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Nanette Fondas's picture

When we try to fit together the pieces of the puzzle we call our work and family lives, often there’s a piece missing, another ripped in half, or one whose place we simply cannot find.

That’s why everyone wants to know just how Sarah Palin does it, because we ordinary moms with jobs that are less demanding and time consuming than those of Governor or Vice President still find it a struggle to do two full-time jobs: mothering and working.

For most of us the puzzle consists of pieces marked: mom’s job demands, dad’s job demands (Is there any time left for family?); combined take-home pay (Can we afford to have one parent work less to spend more time home with the kids?); benefits (Do we have time off when a child is sick or after childbirth?); commutes to school and work (Do they gobble up what time is left in the day for healthy meals, exercise, and family time?); child care (Is it available and affordable?), after-school activities and homework (Who will drive and support the kids?); spouses’ attitudes toward shared parenting (What to do when they are not aligned?); and availability of flexible work arrangements such as job sharing, part-time work, or compressed schedules. There are additional puzzle pieces for single parents, parents of children with special needs, and parents with larger households including elderly relatives.

It’s worthwhile to note that the platforms of both Presidential candidates John McCain and Barak Obama recognize the issue of work-family fit. Obama's economic plan calls for increased funding for after-school programs, a tax credit for low income families for child-care expenses, expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act, and expansion of flexible work arrangements. His implicit focus is on the care that children need and the making it easier for working parents to give it.

By contrast, McCain's plan emphasizes modernizing labor laws to allow for more flexible work arrangements—specifically working from home, telecommuting, and flexible scheduling. He wants portable health insurance and more choice in retirement plans and job training assistance. More flexibility and choice in the workplace are his solutions to Americans’ work-family stress.

Such policies will help families glue together some pieces of the work/family puzzle, but they are just a start. That both candidates address the need for more flexible work arrangements is encouraging, especially since a recent study found 20 countries ahead of the U.S. in workplace flexibility. (Of 21 countries surveyed, 17 have laws allowing parents to move to part-time work or otherwise adjust their working hours, 5 allow working time adjustments for those with family care-giving responsibilities, and 5 give everyone the right to alternative work arrangements.)

Perhaps the image of the work-family puzzle breaking apart will help our next President see the need for robust work-family policy debate and solutions. After all, 70 percent of mothers are in the labor force. And as the pace of globalization accelerates, we’ll need workplaces humming with effective and efficient employees and homes filled with well-cared-for children--that’s what the puzzle looks like when it’s complete.

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