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A 'Family-Friendly' Shift In Debate Over Work-Life Balance

Rep. Paul Ryan — shown on Capitol Hill in 2013 with his daughter Elizabeth — told his fellow Republican congressmen he would agree to run for speaker of the House only if, among other things, his time with his family was protected.
Drew Angerer
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Rep. Paul Ryan — shown on Capitol Hill in 2013 with his daughter Elizabeth — told his fellow Republican congressmen he would agree to run for speaker of the House only if, among other things, his time with his family was protected.

Have we finally turned a corner?

Has it finally happened that when a man says he is making job decisions around his family we can finally believe him, as opposed to wondering when the email exchanges with his outside honey are going to come out?

This past week, two of this country's most powerful men — who work in a city where power is everything and work is king — both made career decisions with personal and family needs at the center.

In case you missed it, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, laid down some conditions for seeking the position of House Speaker — and one of them was that his caucus accept that he would be spending less time on the road, because he needs to spend time with his three young children.

Then, Vice President Joe Biden announced this week that he will forgo a third try at the presidency, in part because he and his family had needed time to recover from the death of his son Beau.

It is a new day if these two men — one a Democrat, one a Republican; one in the final chapters of a storied career and one smack in the middle of one — can each say, without hesitation or ridicule, that he needs to be home for dinner and not just on Thanksgiving.

It's hard to describe what a big deal that is unless you are up close and personal with the lifestyle, not just of politics, but of many jobs in the current era: the 24/7 on-call expectation, the constant deadlines, the schmoozing and networking that go on and on into the wee hours, night after night.

Let's set aside a certain presidential candidate who is said to have derided a female lawyer as "disgusting" when she requested a break from a deposition to go use her breast pump; let's talk about how hard it is even when people want things to be different.

Back in 2009, the New York Times wrote about how the newly elected President Obama spoke about making the White House more "family-friendly." His chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is said to have replied, with his characteristic candor, that it was "family-friendly to your family."

The piece went on to describe the absolutely typical 60- to 70-hour weeks, with aides taking work calls on school field trips and scheduling classroom visits at 10 p.m.

And of course politics has particular features that make life hard on families: The New Yorker's Amy Davidson makes a powerful case in a piece this week that Paul Ryan is demanding relief not from the demands of legislating, but from relentless fundraising trips.

Either way, it's always been the case that the most talented and most sought-after do what they will, and the rest of us do what we must. How could it be otherwise in an environment where workers in many companies get their schedules handed to them just a few days or even hours ahead of time?

That might be why, when Working Mother magazine recently surveyed more than 1,500 mothers on their work-life balance issues — they called it the "juggle struggle" — they found that two-thirds of the respondents actually valued job security as the most important factor in choosing a place to work. Fewer than half cited flexibility or even pay and benefits. It sounds to me that in the current environment, a lot of women have given up hope that their jobs will help them live their lives.

They just want some stability, and they will work the rest out for themselves.

Still, it does mean something when powerful, public figures — and, let's face it, not just the women who have been driving the work-life balance conversation — are out, loud and proud about their family responsibilities, and not just the photo op but the actual people.

It's often the case that the rest of us learn to seek what celebrities get first. And if that means time to take care of ourselves and our families, bring it on.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.