Giselle Culver
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Big Stories and Little Ones

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If you think reporting has bad hours, try being a mom. Even worse—try being both

After going through five day-care providers in 18 months, Sue Pigg was at her wit’s end. Pigg worked full-time as an editorial writer at The Toronto Star while her first child, Shannon, was a baby. She was horrified to find out that her babysitter’s husband was using drugs. At another babysitter’s home, Pigg’s husband, Tim, found Shannon already bundled in her snowsuit at the front door when he came to pick her up-he had no idea how long she’d been waiting. And at a third, there were so many children that Shannon began acting out her stress by biting other kids.

With her second child, Graeme, Pigg decided she couldn’t maintain her frenetic pace any longer. In 1991 she began working part-time as a copy editor, then moved to the assignment desk. Though it wasn’t a position she had ever aspired to, it allowed her to spend a lot more time with her children. Now, with a third child, two-year-old Claire, Pigg isn’t sure when she’ll go back to working full-time. Today, as a part-time assignment editor at the Star, she works three nights, an average of about 25 hours a week. Pigg would like to be the city editor and has been approached about management positions, but she just isn’t willing to put in the hours required to move up the newsroom ladder. Right now her career plans are on hold, but working part-time is “a way to keep my hands in daily journalism,” she says. “That was really important to me, to not get completely off track. I wanted to find a way to basically hang on by my fingernails.”

A framed picture of Shannon as a baby sits on a cabinet in Pigg’s dining room. She’s in a high chair, holdingThe Toronto Star, with an amused look on her face. Shannon, now 9 and home from school for lunch with her friend Ashley, is laughing so hard she falls off her chair. They giggle, planning a sleepover Ashley is having for her birthday party this weekend. Claire, in fuzzy, red Elmo slippers, runs from dining room to kitchen to living room and back, throwing a few somersaults on the way. A basket of toys, play table and stack of games sit in the corner. On the wall in a hallway is a mounted, colourful finger painting of tulips and sky, labelled “Shannon, aged 5.” Underneath it is a “Happy Mother’s Day” poem covered in handprints, entitled “Graeme, aged 3.” Pigg tells Claire to sit and eat and asks Shannon if she remembered to return her library books. During lunch, Tim calls and Pigg recounts how Claire locked her in the bathroom by accident this morning. Shannon disappears downstairs and returns wearing a promotional T-shirt designed by the Star: a head shot of Pigg with the headline-“Her 18 hours of persistence gave you new insight into trial.” Pigg says when she and her friends began starting families, they were still really ambitious, wanting to go after great stories, work late and travel. “We all went into this thinking you could have it all. It wasn’t even something we questioned,” she says. “Then we had kids and realized this is really hard.”

The Globe and Mail‘s arts reporter Val Ross, now on leave on a Southam Fellowship, remembers a day about five years ago that she spent working on a complicated Ontario Arts Council budget-cut story. The story was due by 5:30 p.m. to run in the next morning’s paper. At four o’clock, she checked her phone messages. There was one from her son, who was 10 at the time. “Hi, Mom! It’s me,” he said. “I forgot to tell you you’re in charge of costumes for the school play tomorrow. On your way home from work tonight would you pick up four god costumes.” God costumes? What did that mean-Greek gods? A thunderbird? An arty, symbolic representation? “Oh God,” she thought. In the end, she turned their old karate outfits inside out so they were all white, fashioning silver headbands out of aluminum foil. Pretty lame, she says, but not bad for such short notice. “When you’re trying to get an article done and your kid is sick or trying to get a project into school the next day, the laundry needs doing and people have head lice or measles, you don’t know where to begin,” Ross says.

The newsroom of the ’90s is filled with women like Pigg and Ross who face a difficult juggling act as they try to balance the competing demands of career and family, ambition and the desire to be there for their children. As they find ways to cope, they are part of a slow evolution in the pattern of work-an evolution that recognizes the realities of modern family life.

Robert Glossop, the director of programs and research for the Vanier Institute of the Family, says the structure of the workforce has been built on an old model of the family. “The nature of the contribution made by men back in the ’50s and ’60s to the labour market was made possible by virtue of the fact that there was a woman at home taking care of the kids and taking care of his needs as well,” Glossop says. “Employers could, in a sense, assume that there was this invisible resource to them, which basically subsidized the productivity of their own employees.”

Journalists are part of a changing work force, one that has seen a dramatic influx of women over the past 30 years, especially those with young children. In the early 1960s, 30 per cent of women were in the paid labour force; by the early ’90s, that number had doubled. Today, almost 70 per cent of women with young children work outside the home-partly because families require two incomes to match what they were earning in 1980.

Dual-income families have become the cultural and statistical norm. The workforce relies on women at all stages in their lives, and although men are becoming more involved in domestic life, women still spend one to two hours more each day than men on activities like housework, shopping and child care. The result of this “double shift” is stress. A 1992 StatsCan survey found that almost 30 per cent of women working full-time in dual-earner families felt they were severely time-crunched, always trying to accomplish more than they could handle.

