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[The Invisible Hours]Norton: Inequities in the workforce at the root of current ‘caregiving catastrophe’

2021-07-19

  The life of a single working parent has never been glamorized — and for good reason. Carrying the full mental load, working 90+ hours a week, the dreaded anxiety that we are underperforming at work and at home despite burning it at both ends, the fear we aren’t enough.

  It’s a job that isn’t exactly what anyone would call ‘sustainable,’ and yet, millions of Americans get up and do it everyday. The caregiving crisis impacts every piece of our society, and the pandemic has only shone a more glaring light on it as parents and those caring for aging family members try to ‘do it all’ amidst global uncertainty.

  It’s a challenge I know all too well as I answer early Sunday morning calls from clients, balance back-to-back Zooms with at-home school, and attempt to finish writing projects between the hours of 9pm and 3am, after my daughter goes to bed.

  For the past 15 years, I have worked at the nexus of politics and strategic communications, both in-house and as a consultant, for elected officials, candidates, progressive organizations, entrepreneurs, and companies nationwide. I pursued that path driven by a sense of civic responsibility, a love of compelling storytelling, and a motivation to, perhaps idealistically, shape policy outcomes for the greater public good (though I, admittedly, would be lying if my competitive spirit and adrenaline weren’t also factors).

  Despite the incredible possibility my line of work holds, it’s also a path that far too often grinds people to dust. Long hours, notoriously low wages, toxic work environments, instability between election cycles, cutthroat competition for jobs that tends to reward the most affluent and well-connected.

  The industry favors younger people who are able to move frequently and jump from campaign to campaign. That is increasingly difficult, of course, for those with children and other responsibilities.

  Six years ago when I was blessed with my daughter, all of the hard work — blood, sweat, and literal tears — I had poured into a career that got me out of bed every morning could have come to a screeching halt. When I learned I was pregnant, I was leading communications on a top U.S. Senate race and faced a choice: do I tell my close friends and colleagues the news, or do I try to keep it under wraps out of fear of demotion and/or attacks from our opponents?

  I chose the latter. While I was confident some around the campaign, including the candidate, would be supportive, I couldn’t say the same for my immediate boss and others. I ultimately told no one beyond my immediate family and kept up the pace the job demanded, through the morning sickness on statewide bus tours and a 24-7 sprint to election day with little time for rest.

  No new parent should be forced to make that decision, but here we are. In just the last week, I’ve heard of three different women who have gotten pregnant during the pandemic and face the same choice of whether to tell their employer.

  In both politics and corporate America, there is an unspoken double standard that has failed moms. Working fathers are often put on a pedestal for doing the bare minimum (e.g., folding laundry twice a month or making it to one tee-ball game) as women, whether they are a parent or not, are punished for either choice.

  Consider women candidates running for office. Those with children face questions, publicly and privately, about how they can possibly balance the campaign (and the job if they win) with their responsibilities at home.

  Similarly, women without children are demonized with people asking “what’s wrong with her” as though one’s parental status determines competency. Regardless of partisanship, women candidates are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

  The same is true in workplaces across the country as the consequences of parenthood are disproportionately felt by women facing minute-by-minute choices between their family’s well-being and security, and their own careers.

  The last 15 months only further exacerbates this crisis as people are expected to carry on while managing the stress of a mismanaged pandemic, dueling public health and economic crises, systemic racial injustice, mass shootings, rising hate crimes. Women, especially low-wage workers and women of color, have lost $800 billion in income globally due to COVID-19 as they have scaled back hours to juggle caregiving demands and lost their jobs in the industries most impacted. The people who need support most can’t have it.

  It doesn’t have to be this way.

  The lack of nationwide policy that helps working families has led to a caregiving catastrophe. We must confront this reality to make work, in any sector, more conducive for and accessible to individuals from any background, at all stages of family life. Diverse perspectives and experience add value to any workplace, and it’s imperative for our economy that those in positions of power, in government and the private sector, step up to the plate with real solutions.

  The invisible, unpaid labor of stay-at-home parents should be compensated. Qualified child care providers deserve higher pay. Employer practices matter. Options that are considered a luxury despite leading to more productive employees, including remote work, alternative scheduling and flex hours, paid sick leave, subsidized child care, and backup daycare, must be priorities.

  As I sat to write this, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was complaining from a position of privilege with a secure salaried job I can do remotely and help at home with my daughter. I am fortunate and forever grateful for a supportive family who has made it possible for me to be a mom and continue my career, both pre-pandemic and presently.

  That same privilege gives me the opportunity to keep fighting for change so that my daughter can enter a more equitable workforce and our most vulnerable communities have a seat at the table.