I find much to like in a recent column on The Daily Beast. Psychologist Monique Moore addresses issues of greater flexibility for working mothers. She includes longer (paid) maternity leave, access to affordable (quality) childcare, and part-time options.
Dr. Moore presents the usual, now familiar research in “A Continuing Struggle for Working Moms” and it reflects a desire to “lean in” and equally, to be at home for our children when they are young. She makes a point of highlighting this need especially during the years before attending school.
If you ask me, those first few years are the easy part, relatively speaking. Not necessarily easy when it comes to sleepless nights or the fear that sets in when a child cannot communicate how she is feeling, and we know there is something amiss.
Parenting Reality: Full-Time Job, No Pay
But parenting for millions of us is about the fatigue that follows those first years: carpools and karate; homework help and teacher conferences; juggling soccer practice for Janie and band for Johnny and oh by the way, both require four afternoons a week and Saturdays, too; breaking up fights and easing children out of a funk or fear; thousands of loads of laundry and shopping for bread, juice, apple sauce, the ingredients for lasagna and all at the best possible price; dispensing band-aids, lectures, instant love when one is bullied and the other is wounded in a soured friendship. It’s dentists and doctors when you can least afford the time (or money), and still, our share of sleepless nights.
It’s zooming in and backing off, and learning to tell when you need to do each, only to discover that the formula you’ve nearly mastered has changed – again.
Managing the multiple checklists to do with running a household, a chauffeur service, a social ecosystem for developing personalities and simultaneously managing the checklists at the office?
Reading the boss’s mind at the same time – or for that matter, your spouse’s? Yes, ideally, there is another parent in the mix, and one who shares in the responsibilities as many would — if they felt they could.
“Overwhelming” is the term that comes to mind.
No Wonder Women Are Saying No to “Superwoman”
It’s no wonder that some of the best and brightest are saying “no thanks” to the Superwoman Myth, if they have an option, that is.
Dr. Moore writes:
… what working mothers really want is not to “lean in,” but to have the option of part-time employment until children are school-aged… a strong majority of mothers (62%) would prefer to work part-time… Yet no one in Washington has, so far, advocated expanding job-sharing or part-time employment options.
In fact, compared to Europe, the US ranks among the lowest in maternal part-time employment. Compared to Canada and the European superpowers, we also rank among the lowest in female employment rates, maternity leave, and day-care subsidies.
Social Safety Net? Say What?
While Dr. Moore is right to point out the lack of part-time alternatives in the US, we might situate this fact in its socio-political context. Simply put, key factors are our lack of healthcare viewed as a human right, and the availability of reasonably priced health insurance not tied to an employment relationship. Sure, there’s the Affordable Care Act, and for millions it’s an assist. But it isn’t universal healthcare or anything close. You may say that ship has sailed; eventually, it will have to turn around and head back to shore so that healthcare is not linked to the number of hours you work (much less the state you live in).
Likewise, when maternity leave options are not unpaid, and their availability is not a function of the size of the organization or the nature of your “employment relationship,” we just may begin to resemble a civilized nation.
Are there practical implications for these differences between the US and Europe? Of course. Taxes must fund these services. That’s right, taxes. And yes, replacing workers on leave is a major challenge. Then again, the back-end of our current situation is precisely what Dr. Moore talks about – shutting poorer women out of the workplace because they cannot afford childcare, and shutting highly educated women out of the workplace because they have no flexible options. And divorce may topple the entire apple cart.
All of these scenarios cost our society in the long run, and most often cost women and children in particular.
The Contingent Workforce (1099 Workers)
As is typically the case, there is no reference to “non-employee” workers, which you may call portfolio workers, freelancers, contractors, the contingent workforce, or the 1099 economy. There are subtle differences in these terms, but the bottom line is this: 1099 workers remain an invisible segment comprising millions of people with limited employment protections, and for whom these paid leaves and so-called flexible provisions become irrelevant.
While there are certainly aspects of being a contingent worker or self-employed that are advantageous – especially if it is an explicit choice – the downsides are many, and they are rarely discussed.
Some estimates put 1099 workers at 20% of the workforce or higher, anywhere from 20 million to 40 million people. Projections indicate that 40% of the workforce will fall into this category by 2020. Shouldn’t we be including that 40% in our conversation? How many of these workers are women? Mothers? How long will we continue to ignore 20+ million people?
Resources on the 1099 Economy
This article, while already three years old, provides easily understood definitions of the 1099 economy, which are illuminating to those who forget that they – we – exist. If you’re unclear on what constitutes an independent worker, the IRS provides this definition of self-employed/independent contractor.
Many expressly choose to work independently – those who are entrepreneurs, and professionals in fields where it has long been usual to operate on your own, offering services to the general public.
Many are “reluctant” independent workers – a casualty of the economy in the past decade, due to the recession or structural shifts in specific industries.
If you are curious, this article explains the absence of unemployment benefits. As for short-term and long-term disability, frequently part of an employer’s benefit package, the options for an independent worker are something of a maze, and of course must be purchased on your own. Also worth inclusion is this article on self-employment tax, specifically the higher Social Security/Medicare tax burden associated with the 1099 worker.
Single Mothers, Latch-Key Kids
Also ignored are single mothers (specifically) and single parents (generally), who are unlikely to be able to live on a part-time salary.
Last, while early childhood education is critical (I may not be a early childhood education specialist or psychologist, but most of us can read and would agree) – “being there” for older children for whom there are no affordable supervision options is at least as important.
This is a factor that many of us don’t anticipate. Our schools do not necessarily provide after hours care for children, and guidelines for “latch-key” kids and recommended age for leaving children alone are ignored. (Do you know the legal age at which you are permitted to leave your child home alone? In some states it’s 8 or 9, in others it’s 11 or 12. Disconnect, no?)
And legal age aside, how do children get home if they miss a bus and walking is out of the question? How do children participate in activities if there isn’t a parent to drive them or a paid sitter? How do we keep our tweens out of trouble, when we’re too exhausted to watch them and too frazzled to approach communication in a way that will be effective?
Are We Smart Enough to Tackle Complex Challenges?
This is admittedly “light” coverage of a highly complex set of issues. That said, I’m all for Dr. Moore’s points, and where she starts is an excellent beginning. But we cannot ignore the millions of contract workers and their swelling ranks, the millions of single mothers for whom part-time work would be insufficient to sustain their households, and we must consider why these issues have been unaddressed for so long. Flexible schedules and job sharing have been on the table for decades. Why are we so culturally resistant to their progressive adoption?
Likewise, expansion of FMLA, which remains well-intentioned but inadequate, and comes with an onerous administrative burden on employers.
These are complicated issues that cannot be solved with a quick fix. There is nothing simple in achieving a true sharing model for work and family, and naturally it involves employers and their policies. But surely we must broaden the scope of our discussions to include fathers doing their part (as a small but growing number wish to), subsidies and programs to assist mothers with children not only under age 5, but under age 12, and infrastructure that does not render the poor, the single mother, or the contract worker invisible.
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