Working mothers (and fathers) in the New York Times

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Fathers are parents too.
  • Nitin Badhwar
  • Fathers are parents too.
On Monday, the New York Times launched a periodic series about careers and families. "Balancing Act" promises to focus on how "working mothers from varied backgrounds" balance career and family responsibilities.

Varied backgrounds—how egalitarian! You can be white, black, Hispanic, or Asian, or rich, or not-so-rich, and this series is for you. So long as you're a working mother.

It's 2013, and we're still treating family-and-career issues as a women's thing.

"Balancing Act" opened with a front-page story on 42-year-old Sara Uttech, of Fall River, Wisconsin. Uttech handles communications for an agricultural association. She has sons ages eight and 10 and a stepdaughter who's 15. The kids and the job keep her moving at a wearying pace:

On a recent Tuesday, which she said was broadly representative of most workdays, she rose at 5:45 a.m. and did a load of laundry before everyone else awoke. Soon she was wielding the hair dryer in one hand and a son’s permission slip in the other; running to the kitchen to pack lunches and help one of her sons make dirt cups (pudding and Oreo crumble) as part of a book report presentation; and then driving the children to school at 7:15 a.m. before commencing her 40-minute commute to the office, where she arrives a little after 8.

On Sundays, she teaches at her church, and then prepares most of the meals for rest of the week, making great use of two wonders of modern cookery: the slow cooker and the freezer.

Her sons play in "upward of six" baseball games a week, and "'I never miss a baseball game,' said Ms. Uttech, uttering a statement that is a fantasy for millions of working mothers (and fathers) nationwide."

Fathers are conferred parenthetical attention throughout the story. Uttech's in a book club, the Book Nuggets. The story's author, Catherine Rampell, relates that "With support and guidance from the Book Nuggets (and her husband), Ms. Uttech approached her own boss several years ago about working from home on a trial basis."

The boss granted the request, which was only for summer Fridays but eventually became year-round. Rampell notes that only a third of employers allow at least some employees to work regularly from home. "Part of the problem may be that most women (and men) don’t feel as if they have enough leverage to ask for accommodations," she writes.

One might expect that a story on the difficulties of balancing family and career would tell us something about the division of labor at home—but that's a mystery in Rampell's story. She writes that Uttech has become "an increasingly important breadwinner to her family," especially since the housing crash "battered her husband’s construction business." Uttech says she gets a lot of help from him—he picks the boys up from their after-school program, and coaches their sports teams.

But we never hear directly from him. If there's a good reason he's not doing laundry, and packing lunches, and making dirt cups, and cooking for the week, it's not offered.

Uttech "has not spent much of her career so far worrying about 'leaning in,'" Rampell writes. She and "dozens of other middle-class working mothers interviewed about their work and family lives" are less concerned with "climbing a career ladder" than with finding a job with paid sick leave, flexible hours, and the chance to work fewer hours.

I'm all in favor of more workplace flexibility. But that's not just a mothers' issue, or even just a parents' issue.

"Leaning in" refers, of course, to the celebrated advice to working women offered by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer—first in a 2010 TED talk, and more recently in a book. Sandberg believes that many women sell their careers short, and she exhorts them to be more confident and assertive.

Sandberg also urges women to make their partners real partners. "We've made more progress in the workplace than we have in the home," she said in that TED talk. "If a woman and a man work full-time, and have a child, the woman does twice the amount of housework as the man does, and the woman does three times the amount of childcare. . . . So she's got three jobs or two jobs, and he's got one."

That may be an exaggeration, but I think Sandberg's largely right. Fathers deserve more attention not because they're now leaning in fully as parents, but because the degree to which they're doing their part is a much bigger issue than whether moms get to work at home on Fridays. And treating fathers as incidental family figures only reinforces a stale norm.

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