Jeanne— had an iron will and a brilliant mind that drew admiration, respect and criticism—but not often love. When she died in her 90s, colleagues at her funeral service eulogized her with shocking bluntness. Only one person said anything kind, and he seemed to be reaching. In the back of the chapel with my infant son in a stroller, I had no answer for the affronted mortuary worker who leaned toward me and whispered indignantly, "What is wrong with these people?"
Most had wondered for years what was wrong with her. Yet months before her death, I photographed Jeanne holding my baby. Wow, did she look different. Being that close to a newborn made her look . . . well, nice. Had she been exposed to more infants during her long, work-driven life, perhaps Jeanne might have softened a little, become a nicer person. Who knows.
Anecdotes abound regarding the transformative powers of a baby. So it doesn't surprise me that in a small but growing number of workplaces, babies are helping transform bosses and co-workers into more genuinely related communities of people. It's part of the Babies to Work movement, in which mothers get to work while caring for their babies at the workplace for six months.
"This is going to be a movement that is really good for everybody," says Joan Blades, cofounder of MomsRising.org, representing mothers (and those born of mothers) in the policy arena. "It offers a work-life integration that makes sense, and companies say that it has been good for their bottom line. It creates community within the workplace. And a lot of those who thought they wouldn't like it really do."
The Babies to Work program is only one of dozens of strategies being used to change the way work is done, says Blades, presently writing a book about the need to restructure American work. Many of the changes Blades calls for have to do with the time framework in which people are expected to do their jobs; presently, it doesn't mesh with many people's lives.
"My ideal is to bring work into the 21st century," she says, "because it is not keeping up with the reality of the workers' lives." By addressing the issues impacting moms and families in the workplace, Moms Rising is leading a push for change that will benefit everyone, whether or not they have kids. In addition to the ability to take babies to work, suggestions include flexible scheduling, telecommuting, job sharing, career customization, part-time options and "on-ramps" for parents who take time away from work. "We need to think intelligently about how to structure work," says Blades. "Right now, we are making it really hard."
Out of 170 countries worldwide, only four do not provide paid leave for new mothers. The United States is one of them. While California was the first state to pass legislation providing paid family leave, Moms Rising, started in 2006 and with now over 1 million members, is lobbying for paid family leave in the rest of the country. Members are also responsible for helping advance the proposed Healthy Families Act, which aims to provide paid sick leave. Sadly, a disproportionately large number of women can't afford to stay home when they are sick or when a family member is sick.
"There is a profound bias against mothers in hiring, wages and advancement," explains Blades. "You have to look at how single mothers are earning 60 cents to an equally educated man's dollar, and married moms are earning 73 cents. So there is a deeper bias against single moms than against mothers who are married, and this has a huge impact on a family's economic security. It's a good explanation of why we have so many women and children living in poverty." When I asked Blades what people could do to help, she said, "I'm telling everyone to join Moms Rising. We're about changing the culture and policies so families can thrive."
Meanwhile, I have advice for those workplace infants: Your job is to be yourselves, innocent and disarming, and to help transform the personalities of seemingly unlovable people everywhere. Babies, we need you.