This is a rant. You have been warned; proceed accordingly.
Yesterday I came across an article on my Facebook feed. It was titled, "Working Parents, Do You Have a Plan for Childcare Emergencies?"
It made me want to scream. I'll explain.
Here is the summary of the article:
For working parents, childcare emergencies can throw entire days or weeks into chaos. But such emergencies aren’t just stressful. They can make productivity a challenge, and too many of those unexpected hiccups at work could create red flags, making you appear unreliable or leading to lost opportunities for professional growth.
But there are ways you can both plan for and respond to childcare emergencies. First, understand your time on a weekly and daily basis, so when emergencies come up, you will know what your work priorities are. Next, ask your manager, colleagues, and clients for what you need to accommodate your situation. Once you’re home, be flexible about how and when you work, and think outside the box in how you can keep your children occupied while you focus on work. Finally, build a community of people you can lean on and ask for help.
Now, as someone who has been a working parent, and even a solo working parent, this approach to the topic of childcare emergencies got under my skin.
The author recommends some basic and not-necessarily-bad steps. Plan ahead, she says. Know your workload and what's important. Plan each week, then plan each day. Keep in mind your work deadlines, and your colleagues' workloads, and which meetings can wait and which can't.
If you can work from home, she says, work at night after your children go to bed, or before they wake up in the morning, or while they nap. Take work calls while you take a walk. Have novel toys for kids to play with while you try to concentrate on crucial meetings.
And then, of course, she suggests building a community of family, friends, neighbors and other parents who can step in and help when needed.
But it wasn't the advice that irked me so much as the cow patties sprinkled throughout the article under the guise of helpfulness.
Appearing too frazzled or flustered when faced with unexpected hiccups could make people think you’re unreliable – your manager or colleagues might start to think that you aren’t able to balance your family needs with work responsibilities.
If you’re asking for deadlines to be moved, understand the impact on timelines. If you’re asking to work from home when you usually don’t, talk to your manager about why you need this change and for how long. If timelines can’t be changed and you need work to be redistributed to others on the team, talk to your colleagues first to understand who might be able to take on additional work.
She and her child(ren) take a walk while she takes a work call. She’s spending time with her child and getting work done, so it’s a win-win.
(Anyone who has ever taken a walk with a child while on the phone knows that this is a pile of cow patties the size of Montana. She's not spending time with the child, she's parallel playing with them. And her work call will be punctuated with admonitions to little Johnny to not put that in his mouth.)
The author of this article is a work-life balance speaker. She has published books about successful part-time working moms who "balance career and family." But what she describes in this article (and, I begin to suspect, her other writings) is not balance.
Unless by "balance" we mean that since we are expected to be on top of everything and consummate professionals at work, we must also bring that same energy to motherhood (yes, the title of the article is gender neutral, but she mentions no fathers in any of her examples).
A 2018 study found that being a "full-time" mom is equal to about 2.5 full-time jobs, based on time invested. Adding another 40+ hours a week of paid employment doesn't do much to reduce that workload; working mothers end up doing household chores at night after children are asleep, or outsourcing them (at a cost) to others.
The point I'm trying to make is that this parenting thing, and usually this mothering thing, is not really possible or sustainable at this moment in time.
I know women who juggle family and work commitments, get involved in the school or local community, keep tidy houses and do fun things with their kids and partners, all while whittling away at that next degree.
Is this what people imagine when they talk about work-life balance? A little bit of everything, all of the time? 14-18 hour days of non-stop action, split between four or five different categories so as to create an aesthetically-pleasing breakdown when the mind finally folds in on itself?
The author, of course, exhorts us to "...remember that you should also reserve some time away from work each day, especially for longer emergency situations. Keeping long hours may not lead to burnout in the short term, but they [sic] can over time."
Lady, respectfully, you just suggested that women should work after their children go to sleep and before they wake up. I don't think you get to lecture us about long hours.
My biggest gripe, coming back around to the point of this rant, is that the author here is looking at a system that is next-to-impossible for even the highest achievers to hack and, instead of suggesting that childcare should be more affordable or that workplaces should be more flexible or that people should be able to make a living AND raise their children, she puts the onus right back on - you guessed it - mothers.
It's always the mothers' fault.
No amount of organizing and pre-planning can turn the 98 hours of work the average mother puts into parenting, plus the 40+ hours of work she is expected to be able to complete each week for some outside entity, into anything less than a nightmare of constant obligations that leaves about 30 hours a week - yes, I do mean less than 5 hours a day - to eat, sleep, pee, shower and, um, what's that other thing? Oh right, self-care.
Look, if you are making this work I'm proud of you. But I'm also deeply angry right now that there's a woman making money off of telling mothers that if they just tried a little harder to stay on top of everything, it would somehow magically work out, and no one would think they were flaky for having (gasp) a childcare emergency and being anxious about it.
Why do you think we get anxious about it in the first place, dear? It's this kind of thinking that interprets "work-life balance" as a separation of church and state where the right hand never knows (or is affected by) what the left hand is doing, and ne'er the twain shall meet.
These are societal, not personal, problems.
I lost a job once because of childcare emergencies. Three young children, a bad winter of colds and coughs, at least two trips to the emergency room for croup. I went to my boss (who had been out of the office for weeks due to her own illness) and asked if there was any way I could make up the work from home, or come in evenings and weekends when my partner was available for childcare, and she refused - ironically, in the name of work-life balance - and instead told me that she would have to let me go.
Another boss once complimented me because I was doing a "good job" of keeping my personal life (my mother was dying, slowly and horribly, of cancer) out of my work life. It was the most uncomfortable compliment I've ever received, topping the homeless man who told me my dress was pretty but would look better on his floor.
Can we stop calling it balance when we really mean separation?
Can we stop pretending that if we all just tried harder, the impossible would become possible?
Plus, it's 2021. Can we drop the idea that it's unprofessional to appear to be a parent when at work?