The United States likes to consider itself a society based on “family values,” but there’s not much evidence that's true in our public or workplace policies unless you define "family" like Michael Scott from The Office: a boss and their dutiful employees, all braving ridiculous and awkward situations together. Especially when we compare our workplaces to workplaces around the world, it’s painfully obvious that American companies hold parents of young children to impossible standards. Though most people don’t think to question a lot of our dominant work culture, many of the practices and labor policies we put up with essentially ignore the fact that workers (parents and non-parents alike) are human beings with lives outside of work. That can be somewhat manageable when you don’t have kids, but once you do — especially when those kids aren’t yet old enough for school — it can be very difficult to maintain that facade.
Most of society, for better and for worse, is in solid agreement that parenting should be every parent’s top priority, and that parenthood should be a rite of passage for most or all adults. Yet most employers simultaneously demand that their employees put work first, even after they become parents. That’s especially hard on parents of young children, because our society also doesn’t systematically provide for their care and learning prior to kindergarten. Parents are left to figure out on our own just what, exactly, we should do with these precious little people for as long as five whole years, while going to work every day in places that aren’t willing or able to accommodate them.
For multiple political, economic, and social reasons, American workplaces treat accommodating basic facts about human life — like that humans occasionally get sick, need breaks, and reproduce — like unexpected inconveniences, or luxuries that should only be available to workers with a certain level of education or specialized knowledge. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t understand that apparently, they shouldn’t be fertile (or susceptible to illness, or fatigue) unless an employer thinks our particular combination of degrees, skill, and on-the-job behavior makes us worthy of paid family leave, sick days, or vacation time.
Frankly, that’s nuts. Every person who sets foot in an office, or behind a fast food counter, or onto a construction site, or anywhere else, is a person. All people should be able to meet their basic human needs, which often include caring for tiny people we love, without risking our entire livelihoods. The following workplace oversights put parents of young children in an awful bind, as far as meeting high standards for employment and parenting are concerned. We’re long overdue to fix this mess, once and for all.
By Having Unnecessarily Rigid Ideas Of What Is Considered “Professional”
For most Americans, being “professional” at work means presenting yourself in a very particular, often impersonal way. Employees are often expected to look and dress a certain way that requires time, effort, and money to achieve. That’s especially true for women and people of color, who frequently have to drastically alter our hair, put on makeup, and otherwise change our natural selves in order to be considered “presentable” by people who don’t understand or respect our natural features or cultures (or the fact that it’s messed up to judge people based on appearance standards that have nothing to do with their qualifications).
Seemingly little things like that actually add hidden, unpaid hours to the workweek, hours that are particularly hard to come by when you're tired and have small children to account for while putting yourself together.
By Expecting Employees To Manage Everything On Their Own...
Most American workplaces endorse the idea that everyone will “leave their personal lives at the door,” despite the fact that the rest of people’s lives affect who they are and what they’re able to do at work.
For parents of young children, that basically translates into an unspoken expectation that the people in the photos in your locker or on your desk are cool and all, as long as they remain cute two-dimensional figures who never interrupt them by doing things like getting sick or hurt during working hours. Clearly, working parents need to make sure our toddlers — and the pathogens they encounter on the playground, and gravity — are all familiar with American workplace norms and policies.
...All With A Smile On Their Faces
Whether it’s the “service with a smile” ethos of the service sector, or the notion that being a “team player” at the office means being unnaturally upbeat and friendly at all times, American companies demand a lot of emotional labor in addition to actual work from their employees.
It’s unreasonable to expect that people will never be sad, or stressed, or angry during working hours. And it’s especially hard on working parents, who are often exhausted from trying to balance impossible demands at work and at home, or who may be anxious or sad due to being prematurely separated from their new children, uncomfortable with childcare arrangements, and more.
By Expecting Parents Back At Work Shortly After Their Families Grow
Of course, the United States’ lack of universal paid family leave policies, and paltry unpaid leave provisions are notorious by now, because the rest of the world recognizes that it’s ridiculous to expect people to almost immediately come back to work after they or their partners give birth to or adopt new children.
By Being Inflexible About Scheduling...
Little kids have lots of needs, at all times of the day and night. Yet even if employees are dangerously tired after a night of dealing with a teething baby, or an anxious toddler, they're still expected to show up, at the same time, and perform as though everything is fine. Employees who ask to telework or take sick or personal days — if they even have them — to get much-needed rest are often considered lazy by their bosses and coworkers.
...Or Being Totally Inconsistent With Scheduling
Especially in the service sector, bosses give hourly employees very little control over their time. That makes it difficult to impossible to secure reliable childcare, or pay for it, since they don’t know how much they’re going to be paid. Yet despite giving them relatively little notice of when they’ll be needed or when they’ll be paid, those bosses expect employees to show up on time and ready to work or face punishment. Double standard, much?
By Resisting Telework Arrangements
While there are some jobs that flat out have to be done in person — surgeons can’t very well operate on you via their cell phones — many don’t. Still, many US employers resist teleworking arrangements because they fear they won’t be able to control employees if they can’t see them. That means many working parents, who somehow manage to be responsible enough to keep whole people alive without a boss looking on, have to sacrifice quality time with their families in order to commute, risk late charges at daycare, and more.
By Not Facilitating Childcare Arrangements
Despite the fact that most people eventually have children, employers (and society more generally) still considers figuring out childcare, especially for children under age five, to be a personal responsibility instead of a collective one. Expecting parents to show up and be fully engaged with their jobs, without ensuring that they’ll have trustworthy, reliable childcare, is kind of a major oversight.
By Not Paying Enough To Cover The Cost Of Childcare
Though people often treat the decision to work outside the home versus stay home with kids like it’s completely about personal preferences, a lot of parents (usually moms) actually end up staying home with their kids because many employers don’t pay enough to cover the high cost of daycare. Others, who truly can’t stay home, resort to desperate measures like leaving small kids unsupervised or with people they don’t fully trust, because their bosses still expect them to be at work, consistently and on time, regardless of whether their kids are adequately cared for.
By Penalizing Employees Who Seek More Flexible Arrangements
Though a growing number of employers have begun to offer some flexibility for working parents on paper, in practice those accommodations often come at the cost of being “mommy tracked” (especially in places that only offer leave for moms and not dads) or passed over for prestigious work assignments and advancement opportunities. Though they may say they’re supportive of families, many working parents find that their bosses and colleagues consider them less dependable or committed than employees who don’t ask for things like family leave or telework days in order to care for small children.
By doing that, employers put parents of young children in the position of having to choose between doing their best at work, and doing their best for their kids. Some employees have even discovered ways to fake a longer work week so they can manage their family obligations without sacrificing their standing at work. But employees really shouldn't have to put up with all this, or even lie in order to balance their work and family obligations. Let's just rethink the workplace so it actually works for working parents.