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CIOS - Pondering Diverse Work-Life Issues and Developments over the Lifespan
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


Patrice M. Buzzanell
Purdue University

Abstract: In responding to the editor’s invitation to “consider the inherent difficulty of communicating about our differing life-realms of experience (e.g., public-private, work-family, work-life, personal-professional, etc.),” I first “play the academic” in (a) providing an overview of some academic research and community practice on workplace negotiations and (b) laying out some of the overarching macrodiscourses that can prevent innovative thinking about work-life solutions. I conclude with some personal reflections on my own personal work-life dilemmas.

I am very grateful and honored that Erika Kirby asked me to describe some difficulties in communicating about work-life realms in our lives. I was thinking about my family members—my sister, mother, late godmother, cousins, a good friend who just lost her husband, some friends and colleagues who recently had surgeries, and so on—and the many lives affected by hurricane Katrina, tsunamis, and other disasters. This essay is the result.

I believe a main difficulty in communicating about work-life issues (in research and practices) has to do with the pace of our lives, our individualistic orientations, and our thinking that takes for granted the privileging of certain aspects of our existence over others. People seem to become so enmeshed in their own viewpoints, priorities, and everyday life details that they are unable to see past them in order to derive practices adequate for others and, ultimately, for themselves. The inability to take time to reflect on what is happening, how we often prioritize our work and our own needs, and then use these reflections (and ongoing discussions) to create a more humane and equitable workplace is a major obstacle in communicating about work-life issues.

To further elucidate my perspective, I begin by “playing the academic” and then by relating some personal experiences and thoughts I’ve had about work-life issues. Clearly, in an essay that is supposed to be short, I am leaving out a lot, yet I hope to stimulate some thinking in these areas. My approach is to (a) provide an overview of some academic research and community practice on workplace negotiations, (b) lay out some of the overarching macrodiscourses that can prevent innovative thinking about work-life solutions, and (c) relate personal reflections on my own work and life concerns.

Negotiations of Work-Life: Family Leave

I and some colleagues have been studying women’s attempts at family leave negotiations. In this research, many of our participants appear to lack the argumentative resources and the abilities to frame their interests in ways that others, in particular supervisors and coworkers, can understand and handle. These women often want only to determine the timing and nature of their maternity leaves, the ways their work loads are distributed during their absence, and some accommodations for the physiological, emotional, cognitive, and relational changes they may be undergoing. They would like to be paid for their leaves but, mostly, they want to be treated fairly. They want to know there can be some flexibility in the case that there are complications from birth or problems with their infants or adoption processes. Some of these women acknowledge the constraints under which their supervisors must act—in that their bosses want to play by the rules, treat people equally, and ensure no disruptions to work flow and employee morale. Yet, establishing ways of enabling these different parties to engage in meaningful dialogue about what needs to be and can be done can seem almost impossible.

I have been talking mainly about women who have incomes and are in marital (heterosexual) relationships. When the participants in work-life decisions are not middle-class, White, educated, ablebodied, heterosexual, in committed relationships, and engaged in work that is valued (and so on), the negotiation of interests and work-life issues can become ever more problematic. Most policies are not designed to handle the different meanings and material consequences of work-life practices for individuals and for members of their membership groups (e.g., aging workers, single women desiring children, couples deciding upon childfree lives, lesbian couples with sons and daughters, individuals or couples adopting multiracial infants and children with disabilities). In sum, communicating about work-life concerns and opportunities in the workplace is fraught with difficulties. People often are caught up in their own lives, think about individualistic rather than systemic solutions, and find it difficult to consider and prioritize alternatives based on premises and lifestyles different from their own.

The Intersections of Macrodiscourses in Work-Life Negotiations

Second, it is incredibly easy to succumb to societal discourses that favor traditional ways of accomplishing work-life processes. These macrodiscourses are easy to recognize as an onlooker and researcher but are much harder to see and communicate about when one is the participant in work-life negotiations. A sampling of these discourses includes:

  • Women’s main tasks as being mother, wife, and nurturer of others
  • Individuals’ prioritization of work over family, leisure, and volunteer activities
  • Workers’ needs to project: reliability in work hours, dedication to work/employer, and investment of time at work
  • Men’s primary societal role being breadwinner and head of household
  • Espoused appreciation for children and those vulnerable in society, yet few governmental and institutional resources devoted to such things as good quality childcare, flexible work arrangements, health care coverage, and social services budgets (e.g., Head Start, care for veterans, working poor)
  • Economic and consumer imperatives that privilege the person earning the most money as having the most say and whose arguments have the most credibility in work-life decisions
  • Ongoing global transformations of organizations that create greater uncertainties and opportunities than ever before

Some of these macrodiscourses trip us up every time. Stay-at-home fathers and men who have experienced job loss are called into question. Stay-at-home and working mothers discursively construct adversarial worlds so that they can justify their choices to others and, perhaps, to themselves. Men who are more communally oriented are less likely to be among those who ascend to top leadership positions or who are even hired for managerial positions. Couples who are childfree are deemed selfish even when they struggle with infertility (and infertility treatments may not be covered by health care plans). People assume that women will downplay their careers when they give birth to or adopt children. Women relocate for partners yet may incur short- and long-term wage, career, and retirement penalties. Single adults’ reasons for being unable to work overtime do not hold up against coworkers’ reasons based on traditional family needs. Older workers and those with disabilities may not be considered as advantageous to retain as other workers. In short, societal discourses underlie our mundane communication about work-life in ways that pose difficulties for everyone at some point in their lives. We are often unable to pinpoint why work and life decisions that seem so “natural” do not seem to serve our interests. When we become aware, the societal discourses by their very nature seem very difficult to communicate and amend in productive ways for everyone.

