Babies in the board room: one answer for day care

In an occasional corporate office, a playpen sits among an array of desks, computers, and circular files. A toothless grin and a hairless head can be seen peeking around an office door. No, the work force is not getting younger. But the child-care dilemma is getting more obvious.

``Parents aren't finding the quality care they want,'' says Ann Vincola, president of Summa Associates, a child-care benefit planning firm in Boston. And more mothers are wondering why they should have a baby and give it away to someone else to raise.

In unique, mostly emergency situations, some women and occasionally men are finding they have no other choice but to bring their young children with them to work. And for those who do, the experience has often been ideal.

``It means I can be happy at work, while fulfilling the concepts of what being a mother is all about,'' says Amy Jimenez, who brought her daughter, Christina, to work for about 16 months, starting when she was only 10 weeks old. She intends to do it again as soon as she returns from maternity leave with her second child.

But while her experience puts a new focus on the need for adequate child care, it also raises questions of fairness. Employers may have to decide who is ``valuable'' enough to allow their child in the workplace.

Mrs. Jimenez works in a very special environment. Her father is president of Kerschner Companies, a condominium developer in Norwalk, Conn., where she is director of personnel, and her mother and older brother are treasurer and vice-president, respectively.

Very few people are fortunate enough to be able to work in this kind of family situation, she acknowledges. Even fewer are allowed to work alongside their young children, especially every day for a year or so.

Of the 46,000 or so medium-size to large companies in the United States, only about 3,300 are providing any child-care assistance programs, according to a report to be released by Summa Associates this month. But that is an improvement over the 413 companies that offered a child-care option in 1982.

More than 50 percent of young mothers (with children under the age of 6) work today, according to the Department of Labor. While their children, about 10 million, need some form of care during the day, a recent University of Michigan survey indicates that most of these mothers find that their work and family roles conflict.

Bringing their children into the office with them is one way for these women to solve their day-care dilemma. It seems, however, to be an option that is still used sparingly.

``Managers are more open to it today because good people are so hard to find, and it takes a lot of time and energy to constantly retrain newcomers,'' says Cheryl McCarthy-Chiari, vice-president at Scott, Fitton & Co., a real estate consulting firm in New Haven, Conn.

While bringing children to work can and has been successful in these specific cases, it's not likely to become commonplace, says Ms. Vincola at Summa Associates, since it's not a complete solution to the child care question.

For one thing, not every office can accommodate a small child. ``Investment banking really isn't a place for children,'' says Carol Anderson, who does bring her child into the Maryland National Investment Banking Company when she can't find a baby sitter.

It's worked for her, she says, partly because she is managing director at the small company. But for executives at large Wall Street firms, ``who make enough money to afford child care anyway, there's not much room for something like that,'' Mrs. Anderson says.

Children in the office tend to be very young. When they get to be about 18 months old, they get very busy, Mrs. Jimenez says. Her daughter has passed that age and now comes to work with her mother only occasionally; the rest of the time she stays with her grandmother. As they get older, they become restless and bored within the same four walls, and can become a burden for secretaries, another mother notes.

``I don't think it's really fair to the child,'' says Randy Allen, partner at Touche Ross & Co., a public accounting firm in Newark, N.J. ``You're distracted, so your child doesn't really get the attention he or she needs.'' Mrs. Allen takes her son with her on some of her many business trips.

Her sister, a college registrar, occasionally brings her newborn child into the office as well.

But for other women, a child in the office can mean carrying on two careers simultaneously.

Mrs. McCarthy-Chiari returned to work and brought along her son Tony after her boss pleaded with her to come back. He provided her with her own large office and flexible hours. He was desperate, a co-worker says. Still, the decision wasn't easy, she says.

``I have to be flexible, the boss has to be flexible, and the company has to understand that the baby comes first. ... Sometimes I get a guilty feeling that I'm not caring enough for Tony.''

But Sharon, a co-worker who is seven months pregnant, won't be given the same option. Her position isn't as difficult to fill, nor is she at present vital to the company's operation. It can ``leave you with the impression that you're not valuable enough,'' she says.

Mrs. Jimenez at Kerschner Companies says it's a matter of changing society's mind-set. ``If we allow mothers to bring children into work until they absolutely need day care, we're making better use of what's available.''

Many women travel with their youngsters, bringing them into business meetings and board rooms. These mothers say it often melts tension and softens executives.

While babies and bosses may not always mix, the idea has gotten some people thinking about a more permanent and practical solution to the lack of adequate day care. ``It's not a taboo subject anymore,'' says a young working mother whose company is weighing the costs and benefits of operating an on-site day-care facility.

She and other working mothers like the idea of the proximity of an on-site facility. It allows parents to check up on their children during the day and, if necessary, be with them immediately, Mrs. Allen at Touche Ross says.

More companies are looking at how they can better provide employees with direct child-care services, as opposed to past efforts, which consisted mainly of assisting parents to look for such services financially, says Vincola at Summa. On-site, near-site, or sick-care facilities, which once weren't considered the company's problem, are seen as more realistic possibilities.

Recently, the Prudential Center, an office complex in Boston, opened the Bright Horizons Children's Center to give its employees access to day care.

Meanwhile, some companies are considering other options, including having children in the office, because they want to hang on to valuable employees, Allen at Touche Ross observes. ``Look at the labor shortage,'' she says. ``More women are in senior management and can raise the issue, and more men are involved in raising children.''

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