One of the biggest divides I have noticed since I entered government service eight years ago is the one between people who have kids and people who don’t. For many people in the 1960s and 70s, this debate centered on women entering the workforce and whether it was “right” for women to leave their children in daycare to work outside the home.
As America has changed, and the two-income family has become common place—for may families’ a necessity—the debate has shifted to the role of caretaking. Who is responsible for caring for the kids when both parents’ work, and how does that decision effect a particular parents’ work, workplace and coworkers?
I have been married for 17 years and my husband and I are childless by choice. It’s interesting: whenever people who don’t know us question us on the topic, the question is never “Do you have children?” it’s “How many children do you have?” When we tell them none, we usually get a confused expression and then a long pause. Initially, I didn’t know what the pause was about, but I’ve since realized because they were waiting for an explanation: there had to be a sad story behind why we didn’t have children (as opposed to the truth: we just never wanted to be parents).
Once people know we are childless by choice, the question becomes, “Why?” Most people won’t ask the question outright, they just develop a host of assumptions: we’re selfish, don’t like children, don’t care about the future, don’t believe in the natural order (or God), and/or don’t have a happy marriage (all of which, like most assumptions, are wrong).
In my 20s and 30s, I worked for associations and non-profits, small organizations where, for various reasons, most people were single. But upon entering federal service, I found just the mention of children changed the whole tone of a conversation, and sometimes of an entire room. Inevitably, the conversation would split into two factions: the people with children would talk to each other about their children, and the people without children would talk to each other about everything else. Initially, the divide seemed to just be about the two groups feeling they had little common ground, but of course, it is much more complex.
A common phrase nearly every childless adult has heard from people with children is: “you don’t understand” (how hard it is, how stressful it is, etc.) And most of us who have heard this statement are (or have learned to be) smart enough to not argue it. But the flip side is there is usually an underlying message: “you’re life isn’t as important because you’re not raising children.”
At work, this misinterpretation plays out in a variety of ways, but the overarching reality is time. Some childless people think people with children are given a “pass” on workload to accommodate for when their children are sick, have plays, sporting events, etc. People without children feel the expectation is they will have to “pick up the slack” when people who have children have other commitments. Conversely, some people with kids feel people without them are “insensitive” to their commitments and “treat them unfairly.”
This debate has gone on for two generations in the workplace and is unlikely to end anytime soon. So how do the two sides come together and develop more empathy, and in the process, a commitment to getting things done?
Both sides have to commit to letting go of perceptions and misconceptions. People with kids, those of us who don’t have kids really do understand that your children are the most important people in your life, as they should be. People without kids: we have to accept that not only don’t kids come with instructions, they also don’t come with time constraints or getting sick on a schedule. People with kids: understand that just because your coworkers don’t have kids, doesn’t mean they don’t have people and events in their lives that are important to them and those people and commitments are equally valid.
The key to working together in the workplace, for both sides, is a commitment to honest conversations and open communication. Know that there will be flux, broken down cars, and family crises and no one has any control over any of those things. People with kids and people without kids need to listen to their counterparts, take time to find out each other’s needs, and chip in to help during times of need, knowing that if you work from a place of mutual understanding and respect, your coworkers will do the same for you.
Kim Martin-Haynes is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.