The follow article originally appeared in The New York Times on May 16, 2013.
That was the question I asked when a television producer called and invited me to discuss allergies (which is my area of expertise) on air, on a Saturday morning. The problem: my husband would be at work, in a job (surgery) in which the kids could not tag along. So I asked. The answer was yes. My 10-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl thought the experience was so cool — with all the cameras and the complex knobs of the control room — that for a moment they even thought their mother was cool. It was good for them, for me, for our relationship. Perhaps most important, it was good for the world in which we all work, which must accommodate the fact that most professionals today are trying to manage many different responsibilities at the same time.
My friend and Northwestern University colleague Charlotte Crane tells me that she would have never asked such a question during her child-rearing days; for her career’s sake, she felt it necessary to hide the fact that she had a life beyond work. But today, 70 percent of children are growing up in households in which all adults are in the work force. For half of today’s American families, mothers are the primary breadwinners. While we work, who’s watching the kids?
Sometimes the answer is school, child care and after-school activities. But what do working parents do in an emergency or in a pinch? Skip work? Combine the two? When Chicago’s teachers were on strike last September, I took my kids with me to my office at Northwestern. We found out at 10 the night before and had no time to make other arrangements. It was a research day, and I had a slew of meetings. The kids patiently sat in an extra office, read, colored and played on their devices. There they had a chance to see firsthand some of what I do, getting a glimpse of a working world that can otherwise seem opaque. They also got to see that it’s possible to work and have a family.
Occasionally combining work and kids adds a beautiful dimension to my life. And watching me work teaches them that they can stretch themselves to do more than they may believe. My often-shy daughter surprised me last fall when she decided to try out for her school’s annual talent show as a magician. She performed in the show with poise and confidence, to my pleasant surprise. Afterward, she said, “See, Mom, I am like you — I talked in front of a lot of people.”
Bringing children with us to work is important not just for women but for men, too — even though combining work and parenting is a bigger step out of their assigned gender role than it is for women. But working men face the same stresses and conflicts that women face. It’s just as important for them to model for the kids that they can care about work and family simultaneously. One weekend when I was at a conference, my husband took our kids to his office on a Saturday morning. They loved seeing the surgical rooms and equipment. They loved seeing him in his work world. They patiently sat in the waiting room until he was done, with the help of their devices, of course. I often find my son wanting to equate his skills and knowledge with my husband’s — and by seeing Daddy at work, he learned something about the challenges and rewards of helping patients.
My husband has a harder time asking to bring the kids than I do. But “working while parenting” is a condition most adults find themselves in at some point in their lives. If men don’t step up and combine the two, women can’t either. We need to build acceptance and support into our workplaces for today’s working families. I urge everyone else to do the same. How can we “lean in” — or teach our children that both women and men should “lean in” — if we use our children as an excuse to lean back?
To be sure, as medical professionals who have some autonomy in and control over our workplaces, my husband and I are exceptionally lucky. Not everyone can bring a child to the workplace: retail workers, factory workers and many more will have more difficulty than we do. But we have to start somewhere conveying the message that working people have families, and that family life can be combined with work.
Which brings me back to our family’s excursion to the television studio. We woke early Saturday. My kids and I discussed my work on the drive. They asked: Why do kids have allergies? What causes it? Why is there no cure? What can we do? They watched the interview as members of the live audience — for once, free of their devices. Afterward, we went to out to lunch. We had fun together.
If I hadn’t asked to bring my kids, we all would have missed out on an enjoyable, educational and potentially influential experience. Instead of saying “No, I can’t make it,” as my colleague Dr. Crane would have 20 years ago, I said, “Yes, but can I bring my kids?” Perhaps it’s the measure of social change over those two decades, but the question and the reality were more than O.K.
– Dr. Ruchi Gupta is an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University.