Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Babies at Work in Arizona

A recent article in the Arizona Daily Star profiles the Arizona Department of Health Services, which has a bring-baby-to-work policy. (Read the whole story here.) Included are interviews with moms and dads who have taken advantage of the program, as well as one mom for whom the arrangement didn't work. Here's an excerpt:

Don Herrington, bureau chief of epidemiology disease control, acknowledges that he was skeptical early on.

"My initial thought was that infants at work would require lots of attention from Mom and Dad, and it would be disastrous from a productivity perspective. Then I thought, with crying and other noises babies make, that it could be disruptive for the rest of the staff."

Herrington kept his concerns to himself, though, and closely watched what happened when the first mom came through. He found that workers were happier after seeing the baby. Morale went up. The staffers interacted more.

Plus, he said, the presence of a baby helped to reaffirm all the things his department preaches about health, from immunizations to hand-washing. "It brings home why we do the things we do," he said.

Now Herrington is one of the program's biggest boosters, saying he has yet to receive a complaint.

"It was 180 degrees just opposite of what I expected."

More interesting than the article, though, were some of the responses readers posted online. Like Herrington, it seems, many people leap to conclusions without ever having actually encountered a baby in an office, which makes much of the discussion a typical online exercise in vitriolic responses to hypothetical situations.

There is some balance, including at least one reader who admits to having worked with two babies, one of which worked out well, and the other of which didn't, and concludes that it depends on the baby and the mom and the coworkers and the workplace. Well, um, yeah.

But the thing that always strikes me in discussions like this is the utter fanaticism people bring to their work--or at least to talking about their work. I like to think I'm pretty hard-core (or, at least pretty hard-core for working part-time at a nonprofit): I check my work email pretty compulsively, sometimes embarrassingly so, I think about work in the shower and the car and sometimes even in my sleep. Heck, I went back three weeks after having a damn baby, because I missed it and knew there was work that wasn't getting done while I was gone. And I've always sort of been that way; at my very first summer job, tending a turnstile at a zoo, it was weeks before I really learned how to lighten up and take all the break time I was entitled to, not to mention the whole half hour for lunch. I figured, it only took five minutes to eat my sandwich, why not get back to work? Which, in retrospect, was idiotic, and I did figure that out eventually, though I never got really good at playing the system.

But some of these folks are, I think, robots. For example, the person who writes, "People go to work to make a living and give their utmost to their employer ... not to attend a nursery function."

I'm with her on the "to make a living" part, and I would maybe add "to contribute to something larger than themselves" and "to feel a sense of purpose," but I think the idea of going to work for the purpose of giving your "utmost to your employer" is a little wacko. I mean, assuming you're a good worker, you probably do it anyway, but is it really why you go to work?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Office Mom's New Guilty Little Secret

OK, deep breath. True confession time.

I've been letting the Working Baby watch DVDs at work when nobody else is in the office.

It gets worse: she does this in another room from where my desk is, because that's the only computer at our little nineteenth-century nonprofit that actually plays DVDs. So it's not even interactive television-watching, the kind that, I read somewhere once, actually gets a semi-free pass. Alas, I put the disk in, hit play, and flee.

I know, it's awful.

And I totally got busted, too; the kid's no dummy (yet--wait til she's brain-dead from watching tv), and now gravitates to that computer more than ever, pointing at it while she yells "Big Bird" and lolls her head back and forth in a dance move she apparently picked up from Stevie Wonder.

"No, no Big Bird," I told her yesterday, wandering out there to pick up papers from the printer.

"That's what that means," said Administrative Assistant (for whom, sadly, I won't come up with a nifty nickname before she leaves, having quit). "I knew that wasn't a game we play."

Nope. Because rotting brains out is a privilege reserved for mom.

I exaggerate, of course. I don't actually think it's the worst thing in the world for the Working Baby to watch a bit of the Jungle Book or Sesame Street in the early evening when the office is empty and I'm trying to finish up some work. I mean, we do (gasp) watch some television at home, and I'm sure if I were a stay-at-home mom we would watch even more than we do--and we don't even have cable. (Because there are, it turns out, a lot of hours in the day to fill. And television, unlike museums and most errands, is free.) But the pbs morning lineup includes Sesame Street, which is actually pretty fun for everyone to watch. And, as Dad, Esq., points out, we both watched television growing up, and we're doing reasonably ok in life. (By the way, we recently bought the "Old School" Sesame Street DVDs, and if we're ok having watched those--I swear, the first episode has a segment about prepositions that shows kids playing hide-and-seek in what appears to be a junkyard, not to mention the naked Ernie drying off from his bath with Bert's help and the creepy framing story in which Gordon invites a little girl up to his apartment for milk and cookies--well, then, kids today should be fine, if over-Elmo'd.)

Do I wish the Working Baby knew more names of real people, like the people she sees every day in the office, and fewer of Sesame Street characters? Well, yes, of course. But mostly, I guess, I'm just glad she's not into Barney or the Teletubbies.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Working Baby Starts Earning Her Keep

Sure, we've had random moments of helpfulness--she will sometimes take things to the garbage, or fetch her hat or scarf, or carry something to someone, or pick up the pens and paperclips she spilled on the floor (and yes, thank you, I know that paper clips do not make the best toys for a baby, but it's also true that they'll keep a baby busy for a long, long time, and that's the name of this game, most days)--but this week I feel we made real progress.

In a flurry of unpacking and packing to get ready for a conference, we ended up with bags full of styrofoam peanuts and broken-down boxes and other stuff that was taking up too much space in the office. So, on my way out one afternoon, I grabbed a couple of the bags, which were piled up near the door, and turned--with great pride--to see that the Working Baby was tugging down one of her own, which she refused to let go of (because let's face it, she's coming up on two, and head-shaking is her new hobby). So she carried it down the door and down the hallway and tried to carry it down the stairs. And then she hauled that bag down the street, held high, around the corner and almost all the way to the dumpster.

