This excerpt is pulled from Time to Flourish, a report by the Families Valued initiative of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ).
American families and the institution of the family are under tremendous stress. The rising number of children raised by single parents or in fragile families is a critical indicator of family stress. Family stress also manifests itself in parents’ struggle to provide for and spend time with a new child, in the push and pull of work schedules and childcare gaps.
Family time and traditions enable parents to provide a stable base from which their children can thrive. Family dinner is the classic example. The children of families that gather regularly for dinner demonstrate better mental health and higher levels of resilience. A wide variety of family time and traditions promote family cohesion. Yet many families, especially low-wage and low-wealth families, struggle to dedicate as much time to family as they would like. Families with minimal savings and precarious work must substitute wage-earning for family care, even at crucial moments such as the birth of a new child.
A Perspective on Family Care
Nicole Massie Martin is one of the most respected preachers and church leaders in Charlotte, North Carolina. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Martin recently served as executive pastor of The Park Church — a prominent African American congregation in Charlotte — and was inducted into the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. Today, Martin serves as a city mobilizer for the American Bible Society. She is married to Mark, also a minister, and they have two young daughters. Martin describes how having children “reorients the center of your home” in terms of schedules and responsibilities. “It’s challenging to do a 9-to-5 when kids have to eat dinner at 5:30,” says Martin. “The way we keep happy, healthy children is keeping them on a schedule. And because they have a schedule, it really just shifts the entire schedule of my life.” She mentioned that managing dinner and homework are particularly challenging after she has worked a full day.
Martin resonates with recent findings from Barna Group that 52 percent of mothers say they are dissatisfied about their work-home balance. Martin says her husband experiences the stress of providing for extended family and the demand of being relationally available to his family after a day’s work. There is a “societal expectation on me as a mother … that I am the primary discipler of my children.” Her experience speaks to what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has called the “second shift” for many American women. That is, as women’s work outside the home has increased, unpaid housework such as cooking, cleaning and childcare has stayed the same. Societal expectations for fathers have not caught up with women’s economic participation and desire to work in the marketplace. This is one reason why Barna Group found that 80 percent of today’s mothers report being overwhelmed by stress, 20 percent to the point of illness.
The Martins received an outpouring of support from the church after the birth of their first child. Congregants donated diapers, a stroller and other baby care items. Martin says it was a “blessing [to be] part of such a giving and loving congregation.” But, she notes, there were no parental leave policies in place for her to take the time necessary off to care for her newborn. She ended up using her vacation days as well as a short-term disability insurance policy after their first child was born. “From what I understand, unless an African American church is connected to a wider denominational body that provides things like 401(k) [plans] and provides personnel guidelines … it is unlikely that you would have [a parental leave policy] built in.” Martin notes that single and/or childless women are unlikely to negotiate for maternity leave upon being hired, for fear that they would be seen as selfish or demanding. When a company or organization does not have parental leave policies in place, it puts the onus and responsibility on the employee seeking to take necessary time to care for family. Martin says this responsibility carries “psychological ramifications.” “You’re supposed to be all excited about having this baby, and you’re now worried about, How am I going to pay for this? What’s going to happen when I go back to work? Do I have to work indefinitely because I used up all my vacation days? What’s my value to this organization, and do they really care about my family?”
Why Paid Family Leave Matters for Low-Income Families
The Martins are an educated, middle-class family with professional careers. Even though the couple is in a high-stress season of parenting, they enjoy financial stability and job security, and report high levels of happiness. The work-family dynamic is significantly more strained for working-class and low-income households, where hourly-pay work, unpredictable work hours, transportation, housing, health care and child care are all daily responsibilities that must work in harmony in order for the family to survive. Family illness, a car breakdown or even a changed bus route could significantly affect a family’s well-being. After the birth of a child, many working-class and low-income parents find themselves in a precarious financial situation.
Nationally, both single and two-parent households struggle with the costs and trade-offs between work and child care. Child care in the United States costs on average $9,589 per year, a large chunk of the annual income of a working-class couple. Yet if one parent stays home, one salary may not be enough to support the family. Further, if a parent chooses to stay home, he or she could lose the health insurance benefits that come with a paid job. Thus, many families choose to continue to work and place their children in child care, even at a significant cost.
