Family and Work: The Juggling Act Continues

20 Years After John Paul II´s “Familiaris Consortio”

LONDON, DEC. 1, 2001 ( Nov. 22 marked the 20th anniversary of John Paul II´s apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio,” on the role of the Christian family in the modern world. One issue addressed by the Pope was that of women, their rights, and their place in society.

In Numbers 22-23 of the exhortation, John Paul II explained that men and women have an equal responsibility and dignity. Both husband and wife are called to a “reciprocal self-giving by each one to the other and by both to the children.”

Given this equal dignity, the document states, women should have access to public life. The Pope asks society not only to give recognition to the social and professional roles of women, but also to recognize the value of the maternal and family responsibilities.

What is needed, he wrote, is that the various roles of women be harmoniously combined. Doing this requires that we renew our concept of the theology of work, so that family tasks will be given their full value.

We must avoid the mentality that “honors women more for their work outside the home than for their work within the family,” exhorted the Pope. Women must neither renounce their femininity nor just imitate men. Rather they should aspire to the full expression of their feminine humanity, whether inside the family or outside of it, “Familiaris Consortio” insists.

Debate in England

Twenty years after “Familiaris Consortio,” the debate on these matters continues. The provision of child care, tax benefits for families, and maternal and paternal leave are among the debated topics.

In Great Britain the government recently announced a plan under which parents with children under 6 will be able to ask their employer to “seriously consider” a request for flexible working arrangements. About 3.8 million mothers and fathers will be eligible, the Financial Times reported Nov. 20.

Companies will have to follow a series of steps laid down in legislation to prove they have given serious consideration to requests for flexible work — including compressed working hours, flextime, part time and working from home.

The parent will make the request in writing and meet with the manager within four weeks to discuss it. A decision is required within a further two weeks. If the request is rejected, the company must give an explanation and set out terms for an in-house appeals procedure.

If the case cannot be resolved within the workplace, binding mediation and arbitration services will be available.

As a last resort, parents can take their managers to a tribunal, which will test whether the procedures have been carried out, whether the business case has been made and whether the facts are correct. The tribunal will not judge the merits of the business case.

The rules will come into force in April 2003, at the same time as new maternity and paternity rights.

Commenting in the Guardian newspaper Nov. 21, Yvonne Roberts said that some corporations recognize that a more flexible policy for parents could mean lower turnover, lower recruitment costs and less absenteeism.

She also noted, however, that a survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that requests for more flexibility were rejected by the employer in more than half the cases, or the arrangements offered were unacceptable.

At least, Roberts observed, the new rules, in theory, make it easier for fathers to request a customized working day, so that work-life balance no longer remains a women´s issue.

In the Observer on Nov. 18, Jeannette Hyde complained that working mothers are too often portrayed in the media “as selfish, career go-getters, the implication being that they care more about themselves than their children.”

She also criticized an article by Tessa Boase of the Sunday Times, who claimed people like her have to work harder in the office to make up for working mothers rushing home to look after the kids and going to school functions.

Ann Treneman in the Times on Nov. 20 pointed out that one of the problems in juggling family and work is that there exists an attitude that once we enter the workplace “we must shed our ´real´ lives.”

What is needed, Treneman wrote, are more flexible workplaces and a change in the mentality that expects all employees to act like single people with no family responsibilities.

Women and work

In Australia, after the recent national election a federal Minister in the government decided not to accept a post in the new lineup. Jackie Kelly´s reason: She wants to be able to spend more time with the second child she in now expecting.

This has annoyed some feminists, noted Bettina Arndt in the Sydney Morning Herald on Nov. 27.

One of the feminists, Eva Cox, even went so far as to suggest that Prime Minister John Howard should have overruled Kelly´s preferences and insisted she continue as a government Minister. Kathleen Swinbourne, from the Women´s Electoral Lobby, attributed Kelly´s decision to the government´s failure to provide a Parliament House nursery and more family-friendly parliamentary sitting hours.

Arndt explained that Kelly regretted having missed out on time with her now 22-month-old daughter because of the work demands of being Sport and Tourism Minister. Kelly didn´t want to make the same mistake twice.

The article quotes a study made for the International Social Survey Program at the University of Melbourne in which 71% of parents believe mothers of preschool children should stay home, 27% thought they should work part time, and only 2% supported full-time work for these mothers.

Arndt concluded that feminists had forgotten one of the original goals of their movement: to promote choice for women.

Views in the U.S.

In the United States, a report by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, “Caring for Infants and Toddlers,” quoted a 1999 California poll that found 68% of fathers and 69% of mothers agreed with the statement, “It is much better for the family if the father works outside the home and the mother takes care of the children.”

Another survey discussed in the report found that the percentage of Americans who believe that a wife with a preschooler should work full time was largely unchanged between 1988 and 1994, rising only from 10.7% to 11.6%.

In spite of these opinions, two-thirds of women with preschool children and 56% of those with kids under a year old are working, the New York Times reported Sept. 10.

The Packard report found that while many employers are taking steps to be more family-friendly, the higher-paid workers are far more likely to receive benefits than are the lower-paid employees who need them most.

Establishing a healthy equilibrium between the workplace and family is no easy task. The goals set down by John Paul II in “Familiaris Consortio” 20 years ago still await fulfillment.

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