Working parents They're getting their action together

ONE WOMAN wrote to say she was fired while on a leave of absence to care for her severely ill toddler -- and then denied unemployment compensation because she supposedly had chosen to stay at home with her children.

One man said he would lose $97 every day he missed work to care for a son born with hydrocephalus and a hole in his heart. One woman said that by mid-year she had used up all her sick days because of her child's repeated illnesses and would be fired the next time she called in sick.


As these letters of distress to Parent Action show, the balance between parents' workplace responsibilities and the well-being of their children is a fragile one, threatening to tip one way at the expense of the other at any moment.

"I don't think we have paid enough attention to what families are going through today," said Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, the renowned pediatrician and co-founder of Parent Action, a year-old advocacy group that recently moved its national headquarters to Baltimore. "We've lost the extended families, we've lost the communities which used to provide a cushion for families."


Parent Action has about 8,000 current members, a number that grows as increasing numbers of parents unite to demand that government and business become more "family-friendly." It has patterned itself after the huge and powerful American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and hopes to lobby on issues such as day care and the family leave bill as a united front for this large yet, to date, unorganized group.

I owned a gun or a dog, or if I were elderly or angry at drunk drivers, there would be a group for me," said Rosalie Streett, a longtime Baltimore advocate for children and families who recently took over as Parent Action's executive director. "But parents see themselves as such a diverse group. And in our country, parenting is seen as a very private matter."

The issues that fall under the family rubric are diverse indeed -- a homeless family obviously has different and more critical concerns than one in which both parents are present and working and juggling issues like private schools and daycare.

"I think there are some shared issues here," said Jennifer Williams, a Columbia woman and volunteer for the group. "It's possible to cast a wide net."

Williams found that she wasn't able to continue working after having two children even though she had one of the more ideal situations -- her employer was flexible about her hours and her husband manages his own company.

"I probably wouldn't have dropped out of the working world as completely as I did . . . if I had been able to balance working with taking care of my children," said Williams, whose daughters are 10 and 6 years old. "And I had all the flexibility in the world. The people who really get the shaft are the ones at the bottom, the ones who are working at the marginal stuff, like 35 hours a week at [a fast food restaurant]."

Williams, who previously worked at the Smithsonian and the Population Institute in Washington, said she found that between commuting time, day-care expenses and problems when a child would get sick, it didn't pay to work her part-time job.

"One year, I think it actually cost me $4,000 to work," she said.


Additionally, she had started getting more interested in the field of child advocacy than her own field of social history.

"I thought that by working in social history, I thought I could help young people develop self-esteem and maybe lessen the chance that they would engage in high-risk behavior," she said. "But then, when I had my own kids, I realized that after the age of 5, it's all water over the dam. The notion that you're going to change a lot of people's lives, the chance that you're going to have what they call better outcomes because kids know about slave rebellions -- which was what my work was in -- I didn't see it."

Williams currently is working on a newsletter that Parent Action will send to its members on a quarterly basis. The group's "suggested" membership fees are $25 a year, but Streett said Parent Action would take less if a family can't afford that. "Of course, if you can give us $1,000, we'll take that too," Streett noted.

Barbara Gimperling, a Crofton woman who also is working with Parent Action, hopes the group will act as both an advocate and a support service for parents.

"Our society expects families to nurture children, but to do that, parents need to be nurtured as well, and our society doesn't do that," Gimperling said.

Gimperling, whose children are 17, 15 and 12, said that as a young mother she discovered very little in the way of support groups for parents.


"After my children were born, I met a woman who had had a child and was having some problems, but she was away from her own family," Gimperling said. "This was back in 1980, and we decided to start parents' groups to help each other out."

Those groups turned into a non-profit corporation called PACT (for Parents and Children Together), which operates resource centers for family issues in Crofton and Annapolis.

Parent Action is still in its organizational stages, but Streett hopes it will grow quickly to match that huge constituency -- parents. She realizes, however, that the people who most need it, those parents under stress, are also stressed for time. The ever-resourceful Streett, though, has a solution.

"I'm calling it 'Take 10,' for take 10 minutes a week and phone or write the White House about whatever family issue you're interested in," she said. "And after you're done with that, you'll still have time left. So pick a senator or a congressman or someone on the state level, and do the same thing."