I almost missed it when my 14-year-old daughter was teetering on the edge of depression and an eating disorder. She may have fallen into the pit if I hadn’t been working from home and able to bear witness to her inelegant and exasperating wobble from childhood to womanhood.
Even working from home, it would have been easy to miss what was going on. Teenagers excel at two art-forms: being self-indulgent and lying to their parents. I’m lucky she’s a terrible liar. “No, I’ve never tried smoking. I’m pretty sure the dog picked up a few cigarette butts and put them under my window.”
We don’t have a dog.
Making the leap from white-collar employee to self-employed freelancer was a frightening one. It almost broke our little family of two, especially when the global economic crisis reduced my respectable freelance income by about 99%. Household hunger goes a long way to hiding borderline anorexia. And it doesn’t help depressive thoughts much either.
How different would our lives have been if I had had the option of taking some parental leave and knowing that my cosy white-collar job was waiting for me when she was that age? Or how different would our lives have been if there had been paid parental leave I could have accessed when my daughter was 5 or 11? What might I have achieved then to avoid the horrifying almost-misstep that came later?
European countries are often held up as being the gold standard in paid parental leave. And yes, mostly they’re excellent. But all parental leave policies ignore the fact that parenting doesn’t end when a child starts school. At that age, the hard part is just beginning.
Companies like Netflix are bravely and publicly opening up discussions on the nuances of paid parental leave. Kudos to them. But they are still blind to the fact that as our workforce ages, our growing children will need us more. The right to paid parental leave is a huge gap in U.S. government policy. But so are the rights to extended leave for parents of older children.
It’s wonderful to be there for the first smile, the first steps, the first word. These are the irreplaceable memories of parenthood, the ones that keep you going when you could cheerfully strangle the cold, obnoxious, and slightly smelly person now living in your house.
But the hard reality is that it is when our children hate us the most that they also need us the most. We are needed when a child becomes a fledgling adult just as much as we are needed when our sweet newborn becomes a fledgling child.
We live in a time when 16% of young people in the U.S. have seriously considered suicide. Granted, it’s impossible to know if increased parental presence at home would do anything to change these numbers. The point is that families deserve a chance to find out.
Imogen Moore is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Europe.