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Solving the flexibility puzzle

Few communities, or companies, or even households are organized to provide working mothers with all the flexibility they need

By Arthur Emlen

MAY 2008

WHEN IT COMES TO JOBS and child care, mothers have the amazing ability to make the best choices possible. And their success depends a lot on how much flexibility they can squeeze from their work schedules, family arrangements, and accommodating child care.

Despite the vigor of the mothers' movement, however, an angry black cloud has continued to follow working mothers, with professional child-care researchers and early-childhood experts raining disparagement on their ability to make wise decisions about child care. As a Portland State University professor emeritus and researcher who has been conducting scholarly studies of families and their child-care choices for more than 40 years, and creating child-care evaluation tools -- from a parent's point of view -- that are now widely used, I've seen this condescending attitude first-hand.

Does it matter what the public thinks of parents? I think it does. Not only is it hurtful, it's a bum rap used to justify misguided policies, such as creating a universal system of professional child care. This is a utopian dream that has diverted policymakers from addressing the wider range of supports that families desperately need -- improved wages, benefits, working conditions, and tax policies, as well as improved neighborhoods and child care.

The conclusion that shines through my research is that parents possess a remarkable ability to make the best choices possible, and they deserve a wider range of options from which to choose. Our research overturns the poor opinion of parents, documents their decision-making ability, and explains the key to their success.

That key can be found in this riddle: What is more precious than gold, but isn't a luxury? The answer: Flexibility! When the subject of flexibility comes up, most of us think only of flexible work arrangements: we need job-sharing, part-time schedules, and the ability to work at home. "If I could only just have a little flexibility on the job," many mothers think, "everything would be OK." And certainly workplace flexibility is important.

But in fact, the need for flexibility is more fundamental. Consciously or not, parents need flexibility on one of at least three fronts to make their work-family juggling act work well -- work, family support, or child-care arrangements. It is essential for the success of all the purposeful things you do, and parental employment and child care are no exception. As parents manage the complex demands of work, child care and family life, they are constrained by the physical limits of time and distance, and they absolutely have to arrange flexibility in at least one of these three realms to deal with emergencies and achieve a balance that makes it all possible. At stake are their values and survival itself.

Yet few communities, or companies, or even households are organized to provide working mothers with all the flexibility they need. I've spent more than 25 years researching how working mothers fit the various puzzle pieces of their lives into a coherent whole that works for them and their family. And what I have learned over the years largely boils down to this: Flexibility, in its many forms, plays an absolutely central role in the lives of employed parents. It's the key for solving the puzzle. Drawing from my research -- from many thousands of employee surveys -- here are ten big lessons I have learned about flexibility and about how it enables parents to make the best decisions that are possible for them to make:

1. Flexibility doesn't come out of thin air. Working parents can't just be flexible -- no matter how great their creative abilities -- unless they have some flexibility in their immediate environment. Behavioral flexibility depends on having tangible resources that parents can find and draw upon from multiple sources -- mainly from their workplace, family, and child care. Of course, there are other potential sources: transportation may be important, and financial flexibility is important for many -- although even two incomes do not guarantee flexibility.

2. Like gold, flexibility is a universal currency. It may take many forms, but everybody wants it. All institutions compete for flexibility. Workplace flexibility is a prime example -- after all, parents are not alone in seeking flexibility. Employers create efficiencies within the business, like just-in-time production, but they also compete strenuously with employees for the flexibility that families can provide. Employers have gradually come to recognize that operating at only their own convenience is not productive, because the flexibility needs of employees are critical and diverse. Flextime, good part-time jobs, and paid leave are major breakthroughs-- for those employees who have access to them -- and so are the more subtle choices that parents and employers can negotiate for how work is done. The workplace has to provide a big piece of the flexibility puzzle that working parents are trying to solve -- and similar logic applies to all employees who have responsibilities for others, young or old.

3. Even absenteeism is a source of flexibility for employees. Employee absenteeism takes various forms -- lateness, leaving early, interruptions on the job, missed days. Many jobs allow for some amount of absence when an employee's health falters, transportation fails, or her family and child-care (or elder-care) arrangements break down. Usually the employee makes up for lost time and gets the work done. Employers that try to stamp out absenteeism run the risk of a stressed-out workforce and expensive turnover costs. Nevertheless, absenteeism is generally -- and incorrectly -- regarded as a problem; most of the time, it should be recognized for its positive contributions. Absenteeism is an informal source of flexibility for employed parents. Furthermore, it is a family solution. The difference between the average absenteeism rates of working mothers (high) and fathers (low) reflects family agreements about which parent will supply the flexibility that makes working feasible for that family.

