Work and Family Month: Large Policies, Small Moments

In honor of National Work and Family Month, I was asked to write some thoughts on the subject. Many excellent articles by our field's leading thinkers have been appearing that explore policies and programs that could or should be implemented to advance the work and family agenda. Most convey that making progress will take large-scale organizational changes and perhaps new government policies, which will prove difficult in the present U.S. political environment.

Beyond all the needed strategic policy changes voiced by my colleagues, I also feel deeply that change will only occur when individuals make the right choices in those thousands of small moments that unfold over the course of their lives... which is perhaps a more daunting task than influencing our political discourse. So rather than repeat what has been said, let me share one personal example of a small moment that came to mind as I reflect on this occasion.

One of my endearing behaviors upon arriving home from work each day is to do a "quick final check" of my work email the moment I walk through the door. I'm not sure why I developed this habit, but I justify it as a necessary step in transitioning from work to family. I'm quite compulsive about this whether arriving home from my daily commute or returning from an extended business trip.

Last fall, I was on my way home at the end of the day after picking up my (then) 15-year-old daughter. I pride myself on my openness to those meaningful father-daughter conversations one sees in the movies; where the dad demonstrates active listening and disseminates wisdom in large doses. But I like those conversations to occur on my schedule. On this particular day, Maggie and I discussed her potential areas of interest. It may have been related to college preparation or perhaps just increasing her involvement in extra-curricular activities. I offered the usual clichés: "Do something you are interested in" and, "Just follow your passion." But my daughter was stuck and admitted her passions weren't 100 percent clear.

Pulling into the driveway I was eagerly anticipating my email ritual and began to conclude the conversation by offering one last "pearl" to cement my place in the Fatherhood Hall-Of-Fame. As I reached for the car door, Maggie said, "There is one thing I am interested in." Having made my closing point, my initial reaction was, "Let's save that for another time." Instead I fought my instinct and asked, "What is that?" "I'm interested in social media and how it can change things in the world" she replied.

I wasn't sure what to say. I briefly pondered "You're kidding" or "Don't they have a chess club or ultimate Frisbee team at school?" But quickly realized this was one of those moments where further inquiry might be more helpful. So I asked what exactly she meant. She told me about young activists she admired who were doing charitable work around the world not through the Peace Corps or another large organization, but through individual efforts that they promoted via YouTube. She asked if she could show me their sites, and resisting the emails that were summoning me, I said "Sure."

I was impressed by both the work of these caring Millennials, and also by Maggie's feeling of connection to it. I told her we used social media at the Center to try to advance the work-family agenda. Maggie later explored and arranged a brief internship at our Center last summer with the help of our communications director. She learned more about our work and helped us develop our social media, including some videos to communicate "a day in the life at the Center for Work & Family."

Then recently, Maggie asked Annie (her Mom), if she could take her to the Occupy Boston protests. She brought her flip-cam and captured the spirit and rallying cries of the movement. That night she quietly edited her video into a three-minute montage of the chanting crowds. On Tuesday, I was speaking at the Work-Life Expo in Minneapolis, and Annie emailed me a link to a Huffington Post article "Occupy Wall Street: Citizen Journalists Document Protests Nationwide." When you scrolled down past the scenes of New York, LA, and Chicago, there was one video called Occupy Boston Chants from a 16-year-old "citizen journalist."

I was obviously very proud of Maggie. But her accomplishment also caused me to reflect on that conversation we had in my car nearly one year earlier. Work emails and compulsive habits beckoned and the time was not of my choosing but life, as they say, happens. And on those all-too-rare instances when you have the awareness to seize the moment, you realize that no policy in the world is needed to be mindful of those you hold most dear.

Happy National Work and Family Month!!

Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and lead author of The New Dad study on fatherhood.