September 12 2016
Work

The Ballad of the American Working Parent

working parents childcare daycare nannyI 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.

Paid Leave

This map, by the World Policy Center shows how the US is alone in the entire civilized world in not offering paid leave.

paid maternity leave around the world

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.

scene_from_leave_it_to_beaver_1958A 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.

Alas…

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.

 

  • Great Post! My children are grown now, but 30 years ago we received 6-weeks leave and you were able to use your vacation and sick time. Neither of which covered 6 weeks. I went back to work after 2 weeks. A quality daycare ran me almost as much as I was making at the time. So sad.

    • 2 weeks? That is just not how life should be. I pray my children will look back on us with incredulity one day when they become parents and say “how did your generation accept such a barbaric system?” I pray, but I am not sure. This reluctance to help women and families is deeply ingrained in our culture.

  • Thanks so much for this post. I had the good fortune of having my child while living abroad and in a society that allows for maternity leave, but better than that, has affordable nanny culture. Which means, I could have a private nanny for my daughter each month (40 hours) for the same price (actually less) than what you paid for those few days of your son’s preschool. There is also the misconception that if you are a single parent, you get access to special services. Nope. I’m sure this is why so many families have opted for homeschooling. It costs less and in some cases (not all because successful homeschooling is not for the faint at heart or the unskilled and unorganized) offers a better education.

    • Thank you for commenting Lisa. It is amazing how different every parent’s challenge is, wherever they live and whatever their situation. The one thing we all have in common is that it should not be as difficult as it is to raise a family in the richest country on earth.

    • I can imagine. That’s why I enjoy going to work. I like having a reason to get dressed sometimes and socializing with my friends at the office. I think most parents want to work to some degree. We just don’t make it easy in this country to do both.

  • LOVE this, Linda! Great points. The issue is far reaching, going beyond just the issue of parenting!
    “This is because our culture still expects the mom to handle all things child-related.” Yes! Working or not, the cooking, cleaning and child rearing are still mostly expectations of mothers.
    I took off 12 weeks unpaid leave when my son was born and my mom babysat him until he was 6 months old. When she went back to work, I quit since it didn’t make economic sense for us to pay the cost of daycare (I didn’t make much as a social worker, go figure). We were fortunate to be able to make it work, though it was a bit of a financial struggle for a few years.

    • Thank you Amanda… most all women contend with this at one point or another. My grandmother lived downstairs from us so my mom had built in childcare. I can’t even imagine having that kind of support! I kept trying to find statements from politicians today on why they feel the government does not need to help families with this, when almost every other country on earth does. They just talk around it. Future generations will look back amazed.

  • Excellent write up.

    While the U.S. government seems to be dragging their feet when it comes to maternity leave. It appears that the private sector is leading the way. Netflix and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation both offer a full year off. Additionally, Cisco, Adobe Etsy and Spotify offer 26 weeks. There are many more that are offering better benefits to compete for workers.

    Hopefully the private sector will lead the public sector into more generous maternity and paternity benefits.

    • Thank you so much for checking it out and commenting. I think it’s great for those companies who offer paid leave to their employees. But that, unfortunately, doesn’t help the families who need it most. I don’t think that we can depend on the private sector to solve essential societal issues. And we can’t expect small businesses to pick up the tab either. The only way it can work is buy being funded by taxpayers (including corporate taxpayers). Just like all of our society’s most basic, crucial government safety nets.

  • Very informative post. I learned so much. I taught high school for the first two years of my oldest son’s life, but by the time we had our second I would have lost $200 a month to keep working and pay childcare for 2. So I stayed home, which I had always wanted to do so I adapted well. We somehow made it while my husband was a graduate teaching assistant and PhD student, but it was tough financially. He is now starting his second year as a professor and baby #4 is on the way. We are still so frugal after all of those years of living on such a tiny paycheck that hopefully we will be able to save quite a bit over the next few years. It is tough for families with children. Even though we pay for health insurance through my husband’s job, we pay a lot and still have to meet a $3000 deductable every year, which we have already met this year with baby on the way. I can’t imagine having to pay for childcare too and all of the other stresses that go along with being a working parent and having a newborn.

