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Solving the flexibility puzzle

Few communities, or companies, or even households are organized to provide working mothers with all the flexibility they need

By Arthur Emlen

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When it comes to jobs and child care, mothers have the amazing ability to make the best choices possible. And their success depends a lot on how much flexibility they can squeeze from their work schedules, family arrangements, and accommodating child care.

Despite the vigor of the mothers' movement, however, an angry black cloud has continued to follow working mothers, with professional child-care researchers and early-childhood experts raining disparagement on their ability to make wise decisions about child care. As a Portland State University professor emeritus and researcher who has been conducting scholarly studies of families and their child-care choices for more than 40 years, and creating child-care evaluation tools -- from a parent's point of view -- that are now widely used, I've seen this condescending attitude first-hand.

Does it matter what the public thinks of parents? I think it does. Not only is it hurtful, it's a bum rap used to justify misguided policies, such as creating a universal system of professional child care. This is a utopian dream that has diverted policymakers from addressing the wider range of supports that families desperately need -- improved wages, benefits, working conditions, and tax policies, as well as improved neighborhoods and child care.

The conclusion that shines through my research is that parents possess a remarkable ability to make the best choices possible, and they deserve a wider range of options from which to choose. Our research overturns the poor opinion of parents, documents their decision-making ability, and explains the key to their success.

That key can be found in this riddle: What is more precious than gold, but isn't a luxury? The answer: Flexibility! When the subject of flexibility comes up, most of us think only of flexible work arrangements: we need job-sharing, part-time schedules, and the ability to work at home. "If I could only just have a little flexibility on the job," many mothers think, "everything would be OK." And certainly workplace flexibility is important.

But in fact, the need for flexibility is more fundamental. Consciously or not, parents need flexibility on one of at least three fronts to make their work-family juggling act work well -- work, family support, or child-care arrangements. It is essential for the success of all the purposeful things you do, and parental employment and child care are no exception. As parents manage the complex demands of work, child care and family life, they are constrained by the physical limits of time and distance, and they absolutely have to arrange flexibility in at least one of these three realms to deal with emergencies and achieve a balance that makes it all possible. At stake are their values and survival itself.

Yet few communities, or companies, or even households are organized to provide working mothers with all the flexibility they need. I've spent more than 25 years researching how working mothers fit the various puzzle pieces of their lives into a coherent whole that works for them and their family. And what I have learned over the years largely boils down to this: Flexibility, in its many forms, plays an absolutely central role in the lives of employed parents. It's the key for solving the puzzle. Drawing from my research -- from many thousands of employee surveys -- here are ten big lessons I have learned about flexibility and about how it enables parents to make the best decisions that are possible for them to make.

next page:
flexibility doesn't come out of thin air

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