The reactions to his announcement have ranged from reflections on the irony that a woman candidate for speaker would have never dared condition her acceptance on making time for her family, to charges of hypocrisy in light of Ryan’s repeated opposition to legislation providing for paid family leave for all families. He does support the Working Families Flexibility Act, which would allow workers to earn leave time instead of overtime pay when they work extra hours.
I strongly support paid family leave, as well as paid maternity and paternity leave, but it would be folly to let ideological differences obscure the value of the Wisconsin Republican’s public commitment to his family.
To begin with, Ryan is affirming that it is fine, indeed desirable, for men to acknowledge both their responsibility and their desire to play as active a role as possible in raising their children. He follows here in the shoes of President Obama, who has insisted on making time to have dinner with his wife and daughters in the White House and has been criticized, as some are now criticizing Ryan, for not being sufficiently committed to his job.
But how a leader meets his or her family responsibilities is a test of character; raising children is not a woman’s job but a parent’s job. Moreover, a leader who has a close and loving family will have a strong foundation for everything he or she does professionally.
Second, if the Republican caucus accepts Ryan’s conditions and names him speaker, he will have demonstrated that all-consuming jobs can in fact be made less so to attract the best talent. Imagine if every worker in America could say to his or her boss: “I’d like to do this job and think I could do it well if we could design it in a way that will also allow me to spend time with my family.”
Job shares would suddenly become much more attractive, as would working from home some of the time. Work days would be defined not in terms of some predetermined number of hours, but by how long it takes an efficient worker to get a day’s worth of work done.
But here is what else Ryan could do to advance the cause of workers who also raise children, or care for their own parents and other family members, all without spending a dime.
He could celebrate his wife Janna Ryan as the lead parent in their family, affirming that her work raising their three children is just as important for the future of the country as his work.
Investing time, energy, and knowledge in our future citizens will determine not only what they know when they become adults but what they will be capable of learning and doing for the rest of their lives. We now know that children’s brains develop throughout their childhood and that the stimulation they receive actually creates the amount of gray matter they will rely on throughout adulthood.
The speaker-to-be could make clear that his wife was a tax attorney and lobbyist before she became a full-time lead parent and that her time at home will not wipe out the value of her earlier education and experience, and indeed in many ways will augment it.
He could exhort the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to urge all their members to emulate Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and start “returnship” programs for women whose children have now left the house and who are eager to go back to full-time paid work with the prospect of promotion ahead of them. Indeed, he could measure the value of that talent pool when added back into the national GDP.
Finally, Ryan could praise the growing number of male lead parents who may be working full-time, as many working mothers are, but have deferred promotions or decided to work on a project basis so that they could anchor the home front. They take on the lead parent role precisely to allow their wives or husbands to accept jobs requiring extensive travel and inflexible time commitments, just as Janna Ryan has done.
Indeed, Ryan could highlight the growing number of military men who have become lead parents, often after a long deployment, to give their wives or husbands a turn to advance their careers. In 2012, former submariner Jeremy Hilton was named the first male “military spouse of the year” by Military Spouse Magazine. Hilton left the Navy to care for the couple’s disabled daughter; his wife Renae is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. She is a still a rare breed now, but if women are to advance in our Armed Forces they will need the same support at home from their spouses that their fellow male officers receive from their wives.
In Washington “leaving to spend time with your family” has traditionally been a euphemism for being fired, so much so that when Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy stepped down in December 2011 after four years of service to spend more time with her teenagers, the Pentagon spokesman had to make clear that the Pentagon loved her and did not want her to go.
Similarly, many commentators initially scoffed at Ryan’s invocation of his desire to be with his family as nothing more than a cover for his presumed reluctance to take on a politically toxic job.
So here’s a radical idea. Let’s redefine family values to value time actually spent with family, for men and women alike and for all families: Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, gay or straight, biological or constructed. And let’s adapt 21st century jobs to make that possible.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president and CEO of New America, which focuses on the renewal of politics in the digital age. She was the first woman director of Policy Planning at the State Department and is the professor emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. She just wrote e a new book, “Unfinished Business.”