I was determined to not write about how the Washington metropolitan area dealt with its first snowfall: the story has been written often enough that the area does not deal well with the white stuff. I also decided that I did not want to be one of the sad statistics, so after the school-work drop-offs, I stayed indoors, watched as the snow started to fall and waited to hear if I would need to make a run back to either or both places to do pick up.
Today’s Washington Post (see Petula Dvorak’s piece on working parents snowed under) flagged one issue that has bothered me a lot about how these ’emergency’ situations are dealt with, not just here in the DC/MD/VA area, but in general. During our recent stint abroad, on the bucolic isle of Barbados, the main things that had parents scurrying were water or electricity outages. News would often come on radio that area A or school B had no water or was without power and that children needed to be collected early. Good, if you heard the message, I often thought. But what if you did not? Were the schools set up to call or contact all parents or responsible adult and even if they did what would happen if no one could go to collect the children? There, the problem was excessive heat or simple lack of water–touching on whether children or workers could survive. When it snows here, it’s not clear that the need to move children or close offices has anything to do with difficulties of sustaining life.
Being in the fortunate position of not working for anyone but yourself, especially, from home, means that you can more easily drop what you are doing to deal with such instances. Not always, though. But, there is an expectation that you can. This expectation is not specific to any gender, but quite general. If you can deal with the sudden need to collect, then what? The interruption may not be temporary and many will know how they have to refocus or reorganize to get back to whatever was in hand. We take it for granted that we can do it, but for those who cannot it is the start of some dire experience.
If your employer has allowed you to go, has the firm also allowed you to stay away for the rest of the day? Not everyone can transfer their office work to work at home. Those of us who are professionals forget often that the workforce has many people who work in process industries, or work shifts, or cannot leave for a range of reasons. This is a conundrum that many do not understand. In the same way that an employer, no matter all the sympathetic words about work-life balance, often balks at the notion of your not being present. Face-time and effective work are not the same, but yet many managers cannot distinguish and their need to see staff, or have them at their beck and call, will always be a barrier.
But, the world has become structured around the work and school days, and things that break that pattern cause more than a little chaos. Train and bus schedules may not be flexible. Everyone heading for the highways early often means a longer and more arduous drive home. I long understood the decision taken by some school districts to be cautious and close early, so that they could organize in a calmer way. Needing to mobilize the school bus system in an emergency cannot be easy an cannot be fun.
We all know about the inconvenience that comes because we have to change our routines, but it’s one of the burdens to accept for having become so civilized and developed that we are not just living in a small locale, but have our activities spread over large geographical areas. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that the thing to do is unravel the complex world that we have spent years building. So, we live with what we have created.