Work and Family in Sync
There’s a time to work, and a time to raise children. We should be concerned when those rhythms are interrupted.
Senior editor Brian Dijkema talks with Rachel Anderson and Katelyn Beaty about the Center for Public Justice’s new Families Valued initiative, and their report, Time to Flourish: Protecting Families’ Time for Work and Caregiving, which calls for the kind of work that can sustain healthy families.
Brian Dijkema: Can you describe the Families Valued initiative for our readers?
I think our society is at the risk of collapsing everything into a single thing. That every time can be exchanged for another kind of time. But that’s not true.
Rachel Anderson: Families Valued is a new initiative of the Center for Public Justice, whose focus is on policies and workplace practices that help honour both work and family. So the particular focus of this project is on the intersection of the workplace and family life. We’re interested in what happens in private workplaces with respect to family policies, and the choices that employers and leaders in the workplace can make, as well as the public policy that affects those choices.
BD: Can you tell us why, at this particular time, you’re interested in this particular issue?
RA: Partially because the conversation about work and family life is really active presently in the United States. And that’s partially because many parents experience a tension between their work and their families—especially moms. And there are a great number of us who are giving care to relatives, not necessarily to children, but to older relatives, to members of our families who are disabled or ill. It seems that those caregiving needs are growing. Recently I heard that 20 percent of millennials are providing some level of care to a member of their family. At the same time, there are a great number of employees and workers who really don’t have a lot of buffers that would enable to attend to those family responsibilities and their jobs.
Katelyn Beaty: Many families are experiencing a lot of stress regarding their ability to care for family members, especially after the birth of a child or older family members who need a lot of medical care and attention. Our research is not directed at mothers in particular, but we do show how women experience the stresses between work and family. One study from Barna shows that 80 percent of mothers surveyed say that they are overwhelmed and stressed by the responsibilities of trying to manage both work and family; some to the point of illness. As Christians we want to honour both work responsibilities and family responsibilities, and we think that faith-based communities can lead the way in creating workplace cultures and workplace policies that honour those responsibilities.
BD: I appreciated the way you told the stories of how stress affects people’s lives in your report for the Families Valued initiative. Could you describe that stress and how it manifests itself, and perhaps say a bit about what research says about its effects on mothers on kids, and on communities?
KB: Sure. I’ll share two stories. The first is the story of Nicole Martin, who’s an accomplished preacher and pastoral leader in North Carolina and who was an executive pastor of a large, prominent African American church in Charlotte. She and her husband Mark have two children. I believe their children are still under the age of eight at this time.
We talked about how having young children affects your professional and work commitments. How did you balance the responsibilities? Nicole is really affirming of the informal support that she received after having her first child; the church organized a baby shower and gave her and Mark lots of practical, tangible help. But when it came to taking time off from work after having her first child, she realized that there was just no parental leave policy in place.
There was no policy to even refer to. How much time should they take off? Will it be paid or unpaid? Like a lot of people, she ended up using vacation days and a short-term disability insurance policy and kind of cobbled together enough time. I think she would say it wasn’t enough time, and that the lack of a policy put a burden on her as an individual mother to make it work.
She said that having to cobble together time and the need to figure things out on her own was psychologically exhausting. She said, “You’re supposed to be all excited about having this baby and now you’re worried about how am I going to pay for this? What’s going to happen when I go back to work? Do I have to work indefinitely because I used up all my vacation days? What’s my value to the organization, and do they really care about my family?”
On the one hand, she would absolutely say that the church cared for her family. But working that care and that sentiment into concrete actions and fostering particular workplace cultures that proactively say, “Yes, we value your family and your time with your family enough to have a policy in the books about this,” was missing.
RA: I visited with several Christian ministries who were working with families and parents as I was researching and preparing for this report. One of those was in Phoenix, Arizona. The program was called Moms Place—now Parenting por Vida because they are working with both moms and dads together. The program supports low-income families, particularly those who came out of deep poverty, have a healthy child-bearing and childbirth experience, and then parenting experience.
One of the moms who participates in that program, we’ll refer to her as Jane, had a child just this summer. She had been working for two years at a call centre in Arizona. When it came time to have the baby, her employer said, “Oh you can have about four weeks and then you’ve got to get back to work.” That’s less than what one should be entitled to, but what the staff at Moms Place shared with me was that lots of their parents feel pressured to come back to work as soon as possible. They feel they’ll be docked hours or eventually let go if they don’t get back to work. They don’t have a lot of savings. They’re working pretty low-wage jobs. Jane said she decided to go back to work in two weeks. She gave up the opportunity to breastfeed her child as a result, even though it’s something that she wanted to do. She said, “If I don’t go back to work in two weeks, we will not have enough money to pay our electric bill.” These are the kind of choices that moms are facing.
BD: You tell an interesting story about the shift from household-based economies, where the household is the material centre of a family’s economy. The story you tell is of how work and the economy was there to serve the household. And at some point that seemed to flip; the institution of the family is increasingly being driven by economic factors. The story you just told, Rachel, of Jane, seems to be an example of that. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of that and how that actually ends up looking today?