    • Faith – thanks so much for your comment. It is just hard whichever way you look at it. It used to be that everyone was a stay at home mom and our whole economy was geared to that structure. Ordinary people were able to live on one paycheck. But now we are in this no man’s land where demand for consumer goods is driven by more families having two paychecks. This raises costs for everyone for basic needs like housing, childcare cars, insurance, etc. This makes that second paycheck a necessity for many people. Yet we offer no support or accommodations for the social implications of two parents working. It is frustrating. The conversations we are having as a country right now are nice but they are baby steps. We need so much more. -Linda

  • […] We did, however, need to get a new babysitter during this time. We found the most wonderful, amazing student from our neighborhood to take care of our kids who was a fair amount less expensive than our previous career nanny. This helped take quite a bit of the pressure off because after rent and food, babysitting is our biggest expense. Childcare is always the elephant in the room, the albatross of every working family. […]

  • New York passed legislation providing family leave…doesn’t take affect until 2018 though. We just had a baby back in July so no paid leave for us…grrr…but at least it’s a step in the right direction. It’s about time!

    • Ugh – no paid leave at all? That enrages me. My company offered me paid leave – I ended up having about 8 weeks including vacation time I took. Of course it still wasn’t enough, but it was something. It is so outrageous. Future generations will not be able to understand how working families ever put up with this nonsense. -Linda

    1. The 6-8 pm Makeover - Brooklyn Bread 09:21pm 01 November - 2016 - Reply

      […] the unlucky, exhausted and frazzled working parents in our society are the collateral damage of broken system that no one has any desire to fix or even […]

    2. Andrew 04:49pm 05 October - 2016 - Reply

      New York passed legislation providing family leave…doesn’t take affect until 2018 though. We just had a baby back in July so no paid leave for us…grrr…but at least it’s a step in the right direction. It’s about time!

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:51pm 05 October - 2016 - Reply

        Ugh – no paid leave at all? That enrages me. My company offered me paid leave – I ended up having about 8 weeks including vacation time I took. Of course it still wasn’t enough, but it was something. It is so outrageous. Future generations will not be able to understand how working families ever put up with this nonsense. -Linda

    3. […] We did, however, need to get a new babysitter during this time. We found the most wonderful, amazing student from our neighborhood to take care of our kids who was a fair amount less expensive than our previous career nanny. This helped take quite a bit of the pressure off because after rent and food, babysitting is our biggest expense. Childcare is always the elephant in the room, the albatross of every working family. […]

    4. Faith (Home Ec @ Home) 10:41pm 18 September - 2016 - Reply

      Very informative post. I learned so much. I taught high school for the first two years of my oldest son’s life, but by the time we had our second I would have lost $200 a month to keep working and pay childcare for 2. So I stayed home, which I had always wanted to do so I adapted well. We somehow made it while my husband was a graduate teaching assistant and PhD student, but it was tough financially. He is now starting his second year as a professor and baby #4 is on the way. We are still so frugal after all of those years of living on such a tiny paycheck that hopefully we will be able to save quite a bit over the next few years. It is tough for families with children. Even though we pay for health insurance through my husband’s job, we pay a lot and still have to meet a $3000 deductable every year, which we have already met this year with baby on the way. I can’t imagine having to pay for childcare too and all of the other stresses that go along with being a working parent and having a newborn.

      • Brooklyn Bread 10:07am 19 September - 2016 - Reply

        Faith – thanks so much for your comment. It is just hard whichever way you look at it. It used to be that everyone was a stay at home mom and our whole economy was geared to that structure. Ordinary people were able to live on one paycheck. But now we are in this no man’s land where demand for consumer goods is driven by more families having two paychecks. This raises costs for everyone for basic needs like housing, childcare cars, insurance, etc. This makes that second paycheck a necessity for many people. Yet we offer no support or accommodations for the social implications of two parents working. It is frustrating. The conversations we are having as a country right now are nice but they are baby steps. We need so much more. -Linda

    5. Mustard Seed Money 04:27pm 17 September - 2016 - Reply

      Excellent write up.

