Days and Nights on the Kid Shift
What newspapers are doing to support working parents and what they aren't
It’s seven o’clock on a frigid November morning, and Toronto Star feature writer Patricia Orwen is scurrying about her small Etobicoke home as though she were working against a deadline in the newsroom. She enters the kitchen with her two daughters in tow and begins to make coffee from a pan of water on the stove. Thick navy kohl encircles her small blue eyes like a raccoon’s mask. Her daughters-three-year-old Taryn and two-year-old Cay leigh-are still groggy. “She had to sleep in her clothes again,” Orwen says, motioning apologetically at Cayleigh’s stained sweatpants. At 7:30, everyone piles into the family’s Jeep Cherokee and heads for the daycare. Once inside, T aryn whimpers at the thought of being left and clutches her mother fiercely. Orwen tries to reassure her daughters, but as she leaves, Cayleigh begins to wail hysterically at the window, one pudgy arm extended in a last appeal to her mother. Orwen looks away with a frown, trying to shut out the cries. When she arrives at the newsroom shortly after eight, she will apply the rest of her makeup and, one hopes, notice the zipper that is undone at the back of her dress. The first shift of the day is already behind her, but a second one awaits.
Since January 1991, Orwen has shared her job with another Star feature writer, working five days in every two-week period. She is among dozens of newspaperwomen across the country who work reduced hours in an attempt to balance career and family. But despite changes in legislation and workplace policies to help working mothers cope with their responsibilities, most newspaperwomen with children still face enormous professional barriers.
“A friend said we live in a child-hating society that doesn’t want to slow its pace because of kids,” Orwen declares. “The truth is, women have only accomplished two things-the right to work away from home, and the right to take on all the responsibilities at home.”
A 1988 Labour Canada study found that by 1986, half of mothers with children under three were working, 66 percent full-time. In 1990, all Ontario companies were forced to recognize maternal and paternal rights. New legislation required companies to provide 17 weeks unpaid maternity leave (if the employee was at the same company for at least 13 weeks before the birthdate) , and 18 weeks unpaid parental leave, to be taken by either parent. Also that year, unemployment insurance rules that allowed employees to receive 60 percent of their maximum insurable earnings were changed to increase the claim period from 15 to 25 weeks of leave.
As a result of this legislation, many newspapers have given their employees extended parental benefits, but little else in the way of relief. Just the same, many women jump at this opportunity, knowing it may be the only one they’ll be offered. After all, management supplements-“top ups”-to U.I. earnings are rare, and on-site daycare is virtually unknown. And, creative arrangements, such as job sharing, part-time and flextime, if offered at aU, are at the discretion of supervisors.
The Toronto Star, for example, boasts about the one-year unpaid (and un-supplemented) maternity leave it offers. But this single concession doesn’t provide a lasting solution to career and family conflicts. What’s more, the job sharing opportunities at the Star are far from ideal. While this kind of arrangement is practised informally-writers Kathy English and Leslie Scrivener revolutionized the concept there three years ago-no formal policy is yet in place. Ditto almost everywhere else. Informal arrangements between reporters and editors are a poor substitute for protective policies and programs. As a result, employees who seek alternative arrangements at newspapers often find themselves up against a wall of conflict between family and career.
Orwen recalls one Tuesday when her new editor asked her, five minutes before the end of her shift, to write a story on euthanasia. The deadline was the end of the week, but Orwen accepted the assignment without complaint, even though Wednesday and Thursday were her days off. What would have been a routine job for a full-time reporter turned into a nightmare. “The trouble is, I have only part-time daycare for the children. The daycare is full and doesn’t have much flexibility in taking the children extra days,” Orwen says. “So in the case of the terminally ill story, that meant working from home on my days off, in this case interviewing a dying man from my kitchen phone, while at the same time writing a cheque for the plumber who had just finished stemming a flood from the ceiling above me, at the same time supervising Taryn and Cayleigh who were watching Sesame Street on the other side of the kitchen counter. Having children, especially two this young, and a career, combined with so little flexibility in child care, creates a difficult juggling act. And if it’s this difficult at times, even with the job sharing, what would it be like if I were trying to work fulltime? Practically impossible.”
The whole point of alternative job options is to give employees some control over their lives, and provide some sense of routine with their kids. Yet employers sometimes act as if they’re doing reporters a favour in allowing them to job share. Vivian Smith, national beats editor at The Globe and Mail, shares many of Orwen’s concerns. “In general, it’s tough for people to propose alternate arrangements, because they’re so sure they will be turned down,” she says. “I don’t think there’s been a sea change in attitudes toward working mothers or fathers. I think the company looks at job sharing as they look at anything else-cost benefit analysis.” Ironically, she says, informal job sharing arrangements are becoming easier to obtain, because the Globe is looking for ways to reduce costs.
