Parents scramble to find backup care

Like working mothers everywhere, Jane Swift knows firsthand that even the best child-care plans sometimes go awry. But as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, she can count on an alternative unavailable to most parents. Whenever her regular arrangements fall through, she asks staff members to care for her 14-month-old daughter, Elizabeth Hunt, in the office.

That revelation caused a statewide furor last week.

In addition to raising ethical questions about whether Ms. Swift is abusing her power, it spotlights a problem that remains largely hidden in the workplace - what to do when backup care does not exist.

From the marbled grandeur of the Massachusetts State House to the cubicled warrens of American business, many parents find themselves caught short by caregivers' absences, children's illnesses, snow days, and school vacations. Gradually, some progressive employers are beginning to help.

"Every working parent at some point has a child-care crisis," says Swift during an interview in her office. She defends the use of her aides for child care, saying, "During office hours, that is such a minuscule amount of time."

Work and family experts divide on that point.

"I don't think people should have to do things that are not part of their job description," says Phyllis Moen, director of the Cornell Careers Institute at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "I don't think it should be her employees who take care of her child. But it should be a legitimate thing that she should be able to say, 'I'm going to be gone for the next hour.' "

The larger issue, Professor Moen continues, is that Americans treat situations like this as a private problem. "There's no systematic way that we as a society have developed to deal with the reality of most couples having three jobs - two at work and one at home - and most single parents having two jobs, one at work and one at home."

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, chairman of the National Parenting Association in New York, sees "a lot of gendered thinking" on the child-care issues Swift and others face.

"If a man in a workplace were to be clearly in a predicament with a child and had co-workers pitch in to help out, that man would end up with accolades," she says. "It would underscore the fact that he was human too and was struggling to do his best with his kids, and had hit some kind of small problem."

By contrast, Dr. Hewlett sees attitudes toward women in such situations as "very punitive. We immediately are suspicious that she's freeloading in some way or other. We tend to punish women in ways we don't punish men for the audacity of introducing child-related problems into the workplace."

Swift, who earns $75,000 a year, explains that her husband, William Hunt, has put his construction business on hold to care for Elizabeth. She says, "A nanny is not only beyond our finances, but it's beyond the space limits of our small three-bedroom apartment."

Yet employment specialists caution that taking children to work risks disrupting offices and alienating co-workers.

"Everybody has had the experience of having someone else's child in the workplace," says Susan Brenner, senior vice president of Bright Horizons Backup Solutions in Tinton Falls, N.J. "It's cute for a while, but you have to think about productivity. And for the child, is it fun for the first 10 minutes? The first 30 minutes?"

As an alternative, some companies, aware that many employees have no fallback position, now provide subsidized backup care. Options vary widely.

Some on-site child-care centers double as emergency-care centers. A few centers specialize in backup care exclusively. Some businesses offer in-home care for a sick child, or flexible policies that allow parents to work at home if a child is ill. Others provide referral services. Still others create "snowy day programs," providing supervised activities for children in a conference room.

When Bristol-Myers Squibb surveyed its employees in 1998, it found that after infant care, the second-biggest issue employees face is finding quality services when regular care is not available. The study also revealed that for parents, the breakdown of child-care arrangements can result in between eight and 15 days of potential lost work time each year.

Beginning this month, Bristol-Myers will give its 22,000 US employees access to counseling about backup care options for children and elders. It also provides subsidies.

Such services can pay off. When Chase Manhattan Bank studied the return on its investment for backup care, Ms. Brenner says, "They found that no matter what they spent on the center, they in fact were saving money."

Moen also emphasizes the importance of governmental initiatives.

"The government should be a model employer," she says. "Employers should recognize that most workers will become parents, and that they are parents of young children only a small part of their whole work careers. We need to develop flexibilities that permit them to succeed both at work and at home, without having to make these hard choices."

Last November, Swift herself announced a package of family-friendly initiatives for 50,000 state employees. These include expanded maternity and sick-leave policies as well as emergency child care.

Whatever a family's child-care arrangements, Judith Presser of WFD, a work-and-family consulting firm in Brookline, Mass., cautions against passivity: "The best thing a parent can do is be prepared," she says. She suggests talking with managers before any need arises, adding, "Thinking ahead, knowing what your situation is, understanding what you're able to do, will bring peace of mind."

For her part, Swift insists that she will continue to call on aides to help with child care. "In good offices, employers and employees become a support network," she says.

Asked if her dual role is more difficult than she imagined it would be when she was campaigning during her pregnancy, Swift smiles determinedly. "It's hard," she says. "But the things that are the most rewarding are seldom the easiest."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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