Thursday, January 31, 2008

Insufficient Margin

Men can get kudos for this out of office message. I suspect women can not.

[I am not so coherent but Cloud's comment about parents in the workplace got me fired up to write about it, even in my extreme fatigue.]

We identified "Insufficient Margin" as a risk factor in a "tiger team" report* about a satellite program last year. It meant that the schedule was so tight that any small surprise can throw the whole project into chaos and behind schedule. That's life for the two-career family. (I don't know how single mothers do it. I can only surmise they are superheroes in disguise.)

Ask any mother who gets the dreaded phone call from school or daycare, "Your child is sick and must be picked up within an hour." (Don't ask why they always call the mother instead of the father, even when the contact sheet lists the office and cell phone numbers of both.)

Or maybe you stayed up all night with a sick child. You and your partner need to split shifts so one can stay home with the sick child at all times. But the amount of work that needs to be done at the paying jobs has not been reduced to fit the available hours. Moreover, all that work has to be done without any sleep.

Did you see the Ravelry group, Childfree By Choice (CFBC)? They call us breeders. Guilty as charged. (Though parents of adoptive children are every bit as guilty.)

Have you seen those out of office automatic email replies that apologize for staying home to take care of a sick child? This is my fantasy auto reply:
I am out of the office today with a sick future tax-payer; I will reply to your email as soon as I can. Rather than thank me when you collect Social Security and Medicare, please give me your help and understanding now.
Years ago, I read about a discussion in Japan's parliament about their demographic time bomb. One legislator railed against women who didn't breed and wanted to make women's pensions dependent upon how many children they raised. I thought this was horribly unfair. Why pick on women and not the entire society that makes raising children such a chump job? What about infertility?

On second thought, why did I take on a whole 'nother job that comes with no pay, compresses my salary and costs tons of money. (Have you priced quality childcare lately? Bring smelling salts.) When I get my Social Security Benefits statements each year, I see red. For doing two demanding jobs, I will not be rewarded in retirement. In fact, I will lose benefits relative to the CFBC because I have been given much lower raises ever since I dared to breed. My husband, another breeder, has enjoyed increased raises. For many of those years, our raises were determined by the same man. It just makes my blood boil.

Breeders shoulder responsibility for a sustainable society. It is not unreasonable to expect nonbreeders to understand that we are also performing a service FOR THEM.

* I've updated Why don't smart people have children? with advice given by a woman who has served on many more "tiger teams" than I have.


  1. Anonymous07:31

    My husband works from home about 90% of the time. Unless he is out of town, we leave his cell phone number on the sign-in sheet at daycare every single day. They still call me whenever Mimi is sick.

  2. Yes, and what about the attitude that smart women who are raising children and working *only* part-time are wasting their education?

  3. OMG Ivy, you touched on one of my pet peeves. One of the reasons they give for not promoting me is that I "lack commitment to my career", working only 90% time. And the only reason I did that was to give my husband the flexibility to travel 30% time FOR THE SAME COMPANY.

    I told them, I work plenty hard for you whether you see me here or not. I was branded as a trouble maker. I had to transfer to another department.

  4. Is it too horribly old-fashioned to say "right on, sister?" I'm also concerned about the chasm of mutual impatience and intolerance that seems to be growing between breeders and voluntary non-breeders. Because let's face it, breeding is a dirty job but someone's got to do it....

  5. Grace, I think I basically agree with you, and hope my earlier comment didn't make you too mad at me and that this one doesn’t make it worse. The hostility of some towards those of us who are raising the future taxpayers puzzles me, since it does seem to me that they get a benefit (future taxpayers to pay for their social security) from my child-rearing work. However, I know that they don't see it that way! They see it as we made a choice, and shouldn't expect anyone to help us deal with the consequences. Obviously, I don't agree with their assessment.

