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Parents, nonparents work up a rivalry


In this corner, weighing in with two kids, an unpredictable baby sitter and a wall calendar of ballet recitals through 1994: the working parent.

In the other: the colleague with no children, facing 60-hour workweeks, evenings spent schmoozing with clients and a nonexistent social life.

The stressed-out workplace of the '90s may have its newest casualty: relations between parents and nonparents. As employees work harder and longer with less job security, these two groups have found themselves squabbling like siblings at times.

Who gets to leave early? Stay late? Get ahead? In the diminished corporate climate, such questions have created friction for colleagues with very different personal lives. Companies have responded by altering benefits programs and creating more equitable social activities and work policies.

Compounding this tension is a more family-friendly atmosphere -- and a lauded family leave bill -- that at times has left employees without children wondering whether all work lives are created equal.

"It's family-status warfare," says John Haslinger, director of flexible benefits for Buck Consultants in New York. "Singles are resentful. They're asking, 'Why are you taking care of somebody who made a lifestyle choice?' "

Hostility has surfaced on both sides of the water cooler.

With Americans feeling overworked, employees without children often see themselves shouldering more of the burden -- working more weekends, pitching in on more last-minute projects and being asked to travel or even relocate more frequently.

Some working parents, experiencing the family-career crunch, envy their less-encumbered colleagues but also criticize them for letting work take over their lives.

For four years, single lawyer Spencer Gordon watched colleagues at a Baltimore law firm leave at 4:45 p.m.

"They proudly marched down the hall proclaiming, 'I've got to go watch my child play in a Little League game.' That was perfectly acceptable and encouraged as an act of grand selflessness.

"Whereas when I left at quarter to 5 to play in my own softball game, I had to pretend I was going to a meeting. Otherwise, it seemed like a selfish act," says Mr. Gordon, 35, who works in the Office of the Public Defender in Howard County.

"It irritates me, this notion that my life is somehow of less importance because I don't have a family to go home to."

What irritates him even more is the idea that some working parents want his support for the fact that they have to juggle such things as school assemblies, snow days and day care mix-ups.

"That's the lifestyle they chose. You take the good with the bad. I don't feel like I get much sympathy for the downsides of being single and in that scene," he says.

Such comments irk working mother Sharon Sweeney Keech.

"Equating softball and child care is not fair," says Ms. Keech, publisher of Baltimore's Child, a monthly newspaper about parenting. "Child care is a more important and immediate need. Sure, people need a social life. But you can play softball on Saturday."

Clearly, parents have become a force in the workplace. In 1990, nearly 60 percent of mothers with preschool children were working, up from 30 percent in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But striking a balance between work and family isn't always easy.

Child care responsibilities affect the productivity of half of the women and more than a third of the men responding to eight company surveys, according to a 1991 report by the Conference Board, a business research organization.

L Workplace distractions can be a problem for nonparents, too.

"Just because a worker has children doesn't necessarily mean they have more commitments. . . . There are situations where singles have two jobs," says Joseph Coale, spokesman for Crown Central Petroleum Corp. and a father.

But how do managers make decisions involving an employee's outside interests? Whether workers like it or not, the personal does affect the professional.

"If a manager has two employees who need to go on leave, one wants to travel the Himalayas and one wants to be home with a newborn infant, are you going to give more weight to the parent? Probably," says Jim Keller, spokesman for IBM, which is considered one of the most progressive companies with regard to employee benefits.

In a recent study of working mothers with flexible schedules, researchers found that nearly all faced criticism from colleagues, some of whom didn't have children. Their peers considered them less serious about their careers and resented the bargains they had struck with bosses.

"Men in the organization would refer to them as 'the mommies,' " says Marcia Brumit-Kropf, the director of research at Catalyst, a national organization that examines working women's issues and that commissioned the study, which will be published next month.

Jessica Strauss might as well have been a participant.

A mother of three, she leaves her job as executive director of the Family Place, a family support center in East Baltimore, early two days a week to pick up her children. She considers it a point of pride that she has never missed a school assembly.

Then why does she constantly feel a need to point out during conversations with subordinates, some without children, that she takes work home and comes into the office on weekends?

"I have this feeling that I have to prove to them I'm really working," she says.

Yet she has no interest in returning to her life before she had children, when she felt chained to a desk.

"It's not human to work 80 hours a week," says Ms. Strauss, 37. "It's not healthy. Having a family helps keep the balance. I look for staff who have children."

Because she doesn't have children, Lynn Baklor says, people sometimes assume she doesn't have a life. A manager with PHH Fleet America in Hunt Valley, she recently turned down a transfer to Connecticut, much to the surprise of her supervisor.

"I got, 'It should be easier for you. You don't have a family. You're single.'

"My response was: It's harder for a single. You leave your whole social life behind. With a family, you take it with you," says Ms. Baklor, 33.

Those looking for legal recourse may have a tough time finding it. It's not possible to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission based on whether you have children, says EEOC spokeswoman Janice Hearty. "We have different bases for charges: age, sex, race, religion and national origin. Family status is not one of them," she says.

But discerning companies have become attuned to these simmering conflicts and are trying to defuse the situation by rethinking, and even renaming, benefit programs. At a few businesses, they are now called "work/life" instead of "work/family."

"It's not just we're helping parents now. . . . There's a growing awareness that single people have problems running a household, even if it's finding time to have the washing machine repairman come in," says Robin Hardman, spokeswoman for the Families and Work Institute in New York, a nonprofit research organization.

IBM added an employee baseball game to its social activities after single employees said "Family Day" made them feel left out.

Buck Consultants recently helped solve a similar problem for assembly-line workers at a manufacturing plant in Michigan. Between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., working parents were leaving their posts to call home and check on their children. Those without children had to pick up the slack, and tempers were flaring.

The solution was to have youngsters call a secretary, who delivered messages to employees.

But blaming peers for such clashes is misguided, says Betty Holcomb, deputy editor of Working Mother magazine. Blame the boss, she says.

"I look at it as a case of poor management rather than an us vs. them kind of thing. A good manager won't let employees turn on each other and be unhappy with their work arrangements," she says.

In the end, though, workers with limited flexibility may find themselves stuck on the corporate ladder, rather than climbing it.

"People have to look at both sides of the equation," Mr. Haslinger says. "Those who make lifestyle decisions -- wanting to be home at 4 with their children or taking up a hobby that doesn't allow them to work weekends -- those people in the end are trading off some chance for advancement."

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