There’s been a shift in the conversation amongst working parents lately. We’ve gone from the present (“How are we possibly going to keep doing this?!”) to the future (“I wonder what’s going to change/happen when...”).
There are a few reasons for that shift, but I think it boils down to acceptance and hope. Acceptance that whenever things do adjust, they’re never going to be exactly the same again. And hope that not going back to the way things were might actually be a good thing for working parents.
Amidst that hope, there is also doubt. Has exposing a truth that working parents have long felt the need to hide - that raising kids is a full time job that yes, does impact our work - finally given working parents the visibility needed to drive change? Or, are the working parents who are taking over caregiving in addition to work (mostly moms) going to watch as hard fought progress disappears? It could go either way.
I recently saw a chart that graphed COVID-19 infection rates alongside a measure of ‘collectivism vs individualism’ in different countries. The two biggest take-aways likely won’t surprise you: countries with higher rates of collectivism have significantly lower rates of infection and the US has the highest measure of ‘individualism’. Individualism is not a bad trait; our individualistic nature has often served our country well. However, this chart has been stuck in my mind for weeks, and as I think about the future for working parents I can’t help but think about collectivism and individualism. When it comes to parents, is the individualism of this country hurting us? And if it is so deeply entrenched in our national identity, can the status quo (which is clearly failing) ever change?
I can think of no clearer way to illustrate the incredible burden working parents in this country face than the present situation. It has laid bare the realities of combining childrearing and work and exposed the often precarious patchwork of solutions we stitch together to try and make combining work and parenting functional in a broken system.
As a country, we have our head in the sand when it comes to working parents. We take a ‘not my problem’ approach and leave people to figure it out on their own. The issue? It is your problem, and my problem, and our problem. As Claire Cain Miller pointed out in her powerful and insightful piece this week, having kids is not a lifestyle choice - it is the work of raising the next generation, the future of our society, and it is not something parents can do alone.
The US is a country built on “rugged individualism.” It’s woven into the fabric of our nation from our earliest roots. However, the last few weeks have proven that we can also act as a collective unit. We can self sacrifice for the greater good when the need arises. It’s not the first time this has happened of course, but it’s the first time in a long time (especially on this scale) and a reminder to all of us why collective action is important too.
This week we asked working parents what, realistically, their companies could do to better support them. The answers varied, but in general they centered on proactive action from employers, not just an acknowledgement of the situation. We’ve been playing a game of hot-potato when it comes to concrete policies to support working parents - passing it back and forth between the government and the private sector with no one wanting to take ownership and responsibility. That potato just landed in the laps of working parents, with nowhere left to throw it.
It’s not a mystery what working parents need; the roadblock is not a lack of knowledge, it’s a lack of action. I’m not much of an athlete, but I can recognize a team sport. Every working parent knows that this is a team sport - none of us, not even single parents, does this alone. And the reason is simple: it’s not possible. That’s not an exaggeration - we cannot both work and parent without a large support structure. As one of the only two countries (looking at you, Papua New Guinea) in the world without a minimum national support structure for working parents, we have thrown the onus onto parents. Companies have picked up some slack, but as COVID-19 has made strikingly clear, we’re not there yet (not even close).
Past history suggests we’ll see little change, but I am still hopeful. Hope alone is not enough though. Together, we need to drive change. The parents who shared the changes they want to see weren’t reaching for the stars (no one said paid childcare for example) - they were talking about achievable, concrete steps and actions.
Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “yes, I know this already.” Exactly! That’s the point. We all already know it, but nothing has changed. It has taken a global pandemic when, for the first time in history, we’re actually demanding that working parents do the impossible (work full time without childcare) for us to have a glimmer of hope for change.
If the last few weeks are proof of our ability for collective action, how can we harness that skill after COVID-19? And in this particular case, how can we take collective action to build the long missing social structures that virtually every other country on this planet provides for their working parents? How can we not just meet the minimum need, but redefine what it looks like to support all working parents? As we emerge from this current crisis, I hope we emerge as a stronger society, one that wants to create and build something better for future generations. Many things will change after COVID-19 - will a shift from individualism to collectivism when it comes to working parents be one of them?