KB: As we mentioned in the report, the Industrial Revolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had a profound impact on both the locus of work and the relationship between work life and family life. One thing that the Industrial Revolution did was take economic work outside the home. You had a family member travelling away from the home to complete the work and bring wages back. We continue to feel the effects of the Industrial Revolution whenever we talk about work-life balance. What we’re talking about, though, is the ways that work and family have been separated—made into separate spheres of responsibility.
And today, technology places greater burdens on employees. It could be long shift hours. It could be low-wage workers not having a lot of control over their work time, or their schedules, having to be on call even when they’re at home. This can also be something like the pressure to check your work email in the evenings or on weekends.
BD: Don’t do it. It’s bad for your soul!
KB: Technology can, in certain circumstances, help mend the work-family divide. I know a lot of professional women around my age who, after having children, are able to complete their work from home. They have an internet connection. They don’t necessarily need to be in a physical office to complete their work. The flexibility that that provides actually helps mend the work-home divide a little bit.
But in other circumstances, we see that technology places a great burden on employees to be on the ready for work responsibilities even when they’re at home. One thing we mentioned in the report is that there are relatively easy ways for faith-based employers to create a family-supportive workplace culture that doesn’t cost the workplace itself very much at all.
We spoke to leaders at Hope International, which is a Christian microfinance organization based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. From their president and executive leadership team all the way down through the company, they have a really strict policy of no work emails in the evenings or on weekends. If you are emailing in those times, you have to explicitly state in the email why you have to do it.
I think having that expectation from the top down, saying that we will in fact penalize you if you do email in the evenings or on weekends, is a really clear indicator from the top leadership that they want the time to expressly be devoted to family, to others, or to rest and other non-work commitments. They’re recognizing that Hope International should not have all of your time. I appreciated that policy, and I think that a lot of other employers could implement something similar.
BD: One thing that came through in your report is that there seems to be a disproportionate burden placed on blue-collar workers and their families. You note that many of these families have two full-time working parents. Is there a class divide here? Do wealthier parents spend more time at home caring for children the family? Is that an accurate description?
RA: There are patterns across the income spectrum where both parents work. But what we talked about in the paper was whether families have adequate buffers that protect their family time. If you looked at just the early-child-care period, higher-income and higher-skilled workers win on both counts. They are more likely to have a savings buffer to rely on, which allows a parent to take a longer maternity or paternity leave.
We want to honour the family as an institution that is bound up with the health of an entire society. A society can only flourish when its families are flourishing.
They may be in a position to have one parent stay at home, even for several years. They are also more likely to have jobs with all of the benefits that could provide them paid leave if they wanted it. You probably heard the statistic that only 15 percent of American workers receive a paid-leave benefit. It’s more than that when you add in other kinds of paid time off. Nevertheless, those benefits are concentrated in high-wage sectors of the economy like finance and technology. Those benefits are scarce if you’re in tourism, service sector, restaurant work, or, say, construction. There the benefits are very modest or nonexistent.
BD: It strikes me that when you say things like “family time” you’re working with an underlying philosophical approach about the proper place of the workplace and the proper place of the family and why they’re there. What’s the deeper philosophical drive that is shaping the way you understand this research, and which fuels your proposals?
RA: I’ll start with a theory. It may be broad and more abstract than it needs to be. But the underlying philosophical and theological understanding at the broadest level is that there are distinct phases and seasons of human life, and that God has a purpose for each one of those, and that they might need to be structured differently to achieve that purpose. The life of the family and the work of caregiving in a family is a particular calling, a necessary calling, a God-given calling; and it has its distinct activities and rhythms that go along with it.
Likewise work in the marketplace is a worthy, God-given calling, and that occurs within workplaces and whole sets of institutions that are oriented toward work. They also have callings and best ways to be and best ways to promote flourishing. It’s important to note those distinctions and that God wants all of those different parts of life to flourish. I think our society is at the risk of collapsing everything into a single thing. That every time can be exchanged for another kind of time. But that’s not true.
KB: We want to honour the family as an institution that is bound up with the health of an entire society. A society can only flourish when its families are flourishing. Research suggests that many families in the United States are not flourishing, and some of that seems to be due to the encroachment of work, which is itself meant to be a blessing, meant to be a good activity, a good sphere of human activity.
But whenever one sphere of activity, even a good one, starts to encroach on another good and important sphere, we believe that there have to be boundaries and limits set up to protect the sphere that’s being encroached on. Family-supportive workplace policies, whether on an individual workplace level or something broader like the state or federal level, is one way that we as a society can protect and honour the institution of the family and put work in its proper place.
We were not meant to work alone. We see in the order of creation that God sets aside a day for rest and replenishment. Even God, with endless resources and time and energy, sets aside a day to rest. In the creation account, we see glimpses of what human flourishing really looks like. A human society that doesn’t honour rest and the primacy of the family is not going to flourish.
BD: I think that’s a good setting for the next question. You’ve just described a desire to see a complementary, or an enabling, relationship between families and workplaces and also society as a whole. You note that these institutions should enable one another to exercise callings that are unique—born out of those institutions. At one point you say that work and family aren’t meant to compete but to complement each other.