A 1994 report on women in the economy by the Canadian Labour Market and Productivity Centre argues that the changing nature of the workforce “calls for parallel changes in our social infrastructure. The lack of adequate social supports for working families has major implications for the labour market of today and for the future.” Levi Strauss & Co. realized those implications when it examined work place issues in 1991. A company task force found that lost work time-due to absenteeism, lower productivity and workforce turnover-was often a result of the conflict between work and family. “In this global economy, the key competitive variable is now the quality of the workforce-its skills, knowledge, creativity and motivation,” says Julie White, a public affairs manager at Levi Strauss. “A company that ignores employees’ needs to balance their work and family lives may be making a costly mistake.”

Understanding the link between supporting workers with young children and corporate performance has led to the growth of family-friendly policies at Levi Strauss and other companies. These include flexible working hours, dependent sick leave, generous maternity and paternity leave and, more rarely, on-site day-care centres, or at least referral services to qualified care.

The newspaper industry in Canada has reflected this trend, though it certainly hasn’t led the way. Pigg is the first part-time assistant city editor and assignment editor the Star has had. It’s a small measure of a more willing attitude on the part of newspapers across Canada to accommodate employees. The Star, Canada’s largest independent daily, has formal polices that allow employees to job share, reduce their workweek and to fund a leave of absence by deferring compensation. At the other end of the spectrum, The Vancouver Sunhas only a formal policy on job sharing, but working fewer days a week has still become more common.

“If you don’t offer good employees some options,” says Shelley Fralic, deputy managing editor of the Sun,“you risk losing good people.” But she also points out that flexible work arrangements such as part-time, flextime, job-sharing and compressed or reduced workweeks don’t always work within the context of a newspaper. It’s true that long hours, travel, unpredictable schedules and daily deadlines are inherent in the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week nature of the news business, because stories don’t always break in convenient nine-to-five working hours. This makes it difficult to apply blanket policies.

Even Canada’s largest newspaper conglomerate, Hollinger-owned Southam, has no national corporate human resources policy; it leaves those decisions to managers at each of its 32 daily newspapers. TheOttawa Citizen, for example, has a work program that allows employees to reduce their workweeks and receive prorated benefits. The arrangement is renewed yearly and can be continued indefinitely, with two weeks’ written notice by either party to end the agreement, and employees’ full-time positions are held open for them. Job-sharing is also an option. For most of the past 10 years, Keri Sweetman, an assistant entertainment editor at the Citizen, has shared positions, working three days a week. Sweetman, who has three children, who are 7, 10 and 14, moved to editing because as a reporter “there’s no predicting what time you’ll finish work. You might have to go out on a story at four o’clock in the afternoon.”

Susan Riley, a columnist at the Citizen, says when she had her first child in the early ’80s, “you were kind of expected to keep on working as if nothing had happened. That was certainly the expectation I put on myself.” Riley later job-shared as an editorial writer, then tried working a four-day week. She believes women who choose to withdraw from the career ladder while their children are young shouldn’t be seen as uncommitted or uninterested in being good journalists-that attitude “leaves the way open for mediocre men.”

Don Butler, the Citizen‘s executive news editor, says the barriers holding women back in the newsroom are fading fast. “If you want to get the most talented people into key jobs, you’re going to have to accommodate the fact that, periodically, some of them are going to go off and have babies,” he says. “I think newspaper management is on the right page on that.” The Citizen hired Lynn McAuley as sports editor when she was seven months pregnant with her second child and held the position open for her until she returned from her four-month maternity leave.

Sheila Pratt, managing editor of The Edmonton Journal and mother of a three-year-old, says family-friendly policies are key to keeping women journalists in the workforce. “Especially with populations in the newsroom getting older,” Pratt says, there need to be “workplace policies that are flexible enough to allow women to be moms and have time with their kids as well as pursue their journalism.”

The Journal is one of only two Southam newspapers in Canada with an on-site day-care centre (the other is the Calgary Herald.Journal employees are also able to take up to three days each year to care for a sick child or relative. Paula Simons, a cultural issues writer at the Journal, says the paper’s progressive attitude was one of the reasons she decided to move back to Edmonton, where she’s from, after working as a producer on CBC Radio’s The Arts Tonight in Toronto. Simons has just returned to work after being on maternity leave for 13 months. The Journal, like the Star and the Globe, allows employees up to a year off for maternity leave, although it doesn’t supplement EI benefits. The Citizen and the Herald, on the other hand, offer the minimum leave, but do “top up” EI earnings to 95 per cent. Simons now works three days a week, covering essentially the same beat she had before her leave. She says she’s thankful to have an employer that sees the wisdom in allowing her to work fewer days. “For those three days they get my absolute focused attention,” she says. “I’m not crying at my desk.”

Jenny Lee, a business reporter and columnist at The Vancouver Sun, says trying to find a balance between family and work is an issue that “seems to really tear at your guts and your heart in the early years.” When she wanted to reduce her workweek after her first child was born nine years ago, it wasn’t common in her newsroom. She and several other women drew up a formal proposal and management agreed to try flexible work arrangements. Lee now works three days a week, from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., so she can pick up her two children from school. She says her kids have had a big impact on her career advancement. “It’s velocity. I’m not going at 120 miles per hour-I’m down to idle,” she says. “But that’s my choice.”

