Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Why America Is Bad For Working Parents

At risk of sounding like Michelle Obama, who said she's only recently been proud of her country, I gotta say, my country is pissing me off ... at least in the way it treats working parents.

Today I was just sitting down as a meeting was beginning at work; I'd driven all the way to Burbank for it -- always a bit of a haul through morning rush hour -- when my cell phone rang. It was Thing 1 and Thing 2's preschool teacher, to say Thing1, who'd been perfectly fine an hour and a half ago when I'd kissed him goodbye and seen him and Thing 2 off in Daddy's car -- was running a fever, listless, and in need of being picked up a.s.a.p.

Now most days I'm lucky enough to work at home ... but not this morning, because it was a Tuesday, and Tuesday mornings I'm almost always in Burbank for a weekly meeting. So it fell on Dad, whose office is much closer to the preschool, to pick up Thing 1 and bring him home. And then it fell on both of us to scramble the rest of the day, both trying to care for Thing 1 in shifts while getting our jobs done, or at least attempting to do so.

My understanding boss agreed to let me make up whatever work I'd missed by working tonight -- after the kids' bedtime. Same with Dad's situation. Neither of us could really afford taking the rest of the day off: Dad's in a new job and hasn't earned sick or vacation time yet, and I've got a mere five sick days a year, which I need when I get sick, or if one of the kids is so sick I've got no other choice but to use the sick days. Vacation time isn't much of a viable option either: I've only got ten days, at least until I hit eight full years with my current employer, when I'll finally be granted another five days. And sure, I've got a couple of personal days. But with more school holidays and than I've got in sick and vacation and personal days combined, I've got to save those days to cover childcare later this year.

So Dad and I muddled through today. I had to quit work in time to pick up Thing 2 from preschool, while Dad set up Thing 1 -- still feverish -- in front of the TV. Then it was home to make dinner for all. I finally got back down to work, and have just now finished it. And I have no idea if Thing 1 will still have a fever in the morning.

We can't be the only parents stuck in this bind. In fact, I'll wager that we're a lot like the majority of working parents in the U.S. And every time someone in the house gets sick, we're forced to scramble.

Now I know there's a Federal program called Family Leave (started under Bill Clinton), and in fact I made good use of it when I gave birth: I took time off to bond with my newly born kids, and thanks to the great state of California and a few actually visionary legislators like the amazing California State Senator Sheila Kuehl, I even got some money from the state during six of my twelve weeks' leave (California is the rare state that provides for partial pay during family leave, rather than just a guarantee that your company has to hold your job or one like it while you're out). My husband did the rare daddy thing and took all twelve weeks too (thank goodness: with newborn twins, you need all hands on deck). Thanks to the fact that I'm a member of a union with a decent contract, I even got another twelve weeks' unpaid leave, and my company held my job, employing a temporary replacement. So for once, the system worked the way it ought to: in favor of working parents.

And when I returned to work, on days when my childcare wasn't available, my company actually had a safe back-up childcare program that I could utilize for up to twenty days a year at a reasonable cost. The program has since bit the dust due to budget cutbacks, and very limited hours of in-home babysitting from strangers hired by babysitting agencies has been substituted, to not very good effect, at least for us (and would you want to leave a sick kid with a stranger?).

Family Leave is only for extreme situations -- bonding with a newborn, caring for a sick elderly parent, ill spouse, etc. With regular old colds and flu and such, we're pretty much at the mercy of our employers' indulgence, especially once those sick days and vacation days are used, so we try hard not to use them till we have to. Often it seems as if every germ that comes through preschool proceeds to throw our working lives into havoc.

Yet I know that in many Western European countries, working parents -- and especially mothers -- have a lot more leeway. They've got way more vacation time and personal time. They have government-paid maternity leave and it's not just for six or twelve weeks. When they return to work, they've got safe, well-maintained, low cost childcare. Yes, they have higher taxes. But for those perks, I'd pay those higher taxes.

Most politicians, though, can't be bothered to implement real solutions to these problems, and don't have the courage to ask us to pay for them.

I think of how privileged my husband and I are that we were able to work from home today, and care for our son, and how few working parents can actually be there for their kids when they're sick ... or even just home after school before the workday ends. And I think of the recent statistics that came out, about how the U.S. has more people in prison per capita than anywhere else -- 1 in 100. I'm starting to think the two facts are related.

Why aren't Clinton, McCain and Obama talking about this? (Clinton especially -- come on, Hill, you were a working mom when Chelsea was growing up.) What are they going to do about it? What are your local officials doing to make our employers give us more flex time, more paid leave, more unpaid leave, more opportunities to be there for our kids?

As far as I'm concerned, America is bad for working parents. I've joined Moms Rising to help raise awareness and hold politicians' feet to the fire, contacting elected officials whenever they send me an email alert about an issue that affects us. But I worry it's not enough. I don't want it to take until when Thing 1 and Thing 2 have kids of their own for America to wake up.

The next time you're trying to juggle work and a sick kid, ask yourself what you can do about it. If you've got an idea, share it with me. And please, if there's somethingyou can do, do it. Me, I'm going to bed now. Tomorrow it starts all over again.


PunditMom said...

Why aren't they talking about it? Because working parents aren't their biggest contributors. And reporters don't ask them about it because ti doesn't play into their idea of "important" issues.

Deep sigh.

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