Work and Family: One Size Does Not Fit All


No ‘cookie-cutter’ solutions: Family expert Charmaine Yoest says creativity, flexibility are keys to resolving work/family issues

Charmaine Yoest acknowledges that creative solutions to juggling work and family are never easy. “That’s part of why I study it as an issue.”

By Elizabeth Kiem [from May 14, 2004]

Charmaine Yoest, a doctoral candidate in U.Va.’s Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, is an up-and-coming young expert on family policy issues.


Charmaine Yoest

Photo by Andrew Shurtleff By normal counts, her 10 years at the University have been hyper-productive: Her papers on the subject are prolific, as are her media appearances, congressional testimonies and academic presentations. She has written a book on working mothers and is completing a second on parental leave policies.

But Yoest’s career must be viewed in the context of a not-so-typical doctoral student’s family life — she is the 39-year-old mother of five children, ranging from age 10 to infancy.

“I hope it’s inspirational to some,” she said of her ability to pursue her studies and career even with a full capacity mini-van. “Obviously I couldn’t do what I’ve done unless my husband was willing to live a nontraditional life as well.”

Yoest acknowledges that her domestic situation, with close family near by to step into the child-care breach and a husband willing to reduce his workload significantly to help raise children, has been unusually conducive to her career. Nonetheless, she would like to see more families adopt a “nontraditional lifestyle” to accommodate childrearing and professional equality among the parents.

There is such an emphasis on work and family that sometimes the family gets lost because people are so focused on ‘how can we facilitate work? she said.

A regular on the political talk-shows, Yoest is careful with her words, aware of just how politicized the debate has become. She is quick to emphasize that her pro-family stance in no way negates her advocacy for women to pursue careers and advanced education, as she has done. The mission, she says, is to find creative ways to do both — and women require the participation of spouses and employers to do so.

Continue reading at the jump.


Thank you (foot)notes:

Originially published by UVA Insider May 2004.

Yoest sees great potential in the United States for a new work/family order. She says an emphasis on entrepreneurialism encourages former breadwinners like her husband to try free-lancing. Flexible schedules are increasingly available to American parents, she says, even outside academia. Yoest sees these trends as a more promising solution than uniform paid-maternity-leave mandates — even the generous policies common in European countries.

“More and more women are looking at their three-month-old, or year-old child, and saying they don’t want to go back to their previous work circumstance,” she said.

In fact, Yoest’s current research project is a national study of paid parental leave in academia. Her early findings show that less than one-fifth of higher education institutions provide paid leave for new mothers, and half of those are elite private institutions. Yoest herself never took maternity leave, finding that her academic responsibilities could be managed even with young children.

“It’s never easy,” she said of creative solutions to the work/family conundrum, “that’s part of why I study it as an issue.”

Yoest says her colleagues at U.Va., particularly her adviser Steven Rhoades, have been supportive of her decision to raise a large family.

“U.Va. has been amazingly good to me. I’m so fortunate to have landed here,” she said.

One of two children of academics, Yoest jokes that she is the family’s “black sheep” because she didn’t get her Ph.D. sooner. She has fond memories of proofreading her mother’s dissertation on the linguistics of presidential debates, and takes pleasure in the fact that she graduated from Wheaton College in 1986, the same year her grandmother received a master’s degree in divinity.

“I told people when I got started that my goal was to be done by the time I was 40, and they just looked horrified,” she laughed, “but I’m right on target.” Yoest defended her dissertation at U.Va. in April.

Underlying a comprehensive C.V., high-powered credentials and a demanding family life, is a remarkably relaxed woman. If Yoest is a role model, she is one who abhors being asked for a blueprint for success and puts a certain amount of faith in fate. She eschews what she calls “cookie-cutter” solutions and encourages creative solutions for individuals and their families.

“You make your decisions, put your family first and then things kind of fall after that. You can’t always figure out how it’s going to work out.”


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