard and fast rule that applies – no doubt with a few exceptions.

(If I’m sitting in an attorney’s office, I don’t want to hear about her daughter’s latest soccer win or her son who just got into Yale. Likewise, my physician or anyone else I’m paying hourly or whose time is scarce.)

If I’m not an office worker but find myself in an environment of performing tasks that leave the mind and mouth free, and I’m with other parents? Why not find common ground where it exists and help pass the time by discussing one’s kids? If it doesn’t interfere with work getting done, I see no issue.

I do, however, put myself in the place of those women (in particular) who are childless or childfree – some by circumstance and others by choice – and respect their lifestyle. I see no need to monopolize conversations with debates over breastfeeding versus formula, or worries about teens and SATs. I still believe in a fair amount of separation of church and state when it comes to family life and work, which doesn’t mean no friendly exchanges, but keeping them to appropriate and manageable levels.

We are, after all, at work in order to “work.”

Men Discussing Wives and Children at Work?

Scott Behson takes on this issue from the father’s viewpoint in his post “4 Ways to Make it Safe for Dads to Talk About Family at Work,” he writes:

I’ve recommended that we keep relatively quiet about discussing family in the workplace…

An advocate for greater involvement of men in family life, and in particular, in actively and creatively sharing the workload of parenting with their spouses, he suggests that men be the change rather than waiting for change:

Many workplaces are not open to discussion of family… If my generation of busy involved dads don’t start making change happen, company cultures will remain unchallenged, and more and more dads will have to struggle seemingly alone.

Mr.

Behson makes the point that many dads struggle with work-family issues, but there isn’t the prominence in terms of openly discussing them that exists when it comes to the woman’s juggle. Part of the problem for men, then, lies in the silence – and Mr. Behson suggests that speaking of family matters could help alleviate this.

He provides four ways to address this issue – do read his article – yet he prefaces his recommendations with the following caveat:

If you have the security, flexibility, courage and inclination (I recognize some may have more ability to do this at work than others)…

“If” Secure in Your Job, etc.

Mr. Behson’s caveat is not insignificant, but his point may well be more generalized. If fathers do not feel freer to discuss their children in all areas of their lives, how can we as a society see them more fully as the participatory parents they are – or would like to become?

What can women – female bosses, female clients – do to assist or at least ease some of their discomfort in raising family issues?

I’m guessing (and yes, it’s a guess) that we’re more tolerant when there is a divorce situation or a family illness. But what about the non-stop aggravation that children can pose when it comes to schedules and interruptions, school-related activities in which parents need to participate or assist, not to mention when a child is sick or childcare arrangements fall through?

We expect to hear about this from the women – whether openly or muttered under their breath – and it does their careers no favors, mind you. But we don’t anticipate the same from the men. We remain wed to an assumption that there are other caregivers in the picture dealing with these issues.

What if there are not? And even if there are, with growing expectations that women need more balanced sharing of family responsibilities, can’t we allow our men to discuss them? Can we make it safe for them to discuss them?

Women, Work, and Family

My gut still tells me that isn’t “safe” for women to discuss these issues, though it manifests itself differently – in terms of fewer opportunities, which leads me to express my feeling that we need to tone down our family roles when it comes to our work lives. We are none of us secure, and that glass ceiling is very real – even more so, the lower floors where we seem to find ourselves stuck too long and too often.

And yet, like Mr. Behson, I would wish for us to feel free to reflect the richness of our lives, which frequently has to do with family. With that gift of family comes responsibilities – ideally, carried by more than one parent.

I will continue to speak of and (in my own way) advocate for those infrastructure changes that benefit all of us who are parents, male or female, whether “conventionally” employed or not, and whether the (once) traditional two-parent household model holds true or not. I’m speaking of affordable, quality childcare and early childhood education, additional childcare options for older children (so they aren’t latch-key kids) – and these services not to be offered through the workplace, as this automatically excludes those of us who no longer benefit from traditional employment.

Let’s not forget the fact that millions of Americans get two weeks of vacation a year, at most, and work extra hours to be able to take it. Many of us don’t even get that. No wonder we’re tired…

Still, as work seems to have bled into family life, shouldn’t we be able to speak of our spouses and children more freely, especially so our supervisors, managers, and co-workers understand most of us would like to “work to live” rather than “live to work?”

And that includes taking care of our families, which ought to be respected.