So, my question is, how long until I can make the case that we should be paying her? Or maybe I should start keeping a volunteer log for her? Clearly, the way college admissions is going, by the time she's seventeen it can only help to prove she's been volunteering productively since she was a year and a half old. . . .

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Working Babies in Time Magazine!

The January 3 Time Magazine had a story about bringing babies to work, with quotes from Carla Moquin, who has just founded a Parenting in the Workplace Institute. I've been emailing with Carla, and she's compiling a database of companies that have had babies: the list is up to 70, but she's always looking for more!

The article's best quote was from a baby-friendly business owner who said, "I don't think a baby is more distracting than talk about Dancing with the Stars or your weekend."


How (and How Not) to Babyproof a Bookcase

This is for all you do-it-yourself types out there who are working in the kinds of offices where you build your own furniture. (My desk, as you can see, is basically a big board balanced on some filing cabinets. But hey, at least it's real wood and not particleboard...)

But I digress. Today's topic is how to protect your books once the baby starts becoming mobile. And since the end goal of my work is basically to sell books, you'll understand why this was such a big concern for me. Because sure enough, once the Working Baby started inching herself across the floor and off the blanket I used to put down behind my chair, the first place she headed was to the big bookcase full of our merch, and when she got there she would reach out her tiny little hand and tug at a book until it was on the floor with her. And then she would want to gum the edges. But no one, even the biggest baby-lover in the world, wants to buy a book that's been drooled on. So it was pretty clear I needed to do something, and there simply wasn't enough shelf space in the office to just remove everything from the lower shelves (though it's true I've also sort of done that, with some of the shelves).

Now, there are some excellent babyproofing products out there--for example, the kit for covering up the front of your hard drive so the toddler doesn't try to load crackers into the CD tray--but nothing for bookcases. So, one time while my dad was in town, the Office Mom headed to Lowe's to try to cobble something together.

The requirements were, basically, that the solution had to be reasonably attractive and stymie a baby without keeping adults out of the shelves. I planned to babyproof the big bookcase with all the books we sell, and the bottom section of another bookcase that held some not crucially important stuff, but stuff that needed not to get drooled on. You know: office stuff.

Originally I had been thinking along the lines of a wood frame with fabric over it that could be somehow attached to the frame of the bookcase. My dad was thinking velcro attached to some screen. And the more he talked up the wonders of heavy-duty velcro (my dad occasionally works on location for television and movies, and so while not a furniture builder by any means, he knows some tricks for making things look ok on the surface, at least for long enough to get the shot), the more I was sold. Plus, it was less work.

So here's what I did, one afternoon after the regular work day, while the baby was napping:
  • cut screen to fit the bottom three feet of the shelf, with the top and bottom edges falling at actual shelves.
  • cut velcro to go on the sides of the bookcase (it should be noted here that heavy-duty velcro is pretty darn sticky, and you may need to take extreme action to get the velcro backing off, down the road. If you happen to work in the kind of office where that would matter. Which I, lucky girl, sort of don't. Not that I advocate gratuitously trashing office furniture, or anything.)
  • attached the screen to the other side of the velcro
What was unexpectedly difficult about this:
  • cutting the velcro. Your standard rinky-dink office scissors just ... well, you get it.
How the system was supposed to work:
  • you unvelcro one of the sides to gain access to the books
What really happened:
  • Despite the super-stickiness of the velcro backing, the screen didn't stick to it. Not enough heft, maybe, or just not enough surface area. In retrospect, this makes sense.
  • Because the screen wasn't really stuck, the velcro--that is to say, the ripping--didn't really work.
  • Instead, when you went to open the bookcase, you were basically unsticking the screen from the backing on the velcro,
  • which, over time, predictably enough, stopped being sticky.
How I tried to fix this:
  • lamely, taking shortcuts
  • in other words, by adding, first, some black electrical tape and, when that didn't really stick, yet more velcro to the other side of the screen
  • and when that stopped working, with a push pin.
  • also, by adding some tiny little bits of velcro to the shelves on the top and bottom of the screen, with electrical tape to back them
What it looked like:

Meanwhile, as the screen was slowly drooping away from the velcro, the baby was growing and getting more clever at wiggling her arm behind the screen to pull out books. She was by now old enough not to eat them--she mostly wanted to empty the shelf and make piles of books, a developmentally but not otherwise appropriate behavior.

The other shelf I had covered was worse, since--having sort of run out of screen--I had covered only one shelf. Here's what it looked like:

Yeah: horrible. So, a couple of weeks ago I sucked it up and started over. Well, at least I bought supplies for starting over; what I ended up doing was ripping all the velcro off the screen and re-velcroing it all, but on both sides. I even made a handy extension on the side we tend to open, to facilitate the ripping. And, where the dorky little pieces of tape had been, I folded velcro over the edges and on to itself. (These, alas, are showing some signs of not staying stuck, so I may need to revisit this part of the plan.)

Pictures coming soon.

In general, I would say you might not bother with this at home, unless you have a lot of bookcases and you just can't keep the baby away from the books. We found, actually, that the Working Baby was reliably terrified by a rainstick--like a primal reaction, or something--and so we propped that by the shelves for a while until she lost interest. Also, I don't neglect her at home to the same extent I do at work. . . . Now that I think of it, all you folks who work from home with babies around might want to up the babyproofing. Because, of course, the whole point of babyproofing is so you don't have to watch the baby so closely, right?