The pandemic has brought renewed attention to the travails of working parents, and specifically, working mothers. As a sociology major with a graduate degree in public policy, I’ve been following the research documenting the male/female divide in household workload for more than twenty years. The pandemic brought these issues of workload inequality into stark relief, with women bearing the brunt of virtual school management and home management, on top of the demands of their paying jobs.
Which brings us to 2021: we finally have a competent and functional White House in place. (Politics aside, I think we can all agree this White House is orders of magnitude more functional than the last one.) I know I’ve breathed a deep, bottom-of-the-lungs sigh of relief that the Biden administration is taking aim at this inequality, and seeking to ensure the pandemic doesn’t lead to a long-term exodus of women from workplaces.
To address the very real childcare challenges working parents face, many progressives have been loudly calling for universal childcare. Universal childcare is a laudable policy goal for those that desire it. But can I suggest something subversive? I think in addition to high-quality and affordable childcare, many working mothers are desperate for workplace FLEXIBILITY.
I deeply admire Elizabeth Warren, a vocal supporter of women’s rights and the need for universal childcare. Senator Warren makes frequent reference to the fact that when she was a young mother, a family member was able to help her with childcare so she could continue to work outside the home. I’d like to submit that decades ago, when she was fortunate to have this help, the typical workweek was probably 40 hours, maybe less. Work demands were a far cry from what they are now, thanks to smart phones, email, and the unspoken expectation that most workers are reachable at all hours, family time be damned.
Childcare allowed Elizabeth Warren to keep her career on track. But I’d argue that the workplace challenges many mothers face are more complex now.
I was fortunate to have affordable childcare for my two toddlers when I left my job. Even with help, I was overwhelmed. My husband’s work week was 60+ hours. While never overtly stated, it became clear that taking time off to help with sick kids or doctor appointments would impede his career advancement. In our case, undeniably a position of privilege, we realized that with two toddlers and a parent (my mother) with a terminal disease, one of us had to take our foot off the gas professionally. As is often the case in two-income households, it was me, the working mother. It was complicated. I felt a bit punished by my prior success: my employer was pushing me to continue advancing up the career ladder, even though I was drowning on the home front. On some level, I wanted the time with my sons and my dying mother more than I wanted to keep feeling frazzled trying to do it all.
We tightened our belts financially and accepted that our long-term savings might take a hit during this window of time. It felt like the necessary call. I’ve been able to find part-time freelance work that brought in some money and allowed me to keep a toehold in the workforce. At times my freelance pay has been laughably low, but I swallowed my pride for the sake of intellectual stimulation and a professional résumé without long employment gaps.
Which brings me back to my point: I believe American mothers are desperate for childcare help, but also for part-time and flexible options. Surely the sharp policy wonks on Capitol Hill and in the White House (working long full-time hours, undoubtedly) could craft some government incentives to persuade more workplaces to offer part-time or flexible roles. Things like keeping healthcare affordable and available to part-time workers, and perhaps putting structural supports in place for part-time childcare.
Women have been GETTING IT DONE since the beginning of time, and many of us figure out nanny sharing and other solutions on our own. But imagine if more corporations and small businesses were incentivized to take on part-time employees? Imagine if family leave was readily and easily accessible when children or aging relatives were sick—and workers weren’t penalized in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for taking it? Imagine if off-ramps and on-ramps were made available to working parents rather than excruciating choices: stay and drown or quit your job? Imagine if freelance workers were guaranteed a livable minimum wage? I whole-heartedly support universal childcare for those who desire it. But I think most women want options and flexibility. Surely, in 2021, when so many workplaces have realized that remote work is entirely doable, we also have the wherewithal to build flexibility into the modern workplace for all the smart, hardworking parents who seek it.
Senator Warren, Biden administration, supporters of working parents: gauntlet thrown.