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Work-family balance isn’t just an issue, it’s a movement

Huffington Post by Eva Pomeroy 28 August 2015

Family is the f-word of feminism. At least it has been. But that is about to change.

I remember attending a workshop on women and work in the late 90s. We did an exercise in which workshop participants took turns stating a wish for themselves as women in the workplace. People said things like “I want to be recognized for my strength” and “I want to be seen for my ability, not my gender.” Nods and murmurs of agreement followed each comment. I put up my hand and said, “I want to be able to do this work and have a family.” My contribution was met with silence. Stony silence. The workshop facilitator dedicated one nano-second to glare at me and then swiftly moved on to the next raised hand. I had crossed a line. I had mentioned the unmentionable in feminist circles at the time: children and the need to care for them.

I understand how we came to this place. In the late 1940s, Simone de Beauvoir wrote about the imperative for women to achieve equality through gainful employment. She stated “having a child is enough to paralyze a woman’s activity entirely.” Clearly motherhood was incompatible with financial-independence-through-work. Indeed, Andrea O’Reilly of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement at York University, points out that the second wave of feminism considered women workers to be “unencumbered subjects.” If women were to break through gender stereotypes and gain access to the workplace, they needed to do so under the same conditions as men — unencumbered by responsibilities outside the workplace. So women, those without children and those with, entered the workforce in droves.

In our effort to gain rights for individuals, one significant collective was left out of the equation: family.

The result is an example of something Otto Scharmer of MIT’s Sloan School of Management calls “collectively creating results that nobody wants.” Modern families are stretched. Parents are coping, but stressed — some incredibly so. The impact of chronic stress on one’s physical and psychological health is well-documented. The impact of work-family conflict on children is less well-researched, but the scant data we do have doesn’t look good. According to research commissioned by the Vanier Institute of the Family, it includes increased behavioural problems in pre-schoolers, increased behavioural problems and decreased school performance in school-age children and lower self-esteem in adolescents as well as cooler relations between parents and their teenage children.

However, change is afoot. Something new and exciting is happening in feminism and it’s about children and their care. In academia, the need to address childcare has been called “the unfinished business of feminism” and “the unfinished revolution.” Arianna Huffington, founder of this publication, has addressed the issue more broadly. She has written extensively about our current ‘work-yourself-into-the-ground’ culture and the need to change it. She calls for a Third Revolution in feminism, where women move to redefine success so it includes heath and well-being, as well as money and power. Given that work and family responsibilities are a reality for many, harmonizing the relationship between the two will be a necessary criterion of the new definition of success. Huffington states that women will lead the way to this change, but that men will gratefully join in.

That is because this phenomenon, this “New Feminism” if you like, isn’t just about women. It is about people — whole people. In work-family balance terms, it is about parents — men and women — and workers. It is about people who have a responsibility to care for children, elderly parents or family members with serious disabilities, and people who need and want to work. It is about the way we valorize paid work and undervalue care-giving.

We need collective solutions. These solutions will come more quickly and be more creative if they are supported by a shift in the collective perception of the importance and role of paid employment and the importance and role of caregiving. When we, as a society, come to truly value care-giving we will create structures and ways of being that facilitate it, rather than work against it.