First, let us get the known but essential details out of the way.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has become what a lot of people consider the solution to the Republican Party's potentially very big and very messy problem in the House. Still, Ryan is reluctant to vie for the House speaker job. He has reminded colleagues and reporters that he is a married man with three young children with whom, because of his existing work in D.C., he already spends only weekends. The New York Times reported that in recent years, current Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), the man who wants out of the job, spent as many as 200 days a year en route to fundraisers or fundraising somewhere.
For Ryan, it's hard to imagine how the two travel patterns would not conflict.
Now, let's turn the page.
There's almost nothing about Ryan's conundrum that Americans haven't heard before. In fact, work-life balance is about two days away from joining the list of arguably meaningless cliches. More than a few public figures — particularly lawmakers — have used the old "resigning to spend more time with my family" excuse for bowing out of some political race or office. Oftentimes, the excuse seems dubious.
And most of Ryan's own House colleagues seemed to have all but dismissed his family life concerns. Look closely at all those stories about which lawmaker has said what to Ryan to convince him to take the job. Not many have bothered to share a thought — at least in print — on how one might be speaker and a good father to three young children. Translation: Ryan should be more like them. He should leave the bulk of family responsibilities and relationship-building to his wife or the hired help a rising career can buy.
The truth is, there's almost nothing about Ryan's dilemma that many working parents don't know. The real and important difference here is that this time, this is a conversation that is kind of, sort of, being had about a man.
Let's admit at least this much: The way we think and talk about family life and work generally stays in some well-known territory.
First, there's child-care costs. For a middle-income family with a child born in 2013, feeding, clothing, educating and caring for that child into adulthood will cost over $300,000. That's after inflation. The figure is $241,080 before it. But lest anyone comfort themselves with the idea that we must be talking about the cost of raising a family in a big, glamorous city or a childhood with all manner of lessons and camps and enrichment activities, check out and use this useful government calculator. It's digital birth control. For real.
Here's just a taste. Check out the full report here.
But that math often leads to the second topic America likes to cover on the occasion that family and work responsibilities are discussed. This is the one where people ask in the most obtuse fashion possible why so many mothers are leaving or have left the workforce (43 percent) and what on Earth can be done about it.
The answer is beyond simple. Most women still make less than men. That's especially true for mothers. And when those who have a different-sex partner or husband sit down and do the math on child care costs and all the other items in that graphic above (we strongly suggest you check out the full thing), for some, work stops making much immediate financial sense.
When all else fails, there's the inevitable trend story or I-know-a guy-who-knows-a-guy dinner discussion about the virtual sprinkle of men who have become stay-at-home dads. This group may be on its way to becoming a small puddle. But let's not pretend that the stay-at-home dads (a large share of which are, despite the content of most of most of those trend stories, black) have become common. They are important but remain relatively rare.
As Ann Ann Marie Slaughter's Atlantic Magazine article and her book-length look at family and work issues have made plain, people are struggling and in many cases really distressed by this challenge. They are interested in these issues. And there's a lot of evidence that as Slaughter's book puts it, we need to rethink, reframe and, yes, revalue care (child care, family care, family time and relationship building) itself.
Someone is sure to point out that Ryan's children are well past the swaddling and wake-up-at-night stage. That's true. But think long and hard about the implications of that idea, particularly if you are someone's boss.
Ryan, a man in his mid-40s, has young kids. He is part of a younger generation of fathers who, while they do not match the time put in by their children's mothers, are spending more time with their kids and doing at least a little more housework than fathers in the past. Is that really something to discourage?
And all politics and policy aside, anyone who has given the most cursory read to any child development research knows that children benefit from healthy, sustained and reliable contact with both their parents and, when possible, extended family. Certainly, Ryan has spent some enough time on Capitol Hill to see the sometimes sad results of another path. Is there any other professional community besides perhaps Hollywood where struggles with troubled and out-of-control children or rocky marriages are the subject of so many knowing jokes?
Moreover, Ryan is a man who came to his family life with a personal history that, at the very least, has given him real reason to be deliberate. Ryan found his own father, an apparently hard-charging lawyer, dead of a heart attack in his bed when Ryan was just 16. At that point, as Ryan's older brother told the New York Times, his older siblings were away at college. Ryan's mother went back to school. And his grandmother, who lived with the family, had reached the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease. Before Ryan even left high school, he experienced the toll of a sudden and early death and a slow, merciless one.
Is it really any wonder Ryan's wife said in an August interview that Ryan's time with his family is "his oxygen?"
Now, Ryan's biggest critics would no doubt argue that Ryan's budget ideas haven't advanced the work-life balance cause, particularly for families with less money than his own. But whatever happens, the Ryan conundrum should make this much clear.
In the United States, talent is squandered, opportunities are missed and maybe even the common good sacrificed every day because hard choices like Ryan's too often have to be made.