Thomson Newspapers, the third-largest newspaper owner in Canada with nine daily and nine weekly newspapers, also has no national policy on human resource issues. Thomson’s flagship paper, The Globe and Mail, has a casual approach to flexible work arrangements, but Sylvia Stead, the Globe‘s deputy managing editor, says she can’t think of any staff who have been turned down when they’ve asked to reduce their working hours. Stead has two children, and she worked part-time for five years while they were young. She says she made it clear when she went on to more senior jobs that her kids came first. “I’m not going to work what has been the tradition in this business, the 12-hour day,” she says. “Period. I’m not going to do it.”

The attitude of an employer makes a big difference in how people perceive conflict between their work and family roles. The Globe‘s education reporter, Virginia Galt, has four kids. She remembers one morning she played hooky from work because her son Alex was in Toronto’s city cross-country finals. She went to watch the race and as she cheered, she turned to see Colin MacKenzie, the Globe‘s managing editor, standing behind her. His daughters were in the race and he was playing hooky too.

Before she was married, Galt wanted to be a foreign correspondent. But the globe-trotting life of a correspondent-for many the pinnacle of a newspaper career-is, for the most part, still out of reach for those with children. Kathleen Kenna, Washington bureau chief for the Star, is on the road about two weeks out of four. It requires “an incredible amount of energy and a willingness to leap on and off planes,” she says. Kenna decided not to have children early in life, in part because of her desire to be a foreign correspondent. To be a great mother, she says, “I would have to make some other career choice.”

Jan Wong’s kids, Ben, 7, and Sam, 4, were both born while she was The Globe and Mail‘s foreign correspondent in Beijing. Wong says although people here may wonder how she did it, she herself actually wonders how people here do it. In Beijing, Wong had a cook, a housekeeper, a nanny and a driver, and for the latter part of their stay her husband quit his job and was also home. When they returned to Canada, Wong says they were doing laundry at two in the morning before they found a nanny.

As women take on more responsibility in the world of work, men are taking on more responsibility in the home-but it’s still rare for men to make a significant change in their work lives to accommodate child rearing. Last year, Martin Mittelstaedt, who was the Globe‘s Queen’s Park bureau chief, took an eight-month leave of absence after his wife, Margaret Philp, a social policy reporter at the Globe, returned to work following her second maternity leave. The Globe allows fathers six months of unpaid leave, plus vacation time. Philp says it was amazing how much more she could accomplish at work with Mittelstaedt at home with the kids. If a story broke late, she could cover it without worrying about the “day-care dash.”

It’s middle of January, and now that her husband is back at work, things have changed. Today, Philp didn’t file a story, so she’s picking up the kids. If she had a deadline, he would pick them up. So far they’ve been lucky; there hasn’t been a day yet since Mittelstaedt returned in the new year that they’ve both had to stay late to cover a breaking story. Philp leaves the Globe at 10 minutes after five, uncommonly early for her newsroom, walking quickly and checking her watch every so often. Early in her career, Philp was nominated for a National Newspaper Award. She loves her job and knows she’s good at it, but she also realizes she’s not reaching her full potential there right now because she has kids. “It’s frustrating. If you could just stay late you know you could break the back of a story you’re working on,” Philp says. “But never is there any question of what comes first.”

It’s a short streetcar ride to Queen’s Quay and she’s just in time to catch the 5:30 ferry boat to Ward’s Island, where she and Mittelstaedt live. The ferry crossing takes about 10 minutes. Toronto’s skyline-skyscrapers rising into fog as dusk settles downward-recedes into the distance, as the small, friendly lights on the island come closer. Two little bundled figures with rosy cheeks are waiting for Philp on the other side: Philp’s babysitters have brought Christian, almost 4, and Hannah, almost 2, to the ferry dock to meet her. Philp trundles Christian and Hannah on a red, plastic sled to the small, toy-scattered house they’re renting while their house is being renovated not far away. Hannah is tired, wet and hungry. Philp nurses her while Christian watches Kratt’s Creatures on TVO, then starts dinner. She stops the pasta from boiling over as Hannah wheels a toy stroller around the tiny kitchen and Christian plays with a shiny red fire truck that has a loud siren. Philp settles Hannah in her high chair with a bowl of noodles, most of which end up on the floor.

Philp says she’s often tired and thinks about working part-time, although she did try a four-day week after Christian was born and didn’t feel as productive as she wanted to be. Finding the right balance is different for everybody; there are no magic solutions to maintaining both a satisfying career and a fulfilling family life. “It’s hard,” Philp acknowledges. “It entails sacrifice to your career and it still affects women more than men. But I wouldn’t trade places with anyone.”

It’s an often precarious, sometimes messy, choreography of racing against the clock to finish a story or frantic phone calls when child-care arrangements come tumbling apart, leaving parents scrambling. But the newspaper industry is evolving as it becomes more attuned to the needs of families. There are choices now that weren’t as readily available 10 years ago, choices that acknowledge the different roles people play. It seems that newspapers have finally realized what parents have always known: that kids are as important as the next big story.

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