Contributed by MOTHERS volunteer and guest blogger Rosanne Weston.
One of the hallmarks of a family-friendly workplace is the ability of workers to care for themselves and family members without jeopardizing their incomes and/or their employment. One of the criticisms I’ve heard about the expansion of family medical leave benefits is that workers with children will overuse the time and those without children will be left to carry more freight. Once again, this divide resides more in the imagination and the media that feeds it than in reality.
I am drawn to pondering this because I have spent the last week aiding in my husband’s recovery from total knee replacement surgery. This painful recuperation has re-energized my somewhat atrophied caregiving muscles, and reminded me of how much attention sick, healing, growing and aging people require.
You see, my husband and I have long been part of the demographic known as “empty nesters,” with all the kids out of the house and on their own. As a worker, I would be considered one of those “childless” employees whose work load would be in danger of increasing while my colleagues with kids traipse off to orthodontists, parent-teacher meetings and school plays.
But it’s not only kids who need time and care. Spouses, siblings, parents, all those people we lump under the heading of Loved Ones, can at any time call upon us for help, support and comfort. Right after I retired from paid employment, looking forward to my oldest son’s wedding, both my parents’ health went into steep decline. They were living in Florida; I was in New York City. I made regular trips to the Sunshine State to deal with doctors, hospitals and the complicated emotions of watching my once-hearty mother and father become frail and needy. My situation was not at all unusual. What was fortunate for me is that I did not have to choose between my employment and my parents.
My father is gone now, and my mother has moved to New York. I shop for her, accompany her to doctor appointments and have spent endless hours in an emergency room and hospital during a medical crisis. I am so happy to have her here, where she can enjoy her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and partake in some of what this city has to offer. But I am often reminded of how much caregiving goes on in the course of our family lives, and how much it is taken for granted by society. Again, if I were still employed, as many of my friends are, who would be doing this work? What hard decisions would I have to be making to tend to the needs of my mother and, now, my husband?
Our families do not disappear into the mist when we wish or need to work outside the home. Caregiving is often a labor of love, but it is also work. No — make that Work. Capital W. And it needs to be recognized in the wider workplace.
I know of few people, particularly women, who have not had to make a judgment call between a family member and work. When every penny, and paycheck, counts, a mother might decide to send a sick child to school rather than lose a day’s pay. That’s bad for the child, the mother and the others in the class.
At the other end of the spectrum, our elderly parents may have to wait longer to be taken to the doctor if a grown son or daughter is fearful of spending too much time away from work, further endangering their already fragile health. The workplace needs to appreciate that workers need time for others and, occasionally, for themselves. An employee who can take some time for rest and relaxation has got to be more productive than one who is exhausted and anxious, worrying about a call from the school nurse or home health aide. Making leave available is better for the worker and the employer.
We all have someone who, sooner or later, will need us to help them through a difficult patch. A caring society acknowledges and supports this. There is no divide here. We are, in more ways than one, all in this together.