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Making Work Work With Your Life

June 11, 2013

I have always had a resentfulness for “big data.” Those huge statistics used by economists, journalists, and sociologists to signify change. It’s why I was drawn to anthropology. A study that does not apologize for a lack of focus on the large because it allows for a more complex and meaningful micro scale story and understanding.

For some time now I have been musing over the uproar and conversation around the concept of  Leaning In, from Sheryl Sandberg’s book. The entire conversation revolved around small data, the personal stories of women and how they were making it work. It was frustrating that a majority of the stories told were from women of privilege and in very high up and high paying positions (who had the option of building nurseries next door to their office). But nonetheless, since then I have been consumed by thinking about women, mothers, men, fathers, and just people in general making it in their lives and in the workplace. What are people doing to make ends meet, how do they feel about it, what do they wish were different?

To me, this was one of those conversations very much worth mulling over and creating some sort of active legislation, policy, or at least elongated, formal discussion over. Instead it disappeared quite quickly and there was a shoulder-shrugging silence following a very heated debate. It was as if the people having the discussion about the workplace needed to actually get back to the workplace.

In large part, my obsession with this conversation is no doubt sparked by my own entry into the workplace. I’ve yet to get a handle on the new time that I have to work with outside of my cubicle as you could grasp from spotty blog updating. I’m also now roaming around new social circles where people are parents, spouses, and individuals and finding ways to make time for everything, My refrain to them is “How?”

How are they making it work? We (in the United States) seem to be increasingly a nation of go,go,go. The more you can work and the cheaper you can work, the better and more employable you are. I keep coming back to the fact that we have no paid maternity leave. The graphic below from Think Progress sums it up in a frightening manner.

Weeks paid maternity leave by county

Instead of paid leave, people fling about from FMLA, sick time, personal days, vacation time, and temporary disability to cover the time they see fit (or rather, can manage to use) to make a newborn as independent as possible before finding another means of covering their care so they can return to work.

In a recent Washington Post publication Phyllis Richman responds to a letter sent to her while she was an applicant for graduate school at Harvard. The letter questions her ability to mesh her personal life of needing time to raise children, tend to her husband, and otherwise be a woman in the 60’s with the difficulty of grad school. She offers up in great detail some small data on how she made it work and, despite the lack of support from Harvard, feel successful.

It is in this question of how people, especially women, are making their work work with their lives that I find small data to be the most valuable. The anecdote from a sister or friend about how they are struggling but getting along serves as advice for me as I move forward trying very hard not to lose sight of what I wanted in those glorious days right before graduation, while I stave off the negative thought that the “real world” (whatever it is) seems increasingly antagonistic towards me succeeding professionally, having enough money to subsist, and succeeding in the type of personal life I want to lead.

I feel at times that I have very little direction on this front. My dad worked in the oil business and made enough money that my mom could stay home to raise myself and my two sisters. It is a mixed bag of a blessing as I think my mom could have done (and would have wanted to do) so much more professionally if she hadn’t felt socially pressured into staying home with the kids. In any case, there was never a question of how to mesh life and work. But I am quickly realizing I will have no such privilege of choosing full-time parenthood over work or some other option or combination. Whether I had wanted to or not is irrelevant. I will have to work for a very long time to make ends meet and if I have kids, find some way to make it work with work.

And though big data lacks the ability to capture the how it very astutely captures what is going on. A study out from The Council on Contemporary Families (referenced in this New York Times piece) shows that, “much of the progress that women have made in income parity has gone to childless women”.

Motherhood imposes about twice the earning penalty in the United States compared with what women face in countries that have expansive publicly financed child care systems.
But the motherhood penalty is not just related to the tendency of mothers to cut back their work hours because of lack of child care or other family support systems that allow them to continue working full time. The sociologist Shelley Correll at Stanford University points out that mothers earn 5 percent less per hour, per child, than comparable workers who are childless women. They are also less likely to be hired if they leave or try to change jobs.

Reading statistics and trends like this is absolutely terrifying. It’s also scary because it provides the fear but no answer. No helpful tales of how women have overcome, persevered, made it work. What is lost in the big data is the way I can navigate this impending future.

So if you’re a working parent or just a working human being who is maintaining a life outside the office (and/or outside of being a parent), cheers to you! How on earth are you doing it?

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