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`Parent Power' Is on the Rise

Families are grasping the reins of their own lives as they press demands for social and economic change

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 1991


FOR the past 18 months, lunch hour has taken on new meaning for a small band of parents at Genentech Inc., a biotechnology company. Twice a week, instead of heading for the cafeteria, groups of employees gather in a conference room for an unusual meeting - a company-sponsored discussion group called Parents at Work. On this spring Tuesday, six parents - five mothers and one father - arrive promptly at noon. After exchanging pleasantries, they draw their chairs into a circle and turn their attention to Patty Wipfler, the discussion leader.

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``Let's begin by talking about what's been going well in your families this week,'' says Ms. Wipfler, director of the nonprofit Parents Leadership Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. A weekend trip to Arizona, a Gymboree class with a toddler, a young son who is ``just this blossom of creativity'' - the parents' accounts are brief and upbeat.

Then the mood turns serious. One by one, participants speak frankly, often emotionally, about the deeper issues they face in raising children and maintaining strong families.

One woman who is expecting her second child this month says tearfully, ``I'm having trouble focusing on things at work until the birth of my baby. I had a difficult delivery the first time, and I just want to get this baby here and have everything OK.''

Another mother tells the group, ``I'm trying to refigure a relationship with my mother-in-law. I'm really tired of sitting and listening to all the things that are wrong with my children.''

The group's lone father expresses concern about his preschooler's antisocial behavior.

A fourth employee, whose 18-month-old son stayed with her sister while she and her husband visited relatives in Europe, says, ``I keep thinking I'm a really bad parent for leaving him. People can call me a bad mother if they want, but I know better.''

Another mother's voice breaks as she says, ``Trying to keep up with all my responsibilities is hard. I don't feel that I'm the best mother and the best employee and the best wife. You set these expectations for yourself, and the anxieties build up.''

But as each participant talks, and as Wipfler offers gentle support, at least some of those anxieties appear to fade. By the time the hour-long session ends, smiles have replaced tears and the challenges of parenthood seem less daunting, at least for now.

As Rita Malden, Genentech's benefits administrator, explains, ``It's an effective program in reducing the stress of juggling work and family life.''

Although programs like this are still rare, they signal a growing realization on the part of corporations and other institutions that, as Wipfler puts it, ``We need to nurture parents so they can then nurture children. Many parents feel all alone - that there's nobody to talk to. They're trying to do a big job. They care a lot, but sometimes they just don't know what to do.''

Helping parents ``know what to do'' is a collective effort extending beyond corporate offices to private and philanthropic organizations. Here in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Foundation recently convened a group of 20 people to consider the development of community-based and school-based family support programs.

``Rather than working from the viewpoint that families and parents have real deficits that professionals are going to fill, it is more of an empowerment approach,'' says the foundation's Sylvia Yee. ``It involves seeing families as real partners rather than as clients.''

Partners. Again and again, that word runs as a theme through conversations with professionals and parents alike, seeming to signal a new philosophy in helping parents across the country. It is also the approach taken by California Family Action, a fledgling advocacy group that seeks to create a statewide movement to improve family life. Funded by foundations, it operates through county chapters and several city chapters.