    I do really think that those who don't have children, either by choice or biology, have a right to some balance between their work and home lives, too. I had an advisor once who would let the married men go home on time during a grant writing crunch, so that they wouldn't get in trouble with their wives. This used to drive me crazy, but I always stayed and helped get the grant out. I don't want to do the same thing to someone else- I want us all to be able to go home on time. Maybe some of the anger that the "child-free" direct at us "breeders" (I HATE that term) is really anger at themselves for not being willing/able to stand up for their right to have some balance. It is so easy to feel pressured into staying late when you don't have the opposite pressure to spend more time with your kids urging you to leave. I don't think the "non-breeders" realize how hard it can be for us to make that negotiation, too... it is just that the baby waiting to be collected from day care leaves no option so I have to say "screw it" to the career worries and go.

    And the behavior of your boss in not giving you good raises is inexcusable. They are presumably already prorating your salary for your reduced hours. They should now rate you on what you produce in those hours, not on the "missing" hours that they do not pay you for. You are not the first mother I've heard of having this happen. It scares me and I want to scream about it to every bozo who tells me that there is no sexism in science anymore.

    OK, now my lunch break is well and truly over. Time to get back to work. My apologies for writing another dissertation in your comments. Thanks for raising these issues and discussing them in such a well-researched way!

  6. I am not offended by your points, Cloud. I agree with you, mostly.

    Remember the project manager that emailed me at night, "Grace, stop working."? When he used to be my line manager, he told me, "Don't ever apologize for being conscientious about your family. Reasonable people will see that people who are conscientious about one part of their life are conscientious about all parts of their life." I was so sad when he got out of direct management. People, myself included, loved working for him.

  7. Phew. I always worry about offending people when I post on their blogs. It is hard to be sure my tone is right.

    I have been a line manager in the past, and am about to be one again. From what I saw last time around, most people try hard to balance their work and home lives, everyone knows who the slackers are, and there is no correlation between slackerhood and parenthood.

    From what I can tell from your blog, you are doing an excellent job of balancing all aspects of your life. Which is why I keep coming back to read more for inspiration in my own balancing act.

  8. LOL - I love your out-of-office message!!

    I always enjoy reading your blog but this post has really got me thinking. I really admire the way you manage all aspects of your life, something I couldn't do - I left my job 2 years ago when DH took on a senior position and the whole after-school and school vacation thing became too difficult.

    Great post, I look forward to reading more of your work!

  9. Straight from a management book that I read last year as part of company-mandated continuing improvement:

    One of the recommended strategies for becoming more efficient at the office is to schedule time for yourself.

    The example given in the book was that if you have tickets for the game (tee time, opera, etc) at 5PM, you'll schedule your day and work efficiently towards a departure time that supports that obligation to yourself. You'll bustle about letting people know, "I'm in a hurry. Got ticket for tonight." and no one will question that.

    Having a family obligation is very similar. It's really no different in my mind than meeting the vanpool at 3:15 or having tickets. You just have to be straightforward about it - with yourself and with others. You don't need to have any internal guilt and you don't need to internalize your perceptions of others' feelings either.

    I've excused myself from meetings due to family obligations, and I think that they've recognized my dedication rather than being annoyed. That hasn't been true universally, but it's been true often enough that I don't have qualms about letting people know my limits.

    Of course within my limits there's no guilt that I haven't given 100% or more so that helps me ignore any vibes I get from others that I'm shirking my job.

    For those listening along - I get ALL the "come and pick your child up now" calls and I stay home 100% of the time when he's sick, burning our valuable vacation time. I do the to-school routine with home made lunch and the home-from-day care routine with a home cooked meal at night. I do all the doctors' appointments and play dates. And I have no faith that I'll get anything from Social Security: it is without doubt going to be modified several times before I'm eligible.

  10. You don't have to burn up vacation time when stsying home with a sick child. You can charge your day to "no pay". HR's interpretation of the family leave act allows you to do that a certain number of days here and there without losing your health benefits.

    For a serious and extended illness, you can also collect California state disability when you take time off to care for a sick child or spouse. People love to complain about taxes, but CA state disability pays not only maternity benefits, but also some paternity benefits.


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