Transportation also imposes costs and time burdens. Lack of access to a car — something most middle-class families take for granted — means extra hours spent each day using public transportation. One mother affiliated with a Phoenix-area church gets on a bus at 3:45 a.m. in order to arrive at work on time. Many clients of Bethany Christian Services, a large social service agency serving families in Grand Rapids, must spend several hours each day taking public transportation to and from their jobs as well as to a child care provider. “So much time gets absorbed into transit time,” says Dallas Lenear, a pastor and director of Project Green, a financial empowerment group in Grand Rapids. He notes that Grand Rapids — and many other U.S. cities — do not have an extensive mass transit system.
Family Flourishing Requires Family Time
Wrapped up in so many family stories are stories about time. Nicole Martin Massie described the shift to parenthood as one that reorients the organization of one’s life and one’s day. The mothers at Mom’s Place sacrificed time with children in order to secure and keep a job. Parents of children with special needs struggle to fit the expansive and sometimes unpredictable caregiving needs with the rhythms of the work day.
Research suggests that time and the capacity to shape time according to a family’s needs is an important component of family flourishing. Children who grow up with solid family rituals — from the daily ritual of a shared meal to seasonal family rituals — typically demonstrate greater resiliency and mental health. Family rituals also contribute to family cohesion. As anthropologists have observed, “When groups act in rhythm — when they do the same thing according to the same repeated time pattern — they tend to become more tightly knit.” Developing and sustaining these rituals requires time and a degree of control over time that proves challenging to parents who face long work hours, irregular or night shifts or a lengthy commute.
The Responsibility of Employers and Government
Christian families can form themselves along a divine vision of work and family as holistic complements. As citizens and culture-shapers, Christians should advocate for and develop policies and practices that protect, rather than fragment, family time.
Workplaces are called to treat all workers with dignity and respect. A healthy community of work develops the persons within it as well as offers a good or service to the world. Organizational leaders and others who shape the workplace can do so in ways that anticipate workers’ family responsibilities rather than treat them as an aberration. They can deploy technology, training and creative problem-solving to help mend the work-home divide.
Alongside civil society institutions such as workplaces, public policy has a role to play in supporting family life. Government is called to protect the varied spheres of human life and their varied seasons, including seasons of family care. Laws such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) help protect family time, affirming cultural norms about the balance of work and family time. Good policy can also address the legal gaps and economic barriers that leave so many families’ time unprotected and at risk. Many parents do not take time off for family because they cannot afford to do so. And, while some employers can and do provide paid leave or related benefits, many do not. Further, small businesses, nonprofit and religious employers often face significant hurdles developing and funding benefits like paid family leave.
Scholars and economists from across the political spectrum say the time has come for paid family leave for all workers. A broad paid family leave system, they argue, can support a healthy workforce and healthy families without over-burdening smaller employers. In California, one of the first states to develop such a system, paid family leave has enabled parents to spend more time providing care to young children and family members. Health researchers have linked parental leave with a whole host of benefits, from lower infant mortality to improved maternal health and improved work history. Likewise, evidence points to the benefit of family-supportive workplaces not only for worker well-being but also for workplace productivity, effectiveness and retention.
Cultivating the conditions of family flourishing depends on all segments of society, civil society and government alike, cooperating. We recommend the following steps for workplaces and public policy with respect to work and family time.
Workplaces and public policy alike should protect workers’ time to care for family members.
Workplaces, especially faith-based organizations, should align family-supportive values and workplace practices.
Policy-makers should develop a system of paid family leave so that all workers can attend to seasons of family responsibility.
Given the fundamental role of family in God’s design, it should be no surprise that enabling family time yields abundant benefits. When people are empowered to fulfill their caregiving responsibilities, all of society flourishes. Christians who recognize the socially foundational nature of family must not only talk about the importance of family, but enact policies and create cultures that tangibly demonstrate its importance. Protecting and enabling family time at crucial moments — whether birth, adoption, illness or death — is one essential way to uphold the enduring value of the family.