Building a Culture That Values Families, Rest, and Human Flourishing: An Interview with Rachel Anderson

Rachel Anderson is an attorney, mother of two, and Fellow at the Center for Public Justice, advocating for fair and family-supportive work. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed her on pro-family policies, rest, the pandemic, and meritocracy.

You’ve spent a great deal of time advocating for paid leave and other pro-family policies, but it seems like the cancer diagnosis you received last year, which you discuss in a recent Sojourners cover story, still transformed not just your life, but how you think about rest, human flourishing, and how policy fits in with some of these big questions. How has that experience reshaped your thinking?

The experience that propelled me into pro-family policy was maternity and motherhood. I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s widely circulated Atlantic piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” early in the morning after putting an infant to sleep for the second or third time, bleary-eyed yet still needing to get up for work the next day.

From the vantage of parenting, it seemed necessary to expand the timescope during which one’s job training or career unfolds so as to anticipate childbearing and childrearing as seasons within a whole working life. Establishing universal paid family leave advances this goal well. Were paid parental leave benefits and job protections universally available, it would provide parents with the resources they need to be present with their children and it would also help transform the template of an “ideal worker.” Rather than the unencumbered person who shows up the same way each day of their career, an ideal worker should be understood as one whose life includes seasons of time away from work in order to have children, raise a family, and take care of others periodically.

In some ways, experiencing cancer reinforced my views about work and care. At a minimum, having come to accept the value of caregiving through motherhood (contrary to the countervailing social pressure to value work over care), I have been more willing than I might otherwise have been to accept care and rest for myself. But, having recently completed the now-common battery of cancer treatments—surgery, chemotherapy, radiation –I’ve entered into a new, ill-defined state of convalescence about which my views are changing and, truly, are in formation. There is no “What to Expect When You’re Recovering” handbook…Some days, I can peer over the edge of illness into the world of health and vitality; others, I’m firmly planted in the place of exhaustion and fatigue. In other places and eras, I think, convalescence was a more capacious social category.  The role of convalescence seems to have shrunk as modern medicine’s capacity to treat illness has expanded. But the line between illness and wellness remains indefinite. I am not certain how to formulate policies that account for this. Should paid sick and medical leave be widely available? Absolutely. How it should be accumulated and allocated is not as clear. What is clear is that so many of us are in this liminal state of convalescence right now, recovering from COVID-19 itself or the sacrifices and solitude the pandemic imposed. I’m hopeful that, over the coming months and years, we can pay gracious attention to our own and our neighbors’ healing processes, offering each what’s needed in the moment and perceiving patterns that might ground just social norms and legal policies going forward.

How should Christians think about rest?

Culture often treats rest as an instrument or even an “achievable luxury.”  Rest enables our productivity. In the Christian tradition, however, rest is fundamentally a divine gift. As such, it is something stranger and much less within my control than I might wish it to be. When I have entered into the kind of rest that involves stilling my mind and orienting toward God in worship, the outcome is not always peaceful. Sometimes, lament or grief emerges in rest in ways that the opposing state—action—tends to suppress. I think of the gospel account of Jesus sleeping in a boat while a gale arises, stirring up waves that crash over the side of the boat (Mark 4:35-41). Perhaps rest is not incidental to the storm but entwined in it. As such, what is offered in the gift of rest is not the silencing of the storm—at least not at first—but rather an awareness of the wind and waves and, then, more deeply of the accompaniment of God’s presence in and through the gale.

During the pandemic, many students and workers who may have felt pressure to go to work or school sick have stayed home to recover (there are, of course, some who do not really have that option). Some problematic old norms have therefore been disrupted. Do you think we will learn anything from the pandemic and establish better norms in some of these areas or that we will return to the old way of doing business the first chance we get?

In 2008, the journalist George Packer wrote that the inequities and abuses of power revealed by a shocking financial crisis might lead to a fairer, more just America in which (to paraphrase) the pie would be smaller but more equitably shared. His expectation, though elegantly stated, has not come to pass. The aftershocks of the Great Recession have been far less predictable, less linear, and more subterranean than most would have predicted in 2008. So I am incredibly reluctant to judge the results of COVID-19 on our long-term ways of doing business. For those who work in white collar settings, there are new norms and new tools arising that might enable more remote work. And there is evidence that fathers in white collar, remote-accessible work took on a greater share of parenting responsibility during the pandemic—a trend that could, among other things, shift assumptions among employers, schools, and other family-adjacent institutions about the identity of the “go-to” parent in a household. But a more troubling consequence of the pandemic seems to be a sense of alienation and even anger with each other and with the institutions around us. In such a context, it will take a great deal of work to sustain workplace norms—such as workplace flexibility—that require a great deal of interpersonal trust. I would love to see workplaces dedicate a significant degree of intentionality to workplace systems and norms of all types, including accommodating those who have long shouldered the work of family care as well as all of us who are in some phase of convalescence or reconnection to work post-COVID.

You talk a little bit about the meritocracy and the ideology it generates and that sustains it. What role does this play in shaping how Americans live—both for highly educated workers and working class people? How does it shape our values, how we spend our time, how we see ourselves, and our family relationships?  And with structural factors playing a big role in the precarity and insecurity that so many families and individual people face today, is there a way for a person or family to successfully resist the norms and structural pressures that arise from meritocracy? I often think about this when reflecting upon the extreme individualism that shapes our society. Even those of us who are consciously trying to resist it and have many countercultural values probably live much more individualistic lives than we would in a society that truly valued community and solidarity. Is there a way out?

The problem is an ideology that hierarchically ranks our roles in society, assigning fundamental dignity and worth along a gradient. On a social level, we can reassert the fundamental, equal dignity of all persons by establishing a more robust social foundation for all—through access to a decent income, health care, and protected time for rest, recovery, and care.

On a personal level, one way out of “the meritocracy trap,” as the author Daniel Markovitz describes it, is to prioritize a quest for excellence over the pursuit of status. Likewise, I find it helpful to view work as a cultivation of craft rather than competition for position. Finally, your suggestion that family and community could be a way out is a beautiful one. Within families as well as within friendships, we can appreciate each other’s different quests for and ways of being excellent without ranking them. Ideally, this is a practice that inclines us to honor the equal dignity of all persons—in those outside of our families and friend circles and in ourselves as well.