*As always, this blog post is perfectly imperfect. There are endless amounts of conversations to be had, reading to be done. Questions are many, solutions are few, but hopefully others feel seen by this post. *
Making an effigy of EASY (by AM)
Something that has been popping up, repeatedly, in my newsfeed is the current cost of childcare. How that cost is in line with the cost of college and, as such, is a significant financial hardship to many families. There is a lot of blame and shame wrapped up in this neat little package of working while parenting and childcare while parenting. I want to unpack it, and I welcome others to do the same, either here in the comments section or as a self-reflection exercise on their own.
I have worked in almost every model possible while parenting. I have worked full time, part time but long hours on working days, part time with shorter hours, and part time from home without regular childcare. I have “worked inside” the home (i.e. full time parent without outside work). I will tell you that none of these options are easy, with 1 or more children, and yet each sphere can be judgmental or dismissive of the “other”. Even today, I recognize this pattern among friends and colleagues, and I have very little patience for “othering” – boxing people in, judging, shaming, dichotomous either/or thinking (blog post on othering coming soon). I am not interested in dismissing or glamorizing any of these choices at the cost of “others”. Judging and dismissing others and their choices, particularly those parents that choose to stay at home, diminishes the value of parenting, diminishes how we view children and their primary caregiver (usually women), and limits what we interpret as valuable/legitimate work. Having lived so many versions of work/family scenarios, they are all equally hard and compromising; the parent needs to find what situation balances them best, and without fail, that situation will likely change as their children grow.
I don’t work a typical job at this time, as the sheer cost of childcare would claim much of my salary, despite having 2 graduate degrees. Add in sick care which is not typically accounted for in school or childcare. On a rotating basis, one or more of my children is usually sick despite my best efforts at hand washing, “vampire cough”ing, and healthy diets; kids tend to be resistant (ambivalent at best) about hygienic behaviors. And what then? – now you have to pay for the regular childcare fees to maintain your space, but also sick child coverage from an emergency nanny or backup care center. Not to mention the vacations or teacher holidays that do not align with work schedules and involve additional childcare costs (ex. One week of summer camp tends to run $150/week/child though costs are incredibly variable, and these hours don’t find the typical 8-6 work day; add in before and after care, then multiple by the number of children you have and the 8-12 weeks of summer vacation. Good luck, working parents!)
Some view the choice as working inside the home a privilege; it can be. I see the other side of this issue as well, that working outside involves privilege: being able to afford childcare and having that cost covered by your salary, having help with issues with your children arise. Privilege is largely related to the ease of burden and the freedom of choice. Working parents may have support structures in place, such as family or friends that can fill in the endless gaps in coverage (sick coverage, drop offs to childcare, transportation to after school activities or appointments for the children, vacations and school holidays). I am aware of those whose parents (ie grandparents) pay for their children’s childcare so that those individuals can work without concern of the “cost” of working. Those that make it “look easy” often have behind-the-scenes players that are rarely accounted for and must be honestly acknowledged when considering choices that are truly available to working parents. Many of us do not have those support systems in place and have to jerry-rig, scrap, scramble to fill gaps, even those of us who “work inside” the home. For example, I still have to find childcare if I need certain appointments (ex. PT appointments that last 60-90 minutes, which most children won’t be patient enough for). Having behind-the-scenes players eases the burden, allows greater choice, and is also a form of privilege.
All of these considerations are dizzying, and that’s why I am writing. People, co-workers and friends, used to tell me that I made the work/family balance look easy. Those comments made me uncomfortable. I felt like it was a front or a lie. And yet, I was proud of the fact that I somehow satisfied societal expectations around work/family balance. I rarely hear this feedback now, which likely reflects that I no longer sugar coat my experience and speak Truth to the difficulties involved.
People without children or those from other generations might read this as me playing the victim or attention seeking. “Didn’t she know? Having children was a choice – she brought this on herself” No, I didn’t know how hard family balance would be. How could I when others never spoke of it or did so in whispers? There’s so much subtle shaming that happens in parenting, that if we complain or speak out, we are pathological or we “should have known” – but how could we know when the pattern has been to shame and silence dissenters, thereby harming and wounding them and future women/parents to come? How much choice can we actually claim when the full weight of the situation wasn’t known until we were in it? How much choice did we have when the sheer expense of childcare is rarely discussed and ever expanding, moving faster than inflation?
I don’t want to make it look easy. As a parent, you always feel like you’re doing everything half-assed – work and family, as there is never enough of you, enough time, to go around. Even working from home with kids, for a job that doesn’t pay enough for childcare, fitting in the inevitable tasks that come up outside of the child/children’s sleeping time – typing emails, putting together material, grading material, all while the children fight, scream, tear up the house, distract. Working from home with children, which is my current work situation, is a practice in patience and lower standards and tolerance for chaos. Forget easy.