Reflecting on the Personal in Work-Life Negotiations

Finally, I would like to share some personal reflections on work-life issues and why they can often be hard to talk about. A question I am often asked by people who know or find out that I have six biological children is, “How do you do it?” The “it” involves having a large family, a successful career, a committed relationship, and a relatively sane (I presume!) demeanor. It seems I am supposed to have some secret to impart, just as those who live long lives in good health are supposed to harbor secrets of longevity. I usually can voice a quick response—typically I tell others to love what they do, to surround themselves with people who are supportive and positive, and to figure out what they are willing (and not willing) to do in trade offs. If there is time, I also point out that I have been blessed with parents who provided me with excellent educational opportunities and a stable, loving home environment. I have children who are healthy at this point in their lives and who are locating their own individual talents, lifestyles, and interests. I have a job that enables me to do things I value—be creative, have flexibility, work from home, play with ideas, engage with others in conversations that I find incredibly fun and satisfying, and so on. I have siblings on whom I could count for anything. I have a husband who complements me in his style of parenting. And I conclude with the admission that no one can do or be everything for everyone.

Yet hidden below those words of wisdom are the work-life concerns that cause me to wake up in the middle of the night and sit with tears in my eyes as I compose this essay. How and why is it so difficult to communicate about work-life? Perhaps some of it is that there are work-life aspects over the course of the lifespan that one can never anticipate, that there are no words to express, and over which one has little control or influence.

In my own life, I could never have anticipated that my twins (Sheridan and Ashlee) would have been born over two decades ago at 24 weeks gestation after six days of labor. That translates to only six months of pregnancy; my children had no statistical probability of even surviving birth, let alone having any semblance of a “normal” life. I was fortunate that these twins grew from a combined total of under 3.5 pounds birth weight and multiple health issues into two beautiful women; one now teaches languages to middle school children and one is in the Peace Corps in Africa working on AIDS interventions. The fact that they beat all odds is nothing short of a miracle. And it is not because of me that they have succeeded. It is because of a host of people, services, prayer, their own determination and hardiness, and so on. I still cannot find the language to express this one aspect of my life experience with all of my multiple, conflicting, and paradoxical emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. I certainly have not found research that gives voice to this experience and its evolution over the course of my own life and the lives of my immediate and extended families.

Yet I live in amazement about others’ much more complicated work-life issues. The fact that others live (and work) amidst loved ones’ prognoses in which there is never a chance for what most people call a “normal” life goes beyond all that we have researched thus far in work-life communication. How do people develop resilience and normalcy intersubjectively under chronic, inoperable, and ultimately untreatable health conditions? Who are the loved ones who care for children with physical, emotional, and cognitive disabilities when these children are young and when they reach the age in which there are few daily services such as schools? How do biological and legal parents or guardians come to grips with the possibility that they might need to make their children wards of the state to obtain needed services and/or to care for their adult children if these children survive their parents? How do these loved ones—foster and adoptive parents, respite care workers, siblings, extended kin network members, fictive kin (kin by choice), spouses and partners, and others—deal with their own needs for income and leisure, their houses that are not constructed for multiple wheelchairs and bodies that are too large for regular bathroom facilities, their frustrations at agencies designed to support them but that have backlogs and extensive paperwork for any kind of assistance, and so on? How do they express to others that every day in which their loved one awakens can bring them enjoyment, sorrow, amazement, and despair all at the same time? How is it that we live in a society in which people have to worry about how much time off they can take for bereavement, for their own and family members’ cancer treatments, and for other concerns without losing their jobs?

These are not idle thoughts that come from nowhere. My sister (Doreen) has a daughter (Allison) who just turned 21 years of age but who will never achieve the developmental milestones of a “normal” three-month old. Doreen and others we know deal with many of the issues I mentioned above. Yet, Allison fills Dee’s home with laughter and with the constant reminder of how precious life can be. No one could have anticipated the situation my sister is facing, and few of us know how to communicate about situations like those of my sister. When we look sideways, we begin to realize that work-life issues are not simply about figuring out the best time to have or adopt children, about arranging the best child care one can afford, or about piecing together systems for handling sick child care and school closings. Yet, so much of the work-life literature addresses these sorts of issues.

Indeed, we need to broaden our focus. Again, I rely on some personal experiences to pose questions that might enable us to better respond to the realities of these issues. How do people construct productive work-life routines, identities, and conditions under trying circumstances? How do we communicate in different work-life realms such as (a) when family members go off to war (as my Brendan, did); (b) when teenagers drag you along kicking and screaming into their struggles for adulthood (as my Lisette did); and (c) when parents wonder, as I do, if they have done all that they can to prepare their children and others for life (as I do with all my children, including my two youngest, Annie and Robyn, and my students)? And to expand this discussion beyond my own life experiences, how do people whom we call the working poor, homeless, runaways, estranged family members, elderly without adequate pensions or medical care, grandparents and parents who have lost children to crime, accidents, and illness or disease, and many others communicate about work-life? If we broaden our focus to investigate and envision work-life challenges across the lifespan for diverse others in the fullest sense of the term diversity—then, then, perhaps, we truly respond to Erika’s challenge—why is communicating about work-life so difficult?

Author’s Note

Given the personal nature of this essay, I have elected not to include specific citations and references. Readers who would like to have a list of references to research and popular materials on the topics mentioned in this essay should contact Patrice Buzzanell at .

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