Working Parenthood: How do the Feds Measure Up?

It’s hard enough to be a parent, but add a full-time job outside the home and it’s just about impossible. Suddenly you realize why the 1950’s were full of “Mother’s little helpers” and such.

(Side note: I say full time job “outside the home” because parenting in and of itself is a full time job. It is quite offensive to be asked, “Are you a full time mom or do you have a job?” One is always a full-time parent, and that in itself is a job, whether or not you also have a paying job elsewhere).

(Side note #2: I will try my best to stay gender-neutral on this, but I am human and my perspective is from that of a working mom. I do, however, fully recognize that working dads have many of the same issues!).

But I digress. If you have to be a working parent, how does being a Federal employee stack up to the private sector?

As always, I can’t speak for all agencies. But I can say that the Forest Service seems to be pretty family-friendly. In fact, they go so far as to help dual-career families (i.e., where both spouses work for the agency – but that’s another article). That alone is pretty nice. But when I discovered I was pregnant, I had no idea what a great deal I would have.

The office I was stationed at at that time was uber-supportive of families. For starters, we have a flexible schedule, so taking time off for doctor appointments was no problem (even for my husband!). When the Big Day came, it was no issue at all for me to take a nice, long leave – after all, I had a ton of sick leave in the bank. I took a luxurious four months off! Paid! How many women in private industry can do that? Sure, it came out of my sick leave, but so what? And did I mention that they delayed my husband’s start date (he was just coming on with the FS) by two extra weeks, just so he could stay home with us longer?

But it gets even better. When the time came to return to work, I was able to take my baby with me. That’s right: to the office. And, I was able to have her there until she was seven months old! For a first-time mom, that was pretty nice (although by seven months, I was more than ready for her to go to daycare!). Granted, the particular environment of that office was exceedingly baby-friendly (only four other staffpeople, three of whom were mothers/grandmothers themselves). But, my job was to serve as the public interface, so it’s entirely possible that having a baby at the front desk would be frowned upon. But let me tell you: it was the best PR the Forest Service ever got. People loved it and thought it was so great that the government was supporting mothers that way.

Lest you think that experience is an incredible anomaly……My experience with my second child was much the same. I was at a different office with different supervisors, though on the same district. The prevailing ideology was still supportive, so I still got to bring my baby to work. This time, though, I temporarily moved to a different office where we would be less disruptive, I only took the standard six or eight weeks leave (I can’t remember which), and I only had her there with me for four months.

Why would an employer do this? Why would they allow babies in the workplace? Because as one supervisor put it, it’s better to have me there working at a lesser capacity than at no capacity (ie, if I took an extend leave or quit). And truth be told, it wasn’t the baby that made me less productive; it was all the other office moms coming in to visit. (If you ever want to learn how to type really really quickly with one hand, hold a nursing baby on your lap while working).

As the kids got older, the flexible schedule still came in handy. Doctor appointments, school programs, field trips, sick days (lots of those!) – it’s so nice to be able to come and go as I need to. It makes me feel so much better about being a working mom (cuz let’s face it, there’s a ton of guilt there). If I didn’t have that kind of flexibility and support, it would be a lot tougher. I would feel so much more stress.

Certainly I’ve had supervisors who were less than understanding about this sort of thing – like the District Ranger who made some rude comment about both my husband and I staying home with a sick kid, when in fact we were splitting the day at the office (all he saw was that I was signing out when my husband had already been home all morning). Or the spinster supervisor who made passive-aggressive comments about one’s commitment to one’s career, which apparently can only be demonstrated by working extra hours. And the old-school ideology — as vocalized by said Ranger — that the woman should be home with the kids while the man was at the office (such commentary was elicited when my husband was on sick-kid duty instead of me). But overall, it’s been a pretty sweet deal.

I have to say, though, that’s been at the most local level of the agency. If I were to have a baby today, at the next level up, would I have the same support? I say yes, except maybe for bringing the baby to work. On the other hand, I’d guess that it would be more likely for me to be allowed to telecommute instead (which I have always been allowed to do occasionally, when home with sick kids). As you go higher up the ladder, that is probably also the case – although then one might score an actual office with a door, which would be more conducive to having a tot around!

All in all, being a working parent for the Forest Service is really nice. I truly hope that all Federal agencies are similarly supportive – if not of having babies in the office, then at least of all the other factors and of telecommuting as necessary. But you tell me: what is your experience as a working parent within the Federal government? And dads: do you perceive any differences in how you’re treated versus the moms? Anyone have government-provided, on-site daycare? What are some things you’d like to see changed, or examples that should be extended to all places of employment?

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Great post. It’s wonderful to hear how supportive the Forest Service. Generally, the government is pretty good but I’d like to see one major change:

1) Official parental leave – right now, the federal government does not have official parental leave just the ability to save up and use sick leave. While this is good if you have worked for the feds for a few years and banked a few months, it is really bad if you have only been to the government for a year or so. I’ve had a number of friends who run into this barrier. They are late 20s, worked at a few different places, but just started their first gov’t job. And they get pregnant and they only can use their 6 days of sick leave accrued or take leave without pay. There are some bills in Congress to fix this issue but I’ve noticed that there are mixed feelings on the proposal. Basically, most people are supportive but parents who raised kids under the old system or those not interested in having kids are sometimes dismissive.

Profile Photo GeekChick

I absolutely agree! This issue was enlightening for us as well, when our turn came. Pretty much everyone believes there is a magic “leave pot” out there, where anyone can dip into and get paid maternity/paternity leave. Everyone I knew was shocked to learn that all the Family Medical Leave Act guarantees is that you will have a job to return to — it doesn’t have any provisions for paid leave.

Thankfully, I’d had several season’s worth of sick leave built up, or I would have been in the same boat as your friends. I still took some LWOP, to spread my leave out longer and still cover my insurance (which comes off my paycheck).

This is one more case for socialized medicine. Many European countries offer paid leave for having babies. Why can’t we do the same? For a county where so much of the dialogue is about “families” and “family values,” why are we so unsupportive?