The Ballad of the American Working Parent
I hope that by the time my children become parents, American society will have progressed to become a more enlightened place to raise a family.
I enjoy working. But if I didn’t have to work, I probably wouldn’t. No matter how much you may enjoy your career (and I am fair to middling on that scale), the day comes when most working parents can no longer escape the fact that caring for children and maintaining a job are two things that, even in 2016, do not really jive in this country.
A Disaster from the Start
“Congratulations on your new baby… now get back to work.” Is what our government essentially tells the least lucky mothers in the civilized world. As soon as they give birth, they’re confronted with a harsh reality. The phrase “maternity leave” sounds so nice, like it’s a real thing mothers are entitled to. Except they are not. Not at all.
The US by no means guarantees every mother the right to stay at home with her newborn child. The Family Medical Leave Act, which gives 12 weeks job-protected unpaid leave, is pretty much as far as the US will go to bat for families.
As we know, not every American worker is protected by this law. To qualify, workers must be employed by a business with 50 or more employees and have worked for that employer full-time for at least 12 months. For those that do not? Our society kindly requests that you pretend you do not have a baby. It is some serious irony that the welfare resentment that’s baked into our national identity, and which has led to the climate of inaction, is what leaves the most vulnerable parents with no option but welfare.
This map, by the World Policy Center shows how the US is alone in the entire civilized world in not offering paid leave.
For those lucky enough to get some paid maternity leave, no one wants to hear them complain that 6 or 12 or even 20 weeks is not enough time to spend with their newborn. But it’s not.
According to a Department of Labor report hilariously titled “Paid Leave is Good for Business,” just 39% of US workers report receiving any paid leave after the birth of a child. What are the other 61% of new parents doing? Crying, probably. The report says:
“If U.S. women between 25 and 54 participated in the labor force at the same rate as they do in Canada or Germany, there would be roughly 5.5 million more women in the labor force in the U.S… That would increase GDP by an estimated 3.5 percent, which would translate into more than $500 billion of additional economic activity. That is over $500 billion of economic activity annually that we are leaving on the table… because we don’t have the labor market policies – paid leave, workplace flexibility, quality child and eldercare – that our peer countries have.”
So our system is bad for families and bad for the economy. Great job, Congress. Can I offer to set up a conference call for you with Department of Labor? Happy to take all the notes and send a meeting recap to your assistants. (Who I believe get paid maternity leave?)
A Plethora of Terrible Options
While we wait to schedule a call between the Dept. of Labor and our elected officials in Congress, new parents get to set out on the distinctly depressing task of finding a place to deposit their babies while they work. If they are very lucky, they have a parent or family member who can help them, which I assume our government assumes covers just about everyone. If not, they get acquainted with one of two wonderful new worlds: daycare and nannies.
Daycare in America
Daycare can be a heartbreaking option for an infant, especially for parents who lack quality choices. There is no benefit to daycare before the age of three, but there can be costs. A National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study found that children who spent more than 30 hours per week in day care were nine times more likely to exhibit behavioral problems by age four than children who spent less than 10 hours per week.
There is nothing quite like sending an infant to daycare just as they are most vulnerable to death from SIDS. The stories of mothers who have lost babies in daycare are unbearable. But we can’t look away, because a terrible, frightening, poorly regulated daycare landscape is a fact of life in this country.
Your Very Own Mary Poppins
Babysitting starts to look more appealing as parents realize that daycare is not the affordable option they imagined it would be. Especially when you have more than one kid.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, child care costs for two kids are higher than the median rent payment in every state.
That is no joke. But of course becoming an employer comes with its own problems. The government seems to think it’s reasonable to expect the average working parent to be well-versed on the finer points of tax and labor law. If you pay any babysitter more than $1700, you are, by law, an “employer.” You need an Employer Tax ID number (which – surprise! – you should have obtained before your nanny began) and you should be sending quarterly payments to the IRS for your babysitter.
Most parents do not understand all of the legal requirements that come with hiring a nanny, let alone how to accomplish them. Not to mention finding a babysitter who is willing to be paid “on the books.” Even though she will need to be paid more than if she were not being taxed, she will be taking home less as she tries to figure out how to pay for her kid’s childcare.
It is a truly broken system, even for people who want to do the right thing. When lawmakers expect parents to follow rules that require a law degree to comprehend and to spend hours sorting through bureaucracy (during office hours!) to carry out, one has to believe they do not seriously expect people to comply. And they don’t. The vast majority of babysitters work off the books. If the IRS would like to fix this, it needs to come up with a far improved, far more more realistic solution.
Newsflash: It doesn’t get easier as they grow.
Preschool in New York City can cost as much as college tuition. I paid over $700 a month for my oldest son to go to school two days a week when he was three. My children are now both in school full time, but childcare difficulties still exist. As do the financial burdens. After-school programs at my son’s public school cost as much as an expensive babysitter. His after-school program doesn’t save me one cent. And it covers only 50% of my offspring.
A Work Culture that is Still Better Suited to Leave it Beaver’s Dad
Adding to the general working parent anxiety is the fact that many employers don’t want to hear about your sick child, your parent teacher meeting or your need to “jet out 10 minutes early” to make the talent show.
This goes double if you are a dad. Why isn’t your perfectly coiffed stay at home wife taking junior to his doctor’s appointment? Men are much more likely to quietly sneak away to fulfill their parental duties without asking, whereas women are more vocal about making requests and arrangements. This is because our culture still expects the mom to handle all things child-related. The perception that dads have less leeway at work reinforces the reality. This, naturally, only adds to the brutal burden for working mothers, who still do most of the cooking, cleaning, planning, childcare managing and activity organizing. Co-workers can contribute to this old-timey attitude as much as supervisors.
I will say this to the people who have chosen not to have kids and who resent the small allowances that are made to parents at work: go watch Children of Men. If none of us had children, we’d be all living in a suicidal dystopia.
If we can agree that a world where children continue to be born is the preferable scenario… Someone has to take care of all these little people. They need to be fed and bathed and put to sleep. So Sally in accounting needs to leave at 5 sharp. Don’t give her attitude for it.
Paid maternity and paternity leave. Affordable quality childcare. A more flexible work culture that does not punish parents. A society that values the importance of raising children and having women in the work force so that our economy can continue to grow. Is this really so much to ask in modern times?
I don’t need to tell working parents how hard they have it. If I’ve made you angry without offering solutions, you can consider, at least, signing this petition for paid family leave created by two mothers whose infants died in daycare. If you’re more ambitious, send an email to your representatives in Congress. These problems exist because Congress has ignored the needs of working families for too long.
On a more personal level, both moms and dads need to stand up for themselves and not be afraid to be vocal about their family responsibilities, which are not optional. A change in our culture is the only viable precursor to getting the government to act, as we saw with gay marriage. And that shift will only gather steam when more people stop pretending they don’t have children, as our “self-sufficient” culture, far too often, asks them to do.
© 2015 Angel. All rights reserved