And you put forward some policy recommendations—for both states and corporations and other institutions. Can you describe those for us, for the readers? How would you manifest the social vision you’ve just described in policy?
RA: The paper offers three broad recommendations. First, workplaces and public policy alike should protect workers’ time to care for family members. Second, workplaces and especially faith-based organizations should align their family-supportive values with their workplace practices. And third, policy makers should develop a system of paid family leave, so that all workers can attend to seasons of family responsibility.
Creating a culture that supports family life and family togetherness requires multiple approaches. We talk specifically about workplaces and public policy. One of the specific responsibilities of employers is to humanize the workplace—to order the workday and the work operations in such a way as to dignify the people who participate in the work. Workplaces are not just organized around meeting quotas, meeting outcomes, meeting market demand, though these might be important, but developing the workers and honouring the dignity of workers as whole persons.
We think that family-supportive workplace policies are, at the end of the day, a natural extension of what we as Christians affirm in our beliefs and our theology about the primacy of the family as a social institution.
That could take many forms. Perhaps it’s protecting an employee’s job when they need to go out on leave, regardless of whether it’s legally required. It could mean adopting policies that affirm non-discrimination against workers with family responsibilities. Or it might mean thinking creatively about welcoming workers back into the workforce after they’ve been working in the home for a period of time. Those are all some ways that workplaces can honour family responsibilities.
BD: You mentioned a role for the state. Can you describe state policy currently? Is there any national or state protection?
KB: We do have the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, which I believe was passed in 1993 and is meant to protect workers taking family leave time or medical leave time, I believe for twelve weeks. But it’s not necessarily paid leave, and if I’m not mistaken, it doesn’t cover all workers in the United States. It’s now been twenty-five years since we’ve had the federal level of the United States pass any kind of legislation that would protect workers in those crucial times of family life. So if you’re not covered by FMLA, whether the protection is just unpaid time or whether you work in an organization that’s not large enough to be covered under FMLA, you’re probably as a worker having to pull together your sick days, vacation days, and short-term disability. And that time probably would not cover even three months after a child is born.
Part of what we’re recognizing is that the time after a child is born is really crucial for the child’s development, and that even three months is really not enough in terms of protecting the parent-child bond in those early weeks and months of life. There is a conversation at the federal level about paid family leave. Many political leaders across the political spectrum agree that this is a policy concern and that it should be priority on a national level in the United States. But to date we don’t have anything in place beyond the FMLA. A lot of people agree that the FMLA is outdated and doesn’t really cover the needs of most families.
RA: There are a few states as well, California for instance, that have begun to develop their own systems of paid family leave. It’s a handful now, but they’re growing, which seems to indicate that there’s a real desire for more family support.
BD: We have debates within Canada about the appropriate role of the state in relation to the family and the market. In Canada there is a relatively broad, bipartisan consensus on a combination of maternity, parental, and child benefits that might be roughly described as cash transfers. But there are also those—and I know that this is true in the United States as well—who suggest that what we need is a state-led universal day-care system. Tell me how the family leave policy you’re recommending would be different from that; not just in terms of government expenditures, but philosophically. Why did you choose this as opposed to something else?
RA: Mainly, paid family leave is a benefit that enables parents and family members to care for their family members. That really empowers the family to exercise its proper responsibilities. So I think that’s why it’s pretty consistent with the historic work of the Center for Public Justice on a whole range of issues that centre on the family and parents as the foundational and primary caregivers for their children. Some articles have extended the conversation into child care, but we’re not really touching that right now. We’re talking about empowering parents to provide that care.
BD: Before we end, can I ask: Who are you trying to persuade? I think your report is really well done—a combination of theology, statistics, stories, and policy. But who are you trying to persuade? Every think tank is trying to persuade somebody. Who is your target audience or target audiences? Can you describe that for our readers?
KB: Well we would love for everybody to read our report.
RA: Of course!
BD: Five points to that answer. Go on.
KB: I would say our core audience is Christian leaders, or leaders in faith-based organizations. While we’re encouraged by the conversation happening on the federal level, we really see leaders in the Christian community as our target audience. We think that family-supportive workplace policies are, at the end of the day, a natural extension of what we as Christians affirm in our beliefs and our theology about the primacy of the family as a social institution and the preciousness of the family and of family ties. We think that Christian leaders across the denominational and ideological spectrum can affirm that primacy of the family, and that those leaders, whether you’re in an organization or a denomination or a church, can have a direct effect on the cultures and policies that protect their workers’ time.
In a way, we’re asking Christian leaders to start small, examining the current policies and maybe the informal or unspoken rules that are present in their own organizations and institutions. We want to encourage those leaders to ask: Are these policies in accordance and in alignment with what we say we believe?
RA: Exactly. We want to emphasize that enabling paid family leave for parents is a way to empower parents and family members to have family time and to honour their family responsibilities. Our hope is that in pursuing this goal we might give families a chance to reclaim some of that valuable time together.Subscribe