Parenting is always tough. It’s stressful even with an active partner who shares equally in parenting and household responsibilities and with all the support–and artisanal pizza–that a middle-class life in Brooklyn affords. I have something millions of Americans don’t: a job that allows me to juggle work and family year-round.
Now that I have kids, I find it remarkable that my dad raised my sisters and me as a single parent. This was almost unheard of in the late 1970s and ’80s, but his workplace–a local PBS affiliate–was supportive. His job paid well enough to afford good child care. His schedule was predictable enough that he could take us to school in the mornings and be home most nights for dinner. And his female colleagues offered nothing but encouragement when he asked them for tips on things like how to braid his daughters’ hair.
My dad was the first to point out that it was probably easier for him, as a man, to earn enough to support our family as a sole breadwinner than it would have been for a woman. That was 40 years ago. But even now, as more men take on increased caregiving roles and more women are breadwinners, our workplace policies still haven’t caught up.
This isn’t just an inconvenience; it’s completely out of step with our family and work lives today, and forces us to make impossible choices.
In July, Debra Harrell was arrested for leaving her daughter in a playground across the street while she worked a shift at a South Carolina McDonald’s; she couldn’t afford child care on her pay and had no other options. In August, Shanesha Taylor had to leave her two young children in a car with the windows cracked while she was at a job interview. And in October, Stacy Ehrisman-Mickle, an attorney in Atlanta, was forced to bring her four-week-old infant to court when her truck-driver husband was out of town and the judge refused to postpone a hearing.
These women are emblematic of the impossible squeeze facing millions of working parents. More than 60% of moms and 90% of dads work outside the home. A pregnancy complication, a sick toddler, or even a healthy birth can jeopardize an employee’s economic stability. When these inevitable events happen, especially to low-income women, we tend to blame the parents, as happened repeatedly in the cases of Harrell and Taylor.
Instead, we should talk about why employers like McDonald’s and Walmart don’t offer appropriate parental leave, fair wages, affordable child care, or paid sick days. It can be done, as we know from looking at some of the most successful companies in the world.
The Container Store, in stark contrast to the retailers above, pays retail employees almost $50,000 per year, which gives it an incredible 90% retention rate. The retention rate for similar national retail chains is closer to 0%. Google supports its employees through fully paid maternity and paternity leave up to 22 weeks, which has significantly increased their retention rates of women employees. Change.org also made waves recently when it announced a policy of 18 weeks of paid leave for all new parents, women and men.
Studies show that workers who aren’t distracted by financial worries and have quality time with family are more productive at work and stick around longer. This saves companies recruitment and training costs, gives workers an added incentive to do their best, and those extra dollars in their pockets increases their purchasing power and boosts the economy.
Some companies are coming up with innovative policies to address some work-family challenges: Much was made of Facebook’s recent decision to offer women the ability to freeze eggs. That’s great, but I’d also like to see companies help women and men keep their jobs on track if they choose not to delay having children. I’d like to see companies create workplaces that don’t require employees to break their necks just to keep up.
Some local and state governments are making progress, too: Paid sick days won on several ballots in the midterm elections–legislation that will impact almost one million workers.
This was an important step, but our government can and should do more—through a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave nationwide, and affordable child care. The private sector can do more, too. They can provide good jobs, which will lead to better performance, a stronger, more stable workforce, a healthier economy, and happier families.
We all deserve a chance to not worry about how we’ll make time for birthday parties and doctor’s appointments, save for the future, and pay the bills. If you work hard, you deserve more than a decent living–you deserve a decent life. Businesses, legislators: Take note.
—Vivien Labaton is the co-executive director of Make It Work, a campaign to advance economic security for working women, men, and families.