When the subject is caring for families, Americans talk a convincing line. Businesses scramble to be recognized as "family friendly." Politicians campaign on a platform of "family values." And workers bravely attempt to "do it all," never missing a beat at work or at home.
But as social critic Mona Harrington surveys the family scene, she sees a troubling paradox: Despite progress, the current system of caring for the young and the old still depends heavily on women's presence and unpaid labor at home. Yet equal opportunity for women depends on their ability to compete fully in the workplace and beyond.
"There is a hole where caregiving should be," says Ms. Harrington, the author of a new book, "Care and Equality: Inventing a New Family Politics" (Knopf). "Caring for people is a value. Doing good work is a value. They're in conflict. They shouldn't be and they needn't be."
As she sees it, a "caretaking crisis" affects nearly every American family. From finding child care and after-school care for the young to arranging long-term care for the old or infirm, families at all economic levels are involved. Even those with upper incomes find the conflict "severe."
"It's not an economic conflict but a personal and moral conflict," Harrington says. "It's a lack of time with families."
She points a finger at both business and government. Calling the workplace "the center of the problem of care," she says, "Except in marginal ways, employers do not regard themselves as responsible for the strength of families. When we see things going badly, we tend not to focus on the work structure that's creating such stress. We blame individuals - the woman, the man, the boss."
Even such benefits as flextime and maternity leave offer little more than Band-Aids in her view. And the Family and Medical Leave Act provides only unpaid leave. It also doesn't apply to small businesses, leaving about 50 percent of the work force uncovered.
When Americans think about the kind of care people need, Harrington finds, they typically think about government programs. Although those are necessary, she says, "we haven't begun to look at the business world in the middle of this picture."
In the political arena, Harrington, herself a liberal, criticizes both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives, she explains, place a very high value on family and on the care families give. "They're keeping that at the center of decisions about social policy. That's good and that's important. But their solutions are not realistic, because they depend on women at home."
For liberals, the philosophical problem "starts with the importance of the individual, which again is highly important and good. But there isn't a well-developed liberal conception of the individual in community." Moreover, Harrington says, liberals tend to think of child care, maternity leave, latchkey children, and older people as women's issues.
"The fascinating thing about the Clinton administration is that this is a Democratic, essentially liberal administration that has worked on women's issues and women's equality, as well as care issues, including elder care," Harrington says. "But it hasn't put them together."
Harrington began putting together her own ideas on the subject when she experienced firsthand the conflict between caretaking and careers. As a young lawyer, she worked for the State Department in Washington. To her amazement, married women were not allowed to go overseas at that time. After earning a PhD in political science, she postponed her career to stay home with her three preschool children. Even with two advanced degrees, she found her return to work humbling.
"They saw me as a very smart woman with good credentials," she recalls, "but I was treated as a nonprofessional."
What Americans need now, Harrington believes, is "another round of consciousness-raising." She wants "a new public conversation" on many levels to help families find a "positive new way" of thinking about care as a public issue.
As a start, Harrington is organizing a year-long series of public dialogues on gender, women's equality, and family care. Called New Conversations on Family, Work, Care, and Equality and funded by the Ford Foundation, the nonprofit effort will bring together a variety of viewpoints - liberal, conservative, religious, secular.
Voters, Harrington says, need to demand that political candidates at all levels - local, state, national - talk about these issues. She doesn't expect candidates to offer blueprints to solve all problems, but she wants them to discuss the issues.
Even that is not easy, Harrington concedes, because so much of the problem lies in the business world - a major source of campaign contributions. When candidates criticize business or make serious proposals for change in the business world, they jeopardize campaign finances.
She sees another potential source of progress in unions. Those with large numbers of women, in particular, are beginning to address caregiving issues. She urges nonunion workers to raise the subject wherever they can - in churches, community groups, day-care centers, and professional associations.
Proposals include paid parental leave and major subsidies for child care and health care.
Harrington comes back to a basic question. "Do we care about care?" she asks. "That is what we have to decide. Do we really place a high value on care? We talk about it. We also have to pay for it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society