Every once in a while, I find my married and childless self at some sort of a gathering where a stranger attempts to make small talk and throws out the question, “So….do you have a family?”
I’ve always wanted to answer by saying “Me? Nope. No family. I was raised by wolves in the forest. I only learned to walk upright a few years ago.”
However, to be fair, the wolves in that scenario would be family.
Here’s the thing. I do have family. I have a husband. I have a mother and step-father. I have in-laws. I have the type of friends that are without a doubt family. And I’ve got three dogs and two cats.
If you want to know if I have kids, the answer is no.
But in our society, we tend to focus on parents with young children when we use the term family. And workplaces with family-friendly policies may not always be accommodating of other family situations.
Case in point…
A woman who I will call Cassie took a new job, which touted family-friendly policies like flex time. This appealed to her because both of her parents have dementia. After a few weeks on the job, she sat down her with supervisor to negotiate the details.
“Oh, flex time?” he said. “That’s really designed for parents with young kids.”
Cassie explained to her supervisor that her parents had dementia, and she struggled to balance work and caregiving.
“Don’t you have any siblings?” he responded.
Not surprisingly, her tenure with this company was short-lived.
People tell me that they watch their co-workers adjust hours to accommodate picking up and dropping off kids at childcare. They tell me that taking off on a moment’s notice to take a sick child to urgent care is met with understanding. However, having to leave in a hurry because your mom at the nursing home is having anxiety and can’t be consoled is met with confusion. Can’t the staff deal with it? Can’t you just go after work? Is it really a crisis?
Caregivers in this country aren’t just caregivers. They are often employees as well. When we talk about changing workplace policies to allow women to succeed as both mothers and employees, we are missing an entire group of women—middle-aged women at the peak of their careers who take on caregiving responsibilities for parents (or aunts, uncles, etc.).
Does this impact men? Absolutely. Yet, even though women have made tremendous strides in the workplace, they are still responsible for the bulk of childcare and eldercare in the United States.
I spent about an hour this morning browsing online the policies of organizations that claim to be family-friendly. The policies themselves promote the idea that “family” ends when the kids leave home. (And that if you are childless, like I am, that you don’t have a family.)
You will find a few scenarios mentioned frequently. And these scenarios are valid. The single mother who has to leave work a bit earlier because there’s no one else to pick up the kids from school. The involved parents who want to attend their kids’ school events even though they are during the work shift. Maternity leave. Even paternity leave. Leave for parents who adopt. Gradual return to the workplace for new parents. Lactation rooms. Discounts on childcare. Obviously, I see these policies as positive. But we are missing something.
There is little mention of mothers who care for their 25-year-old sons who have cancer. Or, alternatively, 25-year-old sons who care for their mothers with cancer. There’s little mention of caring for adult family members with mental illness. In addition, we tend to limit accommodations to caring for those who are related by blood or legality. Maybe you’re caring for a close friend who has dementia. They’re not family to your workplace, but they’re family to you.
With the aging of the Baby Boom generation and the predicted increase in the number of individuals impacted by a dementia, we have to do better. In a perfect world, we would have the option to quit our jobs to care for ill and aging loved ones. This is not a perfect word. People have to work…and choosing between work and caregiving isn’t an option.