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TV Review: Documentary shows Americans' struggle to balance work, family

Thursday, September 13, 2001

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Andrea and Tony Gattenby know when their mom's had a hard day as a manager at Hewlett-Packard's San Jose, Calif., office.

 
    TV Review

"Juggling Work and Family" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on WQED/WQEX.

Viewers can log onto an interactive discussion of this issue at www.pbs.org/workfamily.

 
 

She arrives home "hunched over and her hair looks a mess," says Tony, 14. On those days, he and his 10-year-old sister give her a glass of water, some kind words and some time to unwind before dinner -- which they prepare themselves three days a week.

If Andrea could give her mom anything, she wistfully says, it would be "enough money so she wouldn't have to work and could play with me."

Staying home to play isn't an option for single mom Charlotte Gattenby or for millions of other Americans stressed by balancing the financial need to work longer hours with the desire to spend more time with the family.

This balancing act is the subject of a hard-hitting, well-reported PBS documentary titled "Juggling Work and Family," which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on WQED/WQEX. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Hedrick Smith, the two-hour show offers a close-up look at the increasingly hectic work and family lives of Americans up and down the economic ladder.

"For many Americans, it feels as though making a living has gotten out of sync with having a family life," Smith tells viewers.

He points out the complexity of the problem through a series of compelling vignettes. He presents as one example the story of lawyer Claire Smith of Boston, who gave up her job in a top law firm to stay home with her young children. The move was financially possible because her husband is on the partnership track at his law firm.

While Smith loves being a mother and her children are thriving as a result of her presence at home, she readily acknowledges that she misses the law career for which she prepared so long and hard.

Walking away from the job isn't an option for Betty Olsen, however, whose story is highlighted in another segment. Olsen has raised three children -- including a son with spina bifida -- on her salary of $23,000 as an assembly line worker at Baxter International, a medical supply company headquartered near Chicago.

Olsen has been able to attend to her son's medical needs and keep her job by taking the unpaid leave offered by the Family and Medical Leave Act when she needs it. But there's a price: Olsen's family has never had enough money to take a vacation together.

Smith smoothly intersperses these real-life stories with discussions with experts such as former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Ellen Galinsky, head of the Families & Work Institute. The experts discuss possible solutions to the time crunch, such as more flexible schedules, government-subsidized child care and even a shortened work week.

But the show doesn't try to give viewers false hope that such changes will occur any time soon. Instead, Smith says he hopes it can jump-start a national debate on the problem.

"Many people regard this as a personal problem, but it's a problem for millions of people. We want to give people a sense of the different challenges that other people have, yet also want them to understand how similar the basic challenges are," Smith says.

There's no doubt that there are huge numbers of Americans attempting to keep up with the work-life juggling act. According to Smith, roughly two-thirds of married couples with children work full time, as do 75 percent of single parents.

"Yet we still organize work as if we had a nation of housewives," Joan Williams, a law professor and co-director of American University's Gender Work and Family Project, tells Smith.

"We still define the ideal worker as someone who works full time, full force, for 40 years, as someone who takes no time out for family life. This way of defining the ideal worker, however, clashes with our ideal for family life.

"So it's a structural problem -- a clash of two ideals. One has to change, and I suspect most of us would agree on which one that is," Williams says.

One of the most engaging segments of the show focuses on Michael Lancaster, who works full time, often 18 hours a day, as an operating room technician in New York City. Lancaster, who earns $37,000 annually, is a single father with custody of three daughters, two in college and one in preschool.

Despite his long hours at work, the high cost of living in New York City means he lives "from check to check." Lancaster worries about being forced to take a second job, a move he believes would particularly strain the close bond he has with his 4-year-old daughter.

So far, Lancaster has been able to avoid moonlighting because he receives a child-care subsidy from his union, Local 1199. The subsidy comes from a child care fund underwritten by the hospitals for which union members work. It's one of the innovative work-life programs highlighted by Smith at the end of the show.

The show also spotlights the way employers are trying to help their workers cope. Marriott International established a national hotline to help workers find child-care, nursing homes for aging parents, housing and other life needs in their own communities.

Donna Klein, Marriott vice president of diversity and workplace effectiveness, said the hotline has helped employees while helping Marriott reduce turnover among its hourly staff, something that is good for the bottom line.

Now, Marriott and a dozen other large corporations are pushing even further. They have just established a new group called "Corporate Voices" to lobby government and the private sector for solutions to the work-life imbalance.

Their first issue, Klein says, is more early education programs, especially full-day, mandatory kindergarten. Such programs would benefit children while allowing their parents more work flexibility.

In closing the program, Smith says such efforts are just the beginning.

"Finding a better balance between work and family is a problem now ripe for national debate and action," he says.

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