Access to flexible work and affordable childcare are everything
How can we live like this?
My eye is on the finish line. Every year, I wrap up work around mid-December and take time off until early January. This was true even when I was working for an employer because my job had unlimited PTO.
It often meant a mad frenzy of work between U.S. Thanksgiving and my last working day in December, but it was necessary. My kids don't have school for 2.5 weeks every year. My house turns into a combination of holiday excitement and chaos. Without childcare, I'm unlikely to get any work done (especially when my kids were younger). Or, alternatively, they'd sit in front of the TV or other electronic devices all day.
And that's just Christmas. There are a bunch of U.S. holidays throughout the year when schools and daycares are closed, like Labor Day and Memorial Day. Schools have the added bonus of being closed for parent-teacher conferences and in-service days. Not to mention all of summer.
I was lucky to work at jobs with a lot of flexibility for most of my career. But, in hindsight, flexibility was one of the reasons I stayed at a job far longer than I should have. I had to have flexibility with my working hours and around my kids' schedules or I wouldn't have been able to work.
Childcare costs are astronomical
Earlier this year, a job posting went semi-viral for the following part of its job description:
Q: I have [X personal thing] in my life. I get work done at weird hours. I have to go pick up my kids at daycare. Should I apply?
A: We trust you to have your own life and largely get things done at the times that work best for you. I have three young children, one of whom was born right at the start of Covid, and am MASSIVELY sympathetic to the dumpsterfire jugglebus that is caretaking in America. We will work in out.
Can everyone please give a standing ovation to this hiring manager?
Sadly, such empathy is often missing because work comes first. Employees are nothing more than a cost. And if they're not working, it costs the company money. They might be insanely efficient, but if they're leaving a few hours early, they could have been doing more!
(PS: That math is nonsense. If the requirements of the job are being met, any additional work without pay is corporate volunteerism.)
Anyone who doesn't have kids, or has kids but never put their kids in childcare, or has older kids and hasn't faced childcare recently has NO idea what parents are dealing with.
When my youngest child was last in preschool in 2022, I was paying more than $1,600 per month in childcare. That was only for the hours of 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. If I'd wanted before- and aftercare, it would have been hundreds of dollars more. Because my husband and I both work from home (and had employers that were flexible), we could manage this schedule.
Childcare for babies and toddlers is even more expensive. At one point, I was paying $2,800/month for my two older kids to be in daycare simultaneously. And that was years ago: it would be a lot more now due to a national shortage of childcare workers and daycare centers that closed during the pandemic. Supply and demand: the cost has gone up. Not only has childcare gotten more expensive, but there are fewer options.
In the U.S., parents can set aside $5,000 in pre-tax dollars for childcare expenses. That's a joke. I'd spend more than $5,000 in childcare in a few months.
In 2021, as part of President Biden's Build Back Better Plan, the child tax credit increased. For a family with three kids like ours, the credit went from $6,000 to nearly $10,000 (depending on the age of the kids). And it came as a monthly deposit in our bank account, rather than something we'd only see when we filed our taxes. It was something.
But of course, the credit was allowed to expire. Because this country doesn't care enough about working families. Even though that credit made a HUGE difference for a lot of people, especially people at lower income levels.
According to this article in the New York Times, economists have long identified a lack of available and affordable childcare as a reason that American women do not work more.
In February of 2022, a survey found that 39% of women with children under 5 had quit their jobs or reduced their hours since the pandemic began. This was an increase from 33% in 2021.
As this person wrote so aptly on Twitter (back when it was Twitter):
She believed she could but she lacked access to affordable childcare so she did not.
Parents are on their own
In the U.S., the burden of figuring out the dumpsterfire jugglebus falls squarely on parents' shoulders.
The entire world might agree that children are necessary in society, but does that translate to helping parents? Nope.
Unless an employer is flexible, it's massively stressful to work and be a parent. It's picking kids up from school. And after-school activities. And they're sick all. the. time.
I was chatting with a friend earlier this week and she had several meetings scheduled for the afternoon. Then she sent a message, "Nope, scratch all that. Daycare called and my son has a fever and now I have to go pick him up." Most daycares have a policy that the child can't return until they've been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of medication. When my kids were little, my daycare's policy was 48 hours.
No wonder women are leaving the workplace. Return-to-office mandates are a misalignment between pre-pandemic in-office expectations and post-pandemic lack of childcare. Even hybrid sucks because it's not like parents can plan for their kids to only get sick on the days when they're home.
According to Business Insider, the largest push for remote work comes from Millennials. Understandable, since it's the cohort most likely to have young kids at home. Gen Z doesn't have kids yet and Gen X or Boomers are empty-nesters. These other generations may want to work from home, if it's available, but they don't feel it as a necessity as intensely as Millennials.
Parents shouldn't be penalized for wanting flexible work
An NYU business professor was recently quoted as saying:
The young people who choose to have that life that go into work maybe one or two days a week or never, and work entirely remotely, they may have a version of success that is not our version of success. It's all about how you define success. They're probably not going to become CEOs, but maybe that's not what they want.
Yeesh. Might as well say, "Mothers are probably not going to become CEOs" because they opt for remote work at some point in their careers.
I had an executive role at a software company. And worked remotely. As did everyone else on the team.
The companies that do not empower their employees to work whenever/wherever it best suits them will miss out on the best talent. By perpetuating in-person bias, they are consciously or unconsciously widening the gap in salaries and promotions for women.
There. Fixed it.
My world is different now. My kids are older. If they're home sick, they're mostly self-sufficient. I have all the flexibility I could possibly want because I work for myself.
But my heart is with all parents of young children, especially mothers. I know how much it sucks. I know the cost of childcare is insane and has only gotten worse. I can only imagine how hard it is to juggle an inflexible work environment.
I can only say that "this too shall pass" -- but only about your kids getting older and parenting getting easier (in theory). For flexible work and societal support, those are only things we can keep fighting for.
And someday, I have to believe, we will win.
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