As people learn about my mother’s cancer diagnosis, many have shared their personal experiences of caring for an adult relative. I’ve noticed an interesting pattern, especially in the stories of mothers who also have young children. A number of them either worked full-time or part-time until an adult relative got sick. And then they quit. In other words, contrary to what we hear in the media, caring for their children wasn’t too much. It was the additional care of an adult relative that ultimately drove them out of the workforce. For example,
- Jill was a banker in New York City who had just had her second child when her mother’s cancer recurred. She felt she couldn’t get any flexibility at her firm, “all or nothing,” so she quit her job to help care for her mother until she died, and never returned to the workforce.
- Even though Beth received a buy-out package while on maternity leave, she was planning to keep working. But she delayed her job search for a number of months to care for her ailing mother. A few years after she returned to work, her father became ill and she felt she needed to quit work to care for him as well. Thankfully, her boss asked her to consider working one day a week which she did until her father died a few months later. Had he not offered that alternative, she would have quit. Today, she’s back at work full-time.
- Elaine has four children and works as a project-based consultant for a marketing company. A few years ago, her sister-in-law became very ill with cancer and Elaine was the only one geographically close enough to take over the care of her three nieces and nephews. She quit working completely. Although her sister-in-law made a full recovery, Elaine says that experience convinced her that she could never work full-time for a company again since she can see other eldercare responsibilities just on the horizon. Knowing how much flexibility she needed to provide care to her sister-in-law, she feels she just can’t risk it. So for now, she’s going to consult.
- Lois, the mother of three small children, has often thought about going back to work in some capacity. But she admits having to oversee the care of her elderly mother-in-law who lives with them is the reason she can’t.
These women are sandwiched between two groups requiring different types of care. Managing the care of one group may be doable, but both at the same time—too much. Yet rarely do we hear about the unique challenges of managing child and eldercare simultaneously. Childcare as a stand-alone challenge—yes, we hear about that. Eldercare as a stand-alone challenge—yes, we hear about that (NYT, 3/25/06). But, very few statistics are available about people facing both.
In fact, when I looked for studies on the effects of “sandwich” caregiving, I found only one survey of HR professionals by Personnel Journal from September, 1996. It reported that, “80% of the responding HR professionals said baby-boomers were being crunched by the pressures of caring for both parents and children,…yet 86% said their companies offered those folks no help. (Workfamily.com)”
Then it’s not surprising that most corporate programs supporting working mothers only deal with childcare-related issues, and ignore the equally or perhaps more overwhelming challenge of eldercare.
A corporate client of mine recently mentioned that one of their new initiatives was an “on ramps and off ramps” program to help moms transition back into the workforce (WSJ). While I think this is a great initiative, I cautioned them to roll it out only in areas where a similar degree of flexibility is being offered to all employees. They asked why and I explained:
- You can’t have one person working three days a week hired into a department where everyone else is expected to work without any access to the flexibility to manage their own unique work+life fit transitions. There will be resentment from those other employees. And the company is sending the message that you have to leave the company before you get flexibility. Not a good precedent.
- Also, just because a mother’s current realities allow her to “on ramp” back to work, that doesn’t mean she won’t face other challenges in the future. What happens if her elderly parents get sick and she still has children to care for? She will perhaps need a different type of flexibility to readjust her “fit.” Hopefully she will get it. Or, as we see from the stories above, she may feel she has no choice but to quit.
- What about the people, women and men, who have been forced to leave because of eldercare challenges? Are they also going to have access to an “on ramps” program? It’s something to consider, especially since eldercare will only become a more common challenge for employees as the population ages.
This is one more reason why the work+life “fit” conversation has to promote flexibility for managing all types of transitions, both big (eg. child care, eldercare, illness, divorce, retirement), and small (eg. dating, volunteering, going to the gym, etc.). By focusing primarily on one particular issue—mothers and child care—we lose sight of other factors, like eldercare, that may be having an equal or greater impact and yet aren’t addressed.
If anyone has a interesting piece of research regarding the unique challenges of “sandwich” caregiving, or a story they would like to share, please post it in the “comments” section of the blog.
Five Wishes – Excellent Eldercare Resource: I want to share an excellent resource for people facing the challenge of caring for a sick adult relative. Mike Haubrich, a financial planner, suggested a booklet and video tape called the Five Wishes, put together by an organization called Aging with Dignity, which is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It’s a very helpful guide having the difficult conversation about how the aging relative would like to be cared for during life, and remembered after death. As Mike calls them, the “caring conversations.” The email address is www.agingwithdignity.org They also offer programs for corporations.
Proof it Can be Done Anywhere – People often say to me, “Work+life fit sounds great, but it will never happen in this type of business.” The truth is you can manage your unique work+life “fit” in any industry because part of the process is actually contextualizing your fit to suit the realities of your particular business. Below is a perfect example of an individual who recently found support for her new work+life fit proposal at a New York investment bank—proof that it can be done anywhere:
“Cali, I wanted you to know how much you inspired me when you came to speak at our company about a year ago. As a result, after having my second child in December I decided to take the “slower” track by going to a four day work week. My firm has been extremely supportive and made it very easy for me to move back into this new schedule. I wanted to thank you for giving me the courage to do what I always knew I wanted to do. You explained it better than anyone else ever had and I thank you for that.”