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January - the 'cruelest month' for working parents?

Passengers heading home from Boston on a commuter train one Friday evening this month heard an unfamiliar voice announcing the stops. "Roslindale, Bellevue, Highland," a young girl called out with gusto as each station approached. Commuters laughed, aware that this was a snow day and that the student-turned-conductor had accompanied a parent to work.

She was not the only child on the train that day. One boy, about 8, explained that he had spent the snow day watching videos in his father's office. Two young sisters went to work with their mother, coloring, reading, and waiting for a fast-food lunch. Another boy complained about "too many meetings."

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For T. S. Eliot, April was the cruelest month. For many working parents, the dubious award goes to January and February, when a one-two-three punch of snow days, holidays (Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day), and winter vacation week can ruin the best-laid child-care plans. Although a few companies now provide emergency backup care on such occasions, most parents must rely on ingenuity to create a patchwork of substitute care.

It's enough to make many of them long for more flexibility and more part-time jobs. Yet new research from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., shows that the workplace still overwhelmingly requires people to work full time or not at all. In surveys of 4,500 married couples, half of the women and 20 percent of the men said they would like to work part time. But only 20 percent of the women and 6 percent of the men did.

Couples spend more time at work than ever - an increase of seven hours a week in the past two decades. Despite technological advances, the demand for "face time" in the office still runs high.

In her new book, "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us," Danielle Crittenden describes the problem many mothers face: "Do you quit or keep working?" She sums up the dilemma. "For a working mother to admit to want to be with her children - or, worse, to say she'd rather be with them than at the office - is to question the continuing exhaustive efforts to make women equal to men in the work force; and not just equal in pay but, as the goal now is, equal in the hours they work, in the titles they hold, in the power they wield...."

To colleagues and bosses, Ms. Crittenden adds, "we've had to pretend that really nothing could be further from our minds than attending our daughter's school play when there are so many more important - and did we mention interesting? - tasks to be handled at work, tasks that will take until eight in the evening to finish."

This pretense comes at a price, Crittenden observes, requiring women to suppress, at least publicly, their deep maternal feelings and their ambivalence about being away from children for long hours. Although fathers play a role too, it is the kind of admission that can strike terror in the hearts of those who fear that any honest discussion of family needs at home will set back women's progress at work.

The Cornell research and Crittenden's questions offer useful reminders that work and family dilemmas are far from solved. For proof, just check with parents on the train, rolling their eyes in relief that they've made it through another snow day. And just ask their children, for whom the novelty of an improvised Take Our Children to Work Day could wear thin by the next snowstorm.

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