The Globe is one of two large dailies (the other being the Winnipeg Free Press) that is owned by Thomson Newspaper Corporation, the largest newspaper conglomerate in Canada. No corporate benefits policy presides over the Globe or any of Thomson’s approximately 80 small weeklies and dailies across the country. Rather, each paper sets its own rules. The Globe, for example, offers the minimum leave and additional unpaid time off, up to a year. Like the Star, it provides no top-up on 0.1% earnings, and no formal job share program.
Vivian Smith, who has two children under six, returned to work full-time shortly after each was born. Although the support of her editors helped her overcome initial concern about her job, Smith admits she would have liked to consider reporting part-time, had that been available to her. Now, she works 10 hours a day, four days a week. Her husband, who also works at the paper, has regular hours and is able to care for their children in the evening. “I get to see them about an hour in the morning, and an hour at night,” Smith says. “It’s very stressful to work a 10-hourday.”
Managing editor John Cruickshank, a father of two young children, agrees the balance between career and family is difficult to maintain. In defending the Globe, he points out that family emergency days are offered and he insists that the atmosphere at the paper regarding working parents is, if not progressive, at least collegial. The recession, he argues, has made it impossible to expand formal employee programs. But except for expensive options such as on-site daycare, many work arrangements such as job sharing cost employers little and are worthy investments. “If you want to keep good employees,” Smith reasons, “it’s worth accommodating them temporarily, even if that means restructuring the organization to do so.”
Southam Newspaper Group, which owns 17 dailies and is the country’s second largest newspaper owner, realized this four years ago when it launched a task force to study the barriers to women’s advancement within Southam ranks. In April 1990, it released a report advising, among other things, that Southam papers form “supportive” policies on maternity, paternity and dependent sick leave. At the Southam-owned Ottawa Citizen, for example, job sharing and part-time work have become commonplace, and employees on maternity leave receive a supplement of up to 95 percent of their 0.1. earnings.
“I think the Citizen’s been very progressive in its attitude,” says sports editor Lynn McAuley, who has worked there for 10 years. Like Smith, McAuley has two children under six, and a husband who works at the same paper and shares in the parenting. Although she has chosen to work full-time, five days a week, McAuley says the Citizen no longer limits working mothers or fathers to this kind of schedule. “There was a time when I was told flat out that if I wanted to have kids, I couldn’t come back part-time,” she says~ explaining that, to a large degree, the Southam report changed the corporate culture. “The recommendations were quickly put in place and embraced,” McAuley recalls. “It became a business reality and a sound one, and it suited a lot of the people who worked here. No one had to have an arm twisted.”
In its report, the Southam task force also recommended that its papers establish or support a child-care centre on or near their offices, where possible. So far, however, the Calgary Herald and The Edmonton Journal are the only newspapers in the country to provide onsite daycare. The Calgary centre, built in 1987, is overseen by a parents’ committee and is used by both male and female employees. For Jack Spearman, an editor in the sports department at the Herald, and cochair of the committee, the centre is a blessing. “If you’re having a bad day, you can just go down and have a cuddle,” he explains. “There’s nothing like a kid to keep your perspective.” Like many other working fathers, Spearman faces the same challenges as his female colleagues in coping with career and family conflicts. But he is, at least, able to bring his three-year-old son to work with him every day. Luckily, his wife is assistant city editor and can pick up their son when the centre closes at 6 p.m. “It’s a question of convenience. I mean, he’s two floors down,” Spearman says. “It’s a real asset here and I think the people who use it value it very highly. It keeps up morale. I know we’ve had a lot less turnover, and it’s a recruiting feature.”
Catherine Ford, associate editor at the Herald, says a general change in attitude toward working parents forced daycare to become a priority. “If you’re going to spend a lot of money to hire professionals,” she explained, “then you’re going to have to address other things in their life. It’s unconscionable to make them choose between their families and their work. We recognize that we’re not their only commitment.”
Orwen says a daycare at or near the Star offices would have eliminated her grueling quest for nannies: One was allergic to the family cat, another became pregnant, and a third brought home boyfriends with criminal records. She says her daycare centre is first-rate, but at 4:30 p.m., 90 minutes before the centre closes, she is rushing to catch the GO Train. Her jaunt to the centre will take at least two hours. From the Mimico station to the daycare is a 40minute walk, and the centre charges for every minute past six o’clock.
Orwen arrives disheveled and weary, but tries to appear energetic as her daughters smother her with kisses. Within minutes, she is complimenting Cayleigh on a drawing and responding to Taryn’s questions. Her eight-hour stretch of interviewing, researching and writing is now long past, though perhaps not forgotten. Orwen bundles up her children and heads out the door, braced for the half-hour walk home and her final shift of the day.
by Eva Janssen
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.