      While the U.S. government seems to be dragging their feet when it comes to maternity leave. It appears that the private sector is leading the way. Netflix and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation both offer a full year off. Additionally, Cisco, Adobe Etsy and Spotify offer 26 weeks. There are many more that are offering better benefits to compete for workers.

      Hopefully the private sector will lead the public sector into more generous maternity and paternity benefits.

      • Brooklyn Bread 05:56pm 17 September - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you so much for checking it out and commenting. I think it’s great for those companies who offer paid leave to their employees. But that, unfortunately, doesn’t help the families who need it most. I don’t think that we can depend on the private sector to solve essential societal issues. And we can’t expect small businesses to pick up the tab either. The only way it can work is buy being funded by taxpayers (including corporate taxpayers). Just like all of our society’s most basic, crucial government safety nets.

    6. Barrie 08:44pm 15 September - 2016 - Reply

      Great post. I barely bring in anything after paying for high quality care for three kids. Sometimes I wonder if it is even worth it.

      • Brooklyn Bread 11:36am 16 September - 2016 - Reply

        It really is not fair. I would loved to have had a third, but there is just no way we could do it with the childcare and housing constraints. -Linda

    7. Amanda @ centsiblyrich 04:30pm 13 September - 2016 - Reply

      LOVE this, Linda! Great points. The issue is far reaching, going beyond just the issue of parenting!
      “This is because our culture still expects the mom to handle all things child-related.” Yes! Working or not, the cooking, cleaning and child rearing are still mostly expectations of mothers.
      I took off 12 weeks unpaid leave when my son was born and my mom babysat him until he was 6 months old. When she went back to work, I quit since it didn’t make economic sense for us to pay the cost of daycare (I didn’t make much as a social worker, go figure). We were fortunate to be able to make it work, though it was a bit of a financial struggle for a few years.

      • Brooklyn Bread 04:43pm 13 September - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you Amanda… most all women contend with this at one point or another. My grandmother lived downstairs from us so my mom had built in childcare. I can’t even imagine having that kind of support! I kept trying to find statements from politicians today on why they feel the government does not need to help families with this, when almost every other country on earth does. They just talk around it. Future generations will look back amazed.

    8. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe 10:31am 13 September - 2016 - Reply

      It’s a tough situation, and I know my hubby (who was the stay at home parent for a long time) felt really isolated in the awesomeness that was Camp Dad.

      • Brooklyn Bread 10:47am 13 September - 2016 - Reply

        I can imagine. That’s why I enjoy going to work. I like having a reason to get dressed sometimes and socializing with my friends at the office. I think most parents want to work to some degree. We just don’t make it easy in this country to do both.

    9. Lisa 11:28pm 12 September - 2016 - Reply

      Thanks so much for this post. I had the good fortune of having my child while living abroad and in a society that allows for maternity leave, but better than that, has affordable nanny culture. Which means, I could have a private nanny for my daughter each month (40 hours) for the same price (actually less) than what you paid for those few days of your son’s preschool. There is also the misconception that if you are a single parent, you get access to special services. Nope. I’m sure this is why so many families have opted for homeschooling. It costs less and in some cases (not all because successful homeschooling is not for the faint at heart or the unskilled and unorganized) offers a better education.

      • Brooklyn Bread 10:49am 13 September - 2016 - Reply

        Thank you for commenting Lisa. It is amazing how different every parent’s challenge is, wherever they live and whatever their situation. The one thing we all have in common is that it should not be as difficult as it is to raise a family in the richest country on earth.

    10. Sherri 11:19pm 12 September - 2016 - Reply

      Great Post! My children are grown now, but 30 years ago we received 6-weeks leave and you were able to use your vacation and sick time. Neither of which covered 6 weeks. I went back to work after 2 weeks. A quality daycare ran me almost as much as I was making at the time. So sad.

      • Brooklyn Bread 10:52am 13 September - 2016 - Reply

        2 weeks? That is just not how life should be. I pray my children will look back on us with incredulity one day when they become parents and say “how did your generation accept such a barbaric system?” I pray, but I am not sure. This reluctance to help women and families is deeply ingrained in our culture.

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