Is parenting during the workday here to stay?
Frazzled parents need more help than their bosses alone can offer.
By Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
Before the pandemic, a typical day for Jennifer Jacoby meant getting up early to drop her then-1-year-old daughter, Sage, at day care before commuting to her office in Washington, D.C. A lawyer with the nonprofit Center for Reproductive Rights, Jacoby spent her days in strategy sessions in conference rooms and in meetings with lawmakers on the Hill, crafting legislation to protect maternal health rights. As a single mom, it was on Jacoby to leave the office in time to pick up Sage, get home for dinner and bedtime, and then work some more. Get up the next day and do it all over again.
And then, in March 2020, things closed. Public spaces, Metro stations, her office. Sage’s day care.
Work continued. Jacoby’s organization moved quickly to enact flexible policies, including no-meeting Fridays, organization-wide mental health days every other Friday, and an open-ended COVID-19-related leave policy. Jacoby uses her leave to spend time with her daughter, while others use it for mental health and self-care or to care for a loved one. Jacoby’s work environment allows her to parent and work at the same time: On a recent morning video call with maternal rights advocates from outside the Center, Jacoby made bran muffins while Sage sat in front of the camera, occasionally adding her voice to the conversation.
“On team meetings — we have many — my colleagues are so incredible. They’ll change their Zoom backgrounds to sea turtles and puppies to entertain Sage. And she loves it,” says Jacoby. “My day-to-day would look really different if I didn’t have the work family that I do.”
For many people, the pandemic is forcing one of the biggest and swiftest shifts in work in recent history. Companies that had no remote working policies now have no physical offices. “Working hours” is a phrase that is losing its meaning. At the same time, the closure of in-person school and child care facilities has made children and their needs visible in ways they weren’t before: We can no longer pretend that children don’t exist when we’re at work.
Most organizations, however, have not yet made their policies and virtual work environments as parent-friendly as the Center for Reproductive Rights has. In November, a Marketplace Edison Research survey found that just over half of respondents were afforded flexible working hours by their employers, while 26 percent had been offered paid leave and 17 percent were given resources to help with child care or remote school.
But even if more employers do follow with lasting changes in attitudes toward and policies for working parents, it’s worth asking how meaningful such improvements can be without broader structural supports such as government-funded parental leave and child care — and whether women will continue to shoulder more parenting expectations than men. There’s a chance the pandemic will force big, permanent improvements in the working life of many parents, but that will require changes beyond the ones employers can bring about on their own.
The new normal — for some
Remember back in 2017, when Robert Kelly, an expert on Korean relations, was doing an important interview with the BBC via video link and his young daughter toddled into the room behind him? Several people I spoke to for this story brought up how Kelly’s experience went viral within hours. It was funny then, they all say, because things like that didn’t happen often. Now they happen every day. During one of my Zoom interviews for this article, both of my children — 