America Suffers From Work-Family Conflict. Universal Child Care Won’t Fix That
Career success shouldn't depend exclusively on having a somewhere to drop our kids off everyday.
New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo on Wednesday related the struggles of working at home during lockdown with children. There’s chaos. Broken toilets. Incredibly cute antics. Also, the inability to get anything done.
“In this fifth week of sheltering in place, I am really starting to wonder how anyone could think this is sustainable,” Manjoo writes. He notes that despite states taking steps to reopen their economies, many schools will not reopen this academic year. “The economy will not really ‘open up,’ and life will not really return to normal, as long as parents don’t have any place to send our children during the day.”
Manjoo later reveals his hope that “cross-society parental stress under pandemic could forge a new parental voting bloc. That perhaps now universal child care will be regarded as a necessity, not some kind of indulgence.”
What if instead creating a place to ship our kids off to, we changed the landscape of work schedules and workplaces? Don’t get me wrong; having more childcare options that are high quality and affordable would be a good thing, especially for single parents of young kids. The problem is that overall, our ability to work does largely depend on having a “place to send our children during the day.” It shouldn’t.
These are Strange Times
I recently wrote about how pandemic-inspired work changes could be a stepping stone to a new reality that benefits women and families. More people could work from home more often, or build schedules around their family’s unique needs. But the current situation should be just that — a stepping stone. For most people, this isn’t representative of what a truly family-friendly work situation would be like.
For the past year and a half I’ve worked from home, albeit part time, with my now-toddler son. Everything is different amid the pandemic, even for us. Practically, we’re isolated from the social support systems and activities that help relieve the burden of “rooming with, feeding and educating one or more children,” as Manjoo puts it. For instance, my mother-in-law usually watches my son at least once a week. Other nearby family members also help out regularly. In normal times, we can run errands or go to the playground for a while. (Trust me, this helps a lot when you need to be productive but your little one needs to expend energy first.) None of that’s happening right now.
Kids and parents stuck in a home together 24/7 with nowhere to go and no one else to see isn’t normal, or necessarily healthy. But neither is it healthy to need full time, universal child care just to make a living.
Cultural Change Needed
What’s so bad about the status quo, other than the fact that child care isn’t guaranteed for working parents? For one, families aren’t getting the time together that they need. Children need present mothers, particularly in the first few years of their lives. Involved fatherhood is crucial for ensuring positive life outcomes. But the modern corporate environment isn’t built to accommodate those realities. Yes, some families make enough money for one parent to stay home full time. But increasingly in two-parent households, both mom and dad work — and want to work.
Adopting universal child care as the solution doesn’t actually address these things. It doesn’t release us from the prison of unnecessarily rigid work schedules. It doesn’t dissolve the man-made dichotomy that the abortion lobby often uses to fuel its cause — that being a devoted mother and advancing in one’s career is practically impossible.
Authentic change has to be cultural. We must start by truly valuing motherhood (and parenting in general), as Andrea Palpant Dilley adeptly argues in the latest issue of Christianity Today. At the same time, we can’t ignore women’s important contributions outside the home. We must recognize that healthy families are fundamental to a healthy society. And we must stop idolizing work and start honoring a biblical concept of rest. (This does not mean that we become less hardworking.)
Obviously, Manjoo’s mention of universal child care in one column isn’t a comprehensive policy proposal. And to be honest, a “parental voting bloc” sounds like a breath of fresh air. But its sole focus can’t be universal child care. Our society regularly pits work and family against each other. If we think having a “place to send our children during the day” is the primary answer to that conflict, we are missing the point.