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Op-Ed: The Polarization of Parenting in Corporate America

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Those of us who are parents, many of whom are working part of our week from home, are raising the CEOs of the future. We are nurturing the people who will grow to govern this country and hopefully guide it to responsible prosperity through innovative thinking. Our children need to spend time with us, but they also need to see us working and thinking out of the box in order to create a work/life balance in which both industry and individuals thrive.

The need for this delicate parallel seems obvious to most experienced working parents, but the debate has been reignited yet again with Marissa Mayer's decision, in her relatively new position as CEO of Yahoo!, to ban telecommuting. Several polarizing articles have been written about this decision, and I’ve seen Ms. Mayer both lauded and attacked.

I agree it’s often counterproductive for younger employees, who neither have children, a sick relative to care for, nor other extenuating circumstances, to work from home. When my husband and I were at the beginning of our careers, it certainly behooved us to be physically present in our respective corporate offices, interacting on both a work-related and social level with our coworkers.

However, 10 to 15 years later, those same employees are most likely at a place in their lives that requires some flexibility. They are now senior employees possessing valuable life and work experience—crucial directors who lead meetings, interact with clients, and mentor the ideas of the less experienced staff. But do they need to be physically in the office 40 hours a week to meet those demands?

When I was expecting my first child, I had every intention of going back to the office full time. However, life doesn’t always go as planned. I didn’t anticipate having a child on the autism spectrum for whom public school would become more plight than progress, a kid whose curriculum I eventually became completely responsible for coordinating and facilitating.

I didn’t expect to find myself in the “sandwich” generation with young children at home and a mother in an acute care facility whose nurses were calling me daily with questions and problems. I didn’t foresee Stage IV Cancer or Alzheimer’s diagnoses hitting our family, but they came anyway. These intruders don’t ask for permission to enter our lives.

Despite these challenges, I still want to work. I still want to contribute to the success of American industry and the larger global economy. And because of these challenges, I have a valuable perspective and understanding that a younger employee fresh out of college will not have.

Not every company can be run like Google. Not every company should aspire to be. There are many exceptionally talented people that don’t desire onsite hair salons, fitness centers, and laundry facilities. They just want the flexibility to avoid a long commute a day or two a week in order to coach a kid’s sports team, volunteer in the classroom, accompany an elderly parent to the doctor or, as in my case, to be directly involved in the education of a child with special needs.

Blanket rules, and the overgeneralized judgments that inspire them, are not conducive to meaningful growth and progress within corporate culture. Every employee and every family situation is unique, and every manager should treat it as such.

I’m not ready to paint Marissa Mayer as a villain; she is looking for solutions to a complicated problem. However, if corporate leaders sweepingly penalize all employees simply because some are abusing the system, then they will find resentment from all sides in return. In my experience, the younger employees may stay, but many of the talented, experienced staff will go—because they have to. Because struggling children need their parents. Because ill parents need their children.

When that exodus occurs, it doesn’t strengthen a workforce, but rather creates a less diversified, profoundly weaker one instead.

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Amy Mackin lives in Massachusetts with her husband, three children, and two friendly felines. Her work has appeared in The AtlanticThe Writer, The Washington Post, Brain, Child and others.  Amy is currently working on a women’s fiction series.  She blogs on the intersection of writing, motherhood, autism, and current events at www.amymackin.com.


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I think your piece touches on some really important issues in today's workforce--mainly, does everyone really need to work 40 hours a week. However, the deep and broader issues in our society, and the reason for the inability to allow some of us (especially women) to work some days from home, is our collective perception of motherhood and children: let's start with maternity leave--the US ranks as the 3rd worst in the developed world--and then childcare--there is no affordable childcare in this country. If you can't afford a private babysitter or a day care setting, then you are obliged to stay home. Until we fix our perception of motherhood, employers will continue to perceive older workers (and parents) in the same light as the younger ones.
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