Here’s a recent math problem: You have two working parents and two children, one of whom has a seemingly endless configuration of end-of-the-school-year special activities. On Monday there is a theater performance at 2:15 p.m. On Tuesday there’s a class breakfast at 8:30 a.m. On Wednesday someone has to run to the 24-hour pharmacy for hair spray at 11 p.m. because they forgot that crazy hair day is Thursday and there wasn’t enough “crazy” in their house. On Friday there’s field day and honestly who knows how long that will take.
How do these parents Jenga their schedules to both please their children and keep their jobs?
Bonus question: What are they supposed to do with their children for the summer that won’t cost $1 million and end weeks before school starts?
We talk a lot about the policy energy and public enthusiasm for paid family leave in the United States — a benefit that is essential for the health and functioning of parents. But there is a dearth of discussion about the lack of policy fixes at both the state and corporate levels for parents after the immediate postpartum period.
A handful of states (including Washington) provide paid leave at the state level, and almost every week comes news of a Fortune 500 company expanding or introducing access to the benefit for new parents — the retailer Target and the salad chain Sweetgreen are two recent examples.
While on paper many versions of paid leave policies are meant to cover caretakers of all varieties, they are almost always discussed as a benefit for biological mothers to recover from childbirth and spend time with a newborn.
Increasingly, fathers of newborns are also part of the discussion. But work-life conflict does not end when your child is 3 months old (or 1 year old if your company is extraordinarily generous or you live in Canada).
The school day ends at least two hours before most people’s work days, creating what The Atlantic referred to in 2018 as a “child care crisis.” And summer is another crisis, especially for low-income and hourly workers, many of whom have little say over their work schedules.
About 12.8% of children have special health needs, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, and doctors’ appointments are almost always during the workday.
There’s evidence that the burden of this ongoing time crunch is borne mostly by mothers. According to the Pew Research Center, 42% of mothers said they have reduced their work hours because of care-taking responsibilities, compared with 28% of fathers, while 39% of mothers said they have taken “a significant amount of time” off work because of caretaking, compared with 24% of fathers.
So what can be done to help ease this conflict? One answer is that companies can provide flexibility for all workers, when possible. If flexibility is only given to mothers, it breeds resentment, and it turns mothers into a specific category of worker that is seen as less dedicated.
“The best flex policies are reason-blind, which allows anyone with a caregiving need of any kind at any age to get their job done in the most productive way possible for their jobs in a culture that’s set up circa 1965,” said Lauren Smith Brody, an author and founder of The Fifth Trimester, a consultancy that helps companies retain new mothers.
If you’re a parent who is asking an employer for a flexible working schedule, Brody suggests coming in with a couple of plans for how it will work and being able to explain to your boss why granting you flexibility is good for the company.
It shouldn’t just be a one-time ask for flexibility, either — it should be an ongoing conversation with regular check-ins. “That way it’s a more natural part of your growth as an employee,” and won’t just be seen as your dialing back, Brody said.
I feel lucky that I have the flexibility to attend these middle-of-the-afternoon first-grade readings of “Aladdin and the Magic Pickle Jar” without worrying about retaliation from my employer. The ability to show up for your children matters — it matters deeply to your children, and it matters for you. It should matter to your employers, too.