Sunday, January 15, 2012

Work-family balance isn't an artisanal cheese

Midway through an engaging book review by David Remnick in the Jan. 16 New Yorker, I happened upon a brief but disturbing remark.

Remnick, who is editor of the magazine, was reviewing Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas, but the remark in question had little directly to do with the First Couple. Here is the significant paragraph (emphasis added on the disturbing part):

In some respects, the Obamas resemble a post-sixties version of the Clintons. They are graduates of some of the richest institutions in the country. In Hyde Park, they lived among other highly educated, liberal, earnestly well-meaning, and self-regarding people, with all the requisite concerns about “family-career balance,” “doing good and doing well.” They lived with the small hypocrisies and pleasures of their milieu, bringing together some hyper-wealthy friends and unabashedly progressive causes. It is a liberal aesthetic raised to a style of life.

By “family-career balance,” Remnick apparently means what’s more commonly called “work-family balance” or “work-life balance”—that is, management of the competing demands of jobs and childcare. Since those responsibilities sometimes conflict to the point of being mutually prohibitive, work-family balance is indeed a requisite concern for many people. Especially for women, who tend to shoulder a greater portion of the “family” part of the equation and sacrifice economically because of it, but also for men, who often feel more pressure to prioritize work and consequently miss out on time with their kids (both of which scenarios probably apply to the Obamas, come to think of it).

But look how Remnick presents the term, framed with scare quotes amid wry phrases like “earnestly well-meaning, and self-regarding” and “small hypocrisies and pleasures.” Requisite, of course, literally means necessary. But Remnick is suggesting that in this case the necessity isn’t quite real, that the concerns are a puffed-up product of class expectations. He implies that “family-career balance” is a fashionable issue over which the privileged and progressive may furrow their brows as a matter of propriety, not a really source of serious tension in their glamorous lives.

As if figuring out how to both do your job and raise your kids were a task on the order of, oh, selecting an artisanal cheese.

Esther Fein and David Remnick
Remnick isn’t being mean-spirited; his prĂ©cis is only lightly sardonic, not to mention otherwise spot-on. (Don’t you just know people like that, even if those in your orbit rank somewhere below the Obamas? Heck, I’ve had neighbors whom this describes to a T except for the “hyper-wealthy” part.) He pokes friendly fun at those people—and, implicitly, at himself. The New Yorker is politically liberal, arguably the country’s most esteemed periodical, and famously well-paying. As editor, Remnick occupies the same sort of glittering, left-leaning environment he gently mocks.

He is also a husband (to New York Times reporter Esther Fein), and father of three children.

Who knows how the Remnick-Fein household handles its child-caring duties. Maybe for whatever reason the matter has never posed much of a problem, despite the parents’ demanding careers. A 2006 profile of Remnick in the Guardian (back when his sons were teenagers and his daughter seven) depicts his family stuff as ordinary but remarkably stress-free: “He does his fair share of ferrying to music lessons and little league games. Asked to explain how he manages to balance these things, Remnick shrugs and says he doesn't do anything other than spend time with his family and work. 'It's not like I build toy ships, or travel to Tahiti. I don't go surfing. I don't know: what do people do?'”

Well sir, many of them struggle with work-family balance, even if they’re financially successful. Or so I assume, anyway. Because, sure, wealthy people can afford great childcare, but many also work long hours and travel for business, and even wealthy parents want to spend time with their children.

But the rich are hardly the only ones facing the problem. If juggling work and children is tough for the 1 percent, imagine how it is for people who have not “careers” but plain old jobs, people who can’t afford great childcare and for whom staying home with a sick kid might mean not only forfeiting a day’s pay but possibly getting fired.

Remnick is aware of all this, of course. But maybe it doesn’t all click together; I suspect he doesn’t connect “family-career balance” to the shortcomings in our system—problems with family leave, daycare, job flexibility, health care and so on—that can lead to genuine desperation, financial sacrifice and, in some families, economic disaster. His use of “career” rather than “work,” together with his light-handed tone, suggest he is imagining hyper-responsible parents checking off quality time with little Abigail and Aiden between conferences and fundraisers, just another aspect of the “liberal aesthetic raised to a style of life.” After all, it was under Remnick’s editorship that, in a 2004 New Yorker review of books describing this dilemma, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote, “Choosing between work and home is, in the end, a problem only for those who have a choice. In this sense, it is, like so many ‘problems’ of twenty-first-century life, a problem of not having enough problems.”

Maybe I'm making too much of Remnick’s offhand phrase in a piece that’s mostly about something else.

But I can't help thinking that if even the brilliant editor of one of the country’s most influential publications doesn’t fully understand why work-family balance is a serious issue for a lot of people at every socioeconomic level, then those of us for whom it’s an honest-to-God requisite concern have an long way to go.