4. Workplace flexibility is only one piece of the puzzle. The other two large sources of flexibility are family -- how working parents divide and share responsibilities at home -- and child care -- how they make arrangements with accommodating providers of child care. In every community across the land, the types of child care that parents arrange are hugely diverse. Child care can be paid or unpaid, full time or part time, at home or in centers or family homes, by friends, neighbors, nannies, grandmothers or unrelated providers -- and in many combinations of these arrangements. That diversity is testimony to the ingenuity of parents, but also to the flexibility that caregivers provide parents. These differences reflect the varied needs of children, as well as the parents' varied work and family resources. All children are different. All family responsibilities are different. And parents know what they need.

5. Parents don't pick their child care haphazardly or at random. It must fit with the other puzzle pieces. All parents discover a "flexibility solution." And one that uniquely works for them. If the job is severely demanding, a working mom finds most of her flexibility in family arrangements or in child care. Sometimes the child-care service is extraordinary, like when a caregiver accommodates the work schedule of a flight attendant or cares for a child who has a serious emotional or behavioral problem. A single parent who lives solo has relatively little family flexibility and is highly dependent on finding a flexible source of child care. And she does. Sometimes an outstanding child-care program offers little flexibility in its hours and expectations, but parents who have a great deal of flexibility at home and at work are able to take advantage of such a program. It matters less where parents find flexibility than that they do find it.

6. How parents solve their flexibility puzzle isn't always painless. But their solutions make sense. For example, when two working parents stagger shifts so that one parent can be with the children, the arrangement may create some stress. But it is a bona fide solution. Or when a working parent resorts to absenteeism to deal with an emergency, that too is stressful—but it does produce the flexibility needed at that moment. And what is more acutely painful than the moment when you are in a fix, without enough flexibility.

7. Parents care about flexibility, and they care about quality of care. Their pursuit of flexibility is not some selfish preoccupation, in which parents sacrifice quality of care for personal convenience, as some "experts" will tell you. Just the opposite!  The quality of the child-care arrangements that parents make depends heavily on how much flexibility they can muster. The quality of care parents want occurs when they have the flexibility they need, and low quality happens when they lack flexibility. The more flexibility they have, the better the quality of care they are able to find. That is how parents spend their golden flexibility, and they spend it well.

8. Parents are good at judging the quality of child care. They may or may not be experts in child development, but parents do have a natural ability to size up child care in relation to what their child needs. Parents can judge whether the caregiver likes and accepts their child, and if there is warmth in that relationship. They can tell if Susie or Sam is getting enough individual attention. They are concerned when Maria's day in care is too long. They can see whether too many children are there at one time. They can judge whether the caregiver responds to the children with skill, without resort to harsh discipline. And parents can see if there are lots of interesting things for children to do, What's more, when parents make these judgments discriminating some of the hallmarks of quality of care, they are not confusing quality with flexibility. They know the difference.

9. Parents make the best feasible choices. Most of the time, parents make the best choices they possibly can—not necessarily according to the idealized standards of well-intentioned critics, but according to their own values and what makes common sense, given the resources within their reach. Parents have the values. They have the ability to assess quality of care. They have the ability to make wise choices. They command our respect as the chief puzzle solvers in behalf of families. And if they have the resources for flexibility, parents make successful decisions.

10. Flexibility is a policy issue. So a parent's flexibility is a good thing, an essential thing for working families. What can we do to help foster it? Flexibility's fundamental importance points to a new direction in national policy -- policy that will create the needed flexibility. What does this mean? It means we create resources to support each piece of the puzzle. It means policy to improve child care, without presuming that universal child care can take the place of diversity in choice of care. It means policy to improve basic benefits, working conditions, and flexibility at the workplace, without presuming that all employers can do this by themselves, unaided by government. And it means tax policy to help families build and protect their financial capacity, without presuming that all families should make the same decision about employment and child care. This will require some reforms in trade and local economic development, in neighborhood development, in taxes, wages, and basic benefits. Instead of a relentless pursuit of cheap labor, we need policies that support the economic strength of families. A productive and sustainable workforce will go hand in hand with healthy and sustainable families, who can afford only as much child care as they need and of the kind they want their children to have.

mmo : april/may 2008

Arthur Emlen is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, on the faculty of the Graduate School of Social Work where he taught child Welfare and research methods. You can read more about his research on child care and parents' need for flexibility here.
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