There is a 2-year-old under my desk

Sylvia Estrada Claudio
Does it get in the way of work to have so many children running around? No, once the office culture adjusts.

I just ended a 6-year term as Director of the UP Center for Women’s Studies. It has been a busy time. The last few weeks have been filled with finishing projects, putting new initiatives on hold, packing up, and saying goodbye. 

It is also a time when I am beginning to think about what has been accomplished and what was not.  Like any normal person, I would like to be able to say that some of the accomplishments were innovative or at least, unique.

The day before I finally left, I was given an inkling of perhaps one of those accomplishments that may be groundbreaking. I had to say goodbye to a 2-year-old. 

Sugo has been my office mate from the day he was born. Well, technically, he has been my office mate from the day his mother came back to work from her maternity leave. I had to ensure that he would not be upset when he comes to work this week to find someone else in my office. (We have two other office mates in a similar situation, Arya and Queen. But Arya’s mother has been on vacation leave. Queen went home with her mother to Dinagatan. So it was only Sugo to whom I could say goodbye.)

Sharing reproductive work

One of the goals of feminism is to ensure support for child rearing. Studies across cultures and societies show that women are differentially burdened by this vital social function. Development studies (both of the human development kind and the social development kind) have repeatedly shown that mothers, children, families and societies are better served if child rearing becomes a collective social effort rather than the private burden of one woman.

These studies also show that even as women have made tremendous strides in sharing the workplace with men, there have been far fewer successes in shared child rearing. Working outside the home has led to many positive outcomes for women and their families But it has resulted in what has been called women’s “double burden.” Women work as many hours outside the home as men but have to add a significant number of work hours when they get home.

Given this, one of my strategic goals as an administrator was to ensure a child-friendly work environment.

Typically our office is composed of women and men in various life stages. Thus, “child” in our office could also mean Leloy (now a PhD),  Ani (medical student), NJ, MJ and Sky (all in grade school).  Oh well, lest any “baby” feel slighted I should also name Aemon, Ina, Ian, Basil, and Redd – all of whom have spent the last 6 years coming and going to our office. (We also have Godwin, the dog.)

Our Deputy Director for Training and Outreach, Dr. Tess Batangan, is also one of our best child development experts. One of her conditions for working with me was that she could integrate her child rearing tasks with her work. She and her husband are idols in this regard, because they “walk their talk”. Unusual for a middle class Filipino couple, they have raised their children without yayas (nannies) while building two successful careers.

Newborns in the office

Thus there have always been children running about in our office. Our 6-year experiment with a child-friendly work space has proven to me that the most burdensome part of such a policy was last week when, amid the hustle and bustle, I had to strategize and implement saying goodbye to Sugo. But it may well have been burdensome only because I know I will miss him and the other “babies.”

The most challenging period was when Arya and Sugo were born on the same year. Arya came first and, as it was our first time to have an infant come in, it took a bit of doing. We set aside a baby room; brought in a comfortable old chair for breastfeeding; bought a bassinet and some blankets; and put in soft rubber flooring. A total expense of a thousand pesos. Arya’s mom brought in her desk and computer from her previous work area.

We were hoping that when Sugo came, he and Arya could share the baby room. But our babies had very different personalities. Perhaps, sensing that she was in a feminist setting, Arya was a go-getter from the very beginning. Sugo, on the other hand, was our Bodhisattva. Quiet, introspective, in need of peace. And so, our babies needed their own single rooms. As we certainly had no more rooms to spare, we set up bookshelves as dividers in our large administration section. In this set-apart space, Sugo and his mother stayed, until Sugo decided he would become as outgoing as Arya.

By the time Sugo and Arya turned a year old, their mothers had returned to their usual work spaces bringing their babies along with them. The baby room that Arya left was subsequently taken over by Queen. As Queen is now a one-year-old based in Dinagatan, the baby room is now our counseling room.

Increasing morale and productivity 

I noticed when Arya came that morale and conviviality increased immediately. For one thing, all of us had an instant remedy for stress.  Feeling a little irritated? Go find Arya and give her a little cuddle. Stuck with your writing task? Go clear your head by watching Arya for a while. Lunch break? Let’s all go and enjoy that baby. One of our office mates who usually stays in her own little corner became chatty with all of us because her claim to superiority was that only she could make Arya stop crying. 

No one really wanted to absent themselves and miss their daily dose of Arya. When people had to absent themselves they always expressed regret because they would miss her. Anyone who has experienced the phenomenon called, “newborn in the house” knows I am not exaggerating. Arya (and then Sugo and then Queen) made us feel good about ourselves. One of my fondest memories will be of one of our interns pushing an imperious Queen around in a chair.

Because their mothers chose, Arya and Sugo are completely breast-fed babies. All our babies have the advantage of the early exercise of social skills with a wide range of adults and other children. All our babies have the advantage of knowing what an office is and how it works. Their parents’ work is not a mystifying activity in an unknown place that takes their parents away from them.  All of them understand what a library is because our library has children’s books for them. The kind of books that speak to our values – tolerance, non-aggression, care for the environment, gender diversity, etc. For Sky and MJ who are nephews rather than sons, for Queen who is our utility worker’s grand daughter, their aunts’ or grandma’s ability to supplement their parenting is increased several-fold. 

A child-friendly office culture

Does it get in the way of work to have so many children running around? No, once the office culture adjusts. I have often sat in meetings where one of the participants would excuse himself for 15 to 30 minutes to take or make an important phone call. How different is that from when one of us has to be excused to go pick up her kid/s from school? Besides, we can schedule meetings around those chores. I have learned not to look for our administrative officer between 4 and 4:30 pm because she is fetching MJ. As for noise? Our kids, given their advantages,  are rather well-behaved and are not into any irritating and bratty stuff. They do get noisy when they play together. But that is usually in the corridors when they are entertaining each other and not bothering us in our rooms.

I know that many of the staff are over-qualified for their positions and that they could get higher pay elsewhere. But I am often told or overhear that the ability to mix reproductive work (childcare) with productive work is a valued benefit that mitigates the low pay. (This is not by the way an argument for using benefits to keep pay low. Another advocacy of our office is adequate pay PLUS benefits.) Indeed our baby-friendly policy has made UPCWS become fully compliant with several laws and labor standards during my term. 

The experience also taught me that, as child care is a daily task, all an administrator needs to do is provide the proper policy environment. Then the women (and men) who are doing the childcare at home will find the easiest, cheapest, and most appropriate way to bring their kids to work. Child-friendly spaces increase productivity, lessen work tensions and add to employee well-being. But even if it added nothing to our “bottom line” it would still be worthwhile because office work has become more pleasurable for us.

Baby office mate

I asked Sugo to help me pack my things. He was a bit upset that I was leaving and to see my office in disarray. But his unhappiness ended when I put him in one of the boxes and his mother and I pretended not to see him until he would pop out. When he got anxious again, I gave him my elephant paper weight (elephants are his absolute favorite) and a bit of incense. We put these in his own little packing box. He fell asleep that afternoon, beside his packing box,  explaining to his mother about how I was leaving my office to go to my other office and how he would go visit me there. 

I may no longer play a significant part in Sugo’s life after this. For that matter, I shall probably fade in the memories of the kids in my office who are not mine. But in addition to the honor of serving with their parents, aunts and grandmother, I shall have the fondest memories of these, my other office mates. They were so crucial to achieving my vision of a welcoming and nurturing office – not just for the public we serve, but also for us, the public servants. –

Sylvia Estrada-Claudio is a doctor of medicine who also holds a PhD in Psychology. She is Professor of the Department of Women and Development Studies, College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines. She is also co-founder and Chair of the Board of Likhaan Center for Women’s Health.













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