(Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

But appearances ... well, we know what they can be.

Much attention has focused on the more abstract notions of what it means to “have it all” and whether that’s even possible.

Debate has centered on questions such as, “Can a highly educated professional women reach the pinnacle of her career and still be an involved parent?”

The other conversation has rolled its eyes at the idea of “all” and asked earthier questions like: “What does the average parent need to cover the basics? What policies would allow more parents who work and have families to, not soar, but manage? What policies are needed to protect those on the lower end of the wage scale?”

Advocates from across the country working on this second set of questions happen to be in Washington this week, gathering for a summit and lobbying for more humane work-family policies.

Among them are a school nurse from Massachusetts who said she joined the fight for paid leave after seeing too many children dropped off at school sick because their parents couldn’t afford to take the day from work to care from them, and a mother from New Jersey who had to quit the job she needed to care for her sick son.

“People want to be good family members and responsible employees, and we need new rules to allow them to do both effectively,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a group coordinating the gathering.

They plan to lobby for benefits such as guaranteed earned paid sick days and paid leave.

Another of their primary objectives is to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover more employees and recognize a wider range of family obligations. (FMLA currently mandates that employers with 50 or more employees provide for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new baby or other family member.)

One of the main problems for advocates of these policies is that the decision-makers are often blind to how difficult it is for a parent in a low-wage, benefit-free job.

They can find debates over work-life balance issues — whether an administration official should be allowed to telecommute or if lawyers should be billed by the hour any more — to be a waste of time.

Bravo, for instance, recently wrote an opinion piece in response to Slaughter’s article titled “‘H aving it All?’ — The Wrong Question for Most Women.”

Is it? Not necessarily.

Part of Slaughter’s argument in her piece was that if more mothers could reach the upper ranks of leadership in this country, women like the nurse from Massachusetts would be better heard, and policies like paid sick leave would become standard.

There is also the unspoken reality that “having it all” for the vast majority of American parents really just means making it work most of the time, paying the bills and being able to help with homework or tend to a sick kid.

The fact that few of us can do this consistently and without feeling exhausted is an issue for everyone. Parents all along the spectrum need more flexibility, workplace benefits and protections. Agitation for change on this front, from top down or down up, is a step in the right direction.

What do you think? What is the best route to creating more family-friendly workplace policies in the United States?

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