“I see couples who are eager — desperate, even — to share both family and career. They both feel torn between work and home. It’s not men who get in the way of fixing that. It’s the workplace.”
Heading north along the Hudson to beautiful, hilly Rhinebeck, New York, for this year’s Women & Power Conference at the Omega Institute, I had my doubts. This was my first visit to Omega, a holistic, yoga-filled retreat center in the woods, the kind of place that thrived in the Sixties. Seemed important to show up at this conference, titled “Men/Women: The Next Conversation,” but I feared getting stuck in a Sixties time warp full of speeches about Men as The Problem.
I get an inside look at how far from true that is these days. In my Manhattan therapy practice, I see couples who are eager — desperate, even — to share both family and career. They both feel torn between work and home. It’s not men who get in the way of fixing that. It’s the workplace. Everybody’s operating on schedules and career paths designed for guys with homemaker wives, and even though those are a small minority these days, our government has done little to update the workplace. As President Obama said in his last State of the Union address, we still have “policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.”
Was anybody going to talk about these issues that have such enormous impact on the daily lives of both women and men? If not, I figured, settling into my cabin, at least I’d take a few tai chi classes and enjoy the organic meals from local farms.
But just a few minutes into Friday evening’s opening talks, I got my first clue that I’d come to the right place: Omega’s co-founder Elizabeth Lesser announced: “It’s not enough for women to lean in; we have to change what we’re leaning into.” Loud applause.
Saturday afternoon, talking with Stephanie Coontz, the marriage and family historian who would be Sunday’s keynoter, I said, “Most of my couples are not stuck in gender roles. What they’re struggling with are long hours in the workplace and a real lack of community support.”
Stephanie smiled. “Don’t steal my speech,” she said. “The issues today are not the same as they were in the Sixties. Women are not toppling men off their pedestals. When women get more, so do men. The problems are structural. It’s not that there’s something wrong with my child or my partner. It’s the system we’re both involved in.”
So true. In my practice, couples often come to me blaming themselves or each other. Stretched beyond capacity, they figure either they must be inept or their partner is selfish. We work on effective negotiation, task-sharing, mutual empathy. And I usually end up saying, “You understand, don’t you, that as a couple you are not alone? Here in the U.S we are not family friendly.” I go through a litany: Americans have long work hours, short vacations, costly and low-quality childcare, no parental leave, no legal mandate for paid sick days.
Up in the woods at Omega, these grim details were on everybody’s lips. “It’s been twenty-one years since we have updated family work policies in this country,” said Sarah Jane Glynn of the the Center for American Progress. No change since 1993, when the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s birth or adoption or in case of a family illness. Meanwhile other industrialized nations have passed “work-family reconciliation” acts — legalizing parental leave, a gradual return to work after the birth of a child, and reduced hours. The result? The U.S. comes out last on a slew of measures of flexibility.
On the train home from Rhinebeck I thought about my struggling couples and how the problems they are facing aren’t going to get solved at the kitchen table or in the nursery or even the therapist’s office. We need to work together to create broader change. The majority of Americans want a family friendly workplace. Why don’t we make it happen?
Next time you and your partner are at odds over work-family balance, remember that The Problem is the status quo. As the educator and activist Tony Porter said at Omega (note the powerful Sixties language), “My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”
Want a happier family life? Commit yourself to it. Get involved. Vote for candidates who support family friendly policy. Sit down with your partner and take 5 minutes on your laptops to make your voice heard in your city and in Washington. In the long run, it might mean at least as much to your relationship as date night.
Photo: Gerry Thomasen/Flickr