Why, might you ask, am I working a job that can’t pay for the childcare it actually requires? I love my jobs (I have several, including parenting)– they provide autonomy, learning opportunities, and creative outlets, all are aspects that keep me afloat and remind that not all tasks worth doing will actually pay well enough to support children (but this is also privilege). Looked at form another angle, we know that paying people more, that is, financial incentives, don’t improve the quality of work (see Drive by Daniel Pink and Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn), but that is a plateau reached once people have been paid a “livable wage”. Some jobs pay what they do with little or no negotiation room, which is true of my situation. Further, as said to me by a colleague also living in this paradox, this seeking of balance in a tenuous , dynamic situation that is work and family: if I didn’t do it, someone else would (language eerily reminiscent of rape culture and sexual control of women; I believe the charge of that statement was likely lost on them).
I see all this now. When I see outside-the-home working parents or caregivers, I see the sacrifice, on the part of the parents and children – the half-assed, never good enough sacrifice, the children always needing more. I also see the sting of “easy” in those that stay home – the lost dreams and sense of self, the sacrificed career that could not support the required childcare. I see the shaming of “they should have known” and “that’s why I didn’t have children” smugness.
And what about the brain-drain experienced in the work force, by having women (or men as a caregiver) step out to tend to their families, particularly if this “choice” isn’t really that but reflects a financial need? How many ingenious ideas, networks, solutions are we missing out on from not having Her at work? In graduate school, I was one of a few students jokingly referred to as the “brain trust”. I had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, understanding, and answers, plus the time to pursue that inquisitiveness. Now my thoughts are rarely my own, frequently interrupted with the insatiable and unrelenting needs of children; I wake up at 330am just to have quiet and uninterrupted thoughts. Regardless of the difficulties, I love my children, and I am not pathological in any sense. I am just REAL and willing to step outside of the false ideal of “working” while parenting (in the home, from home for someone else, outside the home, and all in between), to show the man behind the curtain. (How many trolls will find this post and want to comment about what a terrible mother, person, woman I must be to even write this? Here again would be the socialized shaming and borders around Truth that so many of us are complacent with, rather than face the REAL, the un-easy. We would rather stay safe and silent than face the burn of truth. For an exploration of women and shame, see Burning Women by Lucy H Pearce).
Where does this leave us with the gendered pay gap? Some suspect that it is related to childbearing, removing oneself from the work force and/or diminished hours that can be devoted to work; however, women that don’t have children are also paid unequally. What if we actually paid women on par with men? Wouldn’t that relieve men from some of the provider burden that they experience? Wouldn’t there be some relief if their partners could earn a more substantive living and allow them to work less or even be the stay at home parent (this question is not to ignore families that don’t fit the heteronormative pattern; I see your struggles too, made more challenging by the different and greater bias you must face).
What are the solutions? Certainly not government supported childcare. Capitalism prefers the cheapest worker for the task, so where would that leave our children? If we are willing to entrust them with those that will do the task for the least amount? And what does that say about how we value children? Or even what an appropriate livable wage or compensation is for childcare? What qualifications would those caregivers have? What would be the intention of the childcare environment? – a cage to keep children contained as their parent(s) work, an educational environment, or ……..?
I have also tried a number of childcare situations to support my varied work needs – nannies, daycare, part time preschool. Not one was a perfect situation. With nannies, you are on their schedule. If you only need them from 9-12pm, 2-3 times during the week, that makes assumptions around their lifestyles and needs, their careers and availability for your convenience. The expectation is for flexibility from them, but that flexibility comes at a cost, limiting their work and school schedules outside of your needs. Daycares and preschools don’t provide sick care. Part-time preschools are often for such a short period of time on your slotted days, you have to turn around to pick up your child after barely having time to run an errand, catch your breath, let alone try your hand at “work”. Often these part-time preschools require parent participation, meaning you are obligated not only to pay them for childcare but provide working assistance and volunteer hours on top of that (which necessitate that you have childcare for your other children while you “volunteer” at said school).
It’s not “easy” – the paradox of balancing the vicissitudes, the mutability, the dynamism of parenting and work. I want to burn that idea of easy – make an effigy and leave it, flaming, on a pyre. I want others to see and recognize the sacrifices involved in having a family, allowing them more authentic decision making and choices. Luckily, bloggers and parenting groups are doing just that, hence the repeated pop ups that prompted this post. Perhaps the error in thinking here was that the balance would be or should be easy? I, proudly, no longer abide by and give face to that myth – seeing any of this as easy is harmful and far from the truth.
I want to call out employers to consider better solutions, from livable wages (and what, exactly, does that mean? Does that mean someone should be able to afford childcare should they choose to have a family?), to incorporating flexible work hours, to accepting and allowing children in the work place (how chaotic but rewarding that might be). Solutions involve community, accommodation of children, and a pooling of help. Solutions involve a realistic awareness about the true work of parenting and raising children, without necessarily burdening those that chose not to have children or want limited involvement (such as extended family that are unable or not interested in helping). I have no doubt there are other solutions I am not considering; there may even be specific work places that have implemented some of these. I can almost sense a solution, a society that better accommodates families and allows for an honest discussion of what those choices mean. A place of community, of valuing of women/caregivers and children, a place of acknowledging life besides work and the legitimacy of various professional and personal choices. I can envision this place, just beyond my periphery . And it looks like burning.