My nerves are frayed by fear: fear that my two daughters will get sick or fall behind (or both), fear that I’ll miss a work deadline, fear that the iPad has been on too long or that it’s about to run out of batteries in time for an important meeting. Oh, and even though my kids go to school a block apart from each other, just one of my daughters had a snow day last week–on the one day when my husband/coworker/coparent had back-to-back meetings.
The new year has brought parents more disruption than ever, with closed schools, daycare worker shortages, and kids home quarantining, recovering or trying to avoid getting sick. As if that’s not hard enough, many companies have returned to an expectation of normalcy, requiring businesses to stay open and mandating employees increasingly work in person. Parents–particularly mothers–are paying the price for the lack of long-term solutions.
The unpredictability only compounds the struggles parents faced in the workplace before the pandemic—a lack of flexibility, inadequate parental leave policies, a high cost of child care, and work cultures hostile to the responsibilities of caregiving. Today, mothers spend an average of eight hours a day on child care—the equivalent of a (for working parents, a second) full-time job.
Remember early on in the beginning of the pandemic, when many people suddenly realized how hard it was to be a working parent? In March of 2020, a friend excitedly told me about virtual babysitting at her company: Non-parents volunteered to hang out with the kids of their colleagues on Zoom to give parents some relief.
It didn’t last.
And neither did the company-sponsored child-care stipend. (Sound familiar?)
The government-funded paid leave we had for Covid recovery and school closures thanks to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (which prevented more than 15,000 cases every day)? Expired. The child tax credit payments? Ended last month. And that paid family-and-medical leave parents (mostly mothers) have been advocating to keep in the Build Back Better economic recovery package? We’re still waiting.
Now is the time to make fundamental shifts in the way we work, the support we give caregivers, and the federal policies that enable families to thrive.
Mothers have left the workforce at an alarming rate, and increasingly more women are deciding not to become mothers at all. But I haven’t given up hope that my daughters will enter the workforce with political solutions, public investment, and compassionate employers that enable them to grow their careers and their families, should they choose.
Last year, I co-founded a company that focuses on the future of work. Every day, I’m juggling the demands of caregiving and remote working, while building a company and advising organizations on workplace transformation. I encourage companies every day to use this time not just to transition to new ways of working but to transform how they work as they build workplaces for the future.
My co-founders and I have thought of our company as a living lab for future-of-work ideas. We’ve normalized caregiving as part of working life, adding caregiving as a global “away” status in Slack to let the team know when we’re caring for ourselves or a loved one throughout the day. We’ve adopted limited core coordination hours—windows where the whole team works synchronously—and we created more asynchronous ways of working, including fewer meetings in favor of written communication and digital collaboration tools. We’ve shaped our leave policies to reflect the needs of caregivers, including an inclusive paid family leave policy, flexible paid time off, and unlimited sick days. And we’ve advocated publicly for federal paid leave.
Clear expectations and deliberate policies have helped me be a better parent, a better leader, and a better colleague. It’s still a struggle, especially in these early weeks of January while we await the peak of Omicron, but I’m fortunate to be able to give what I can, when I can, to my family and my team.
In the absence of political solutions, companies have to step up and lead in support for caregivers, and to create workplaces that retain and support working parents, without forcing them to choose between their paycheck and their sanity or their kids.
It’s a sad reality that at most companies, parents will have to advocate for themselves because their employers aren’t paying attention. Here’s something you can forward to your organization’s leaders to point them to what the best workplaces are doing in this area:
If you send something like this or push forward more caregiver-friendly practices in other ways, know that you’re not alone. And let us know how it goes. Have you or your employer found strategies to support working parents? Do you have a story you would like to share? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Erin Grau is the co-founder and chief operating officer of Charter, a media and services company that aims to transform every workplace. Erin lives and works in New York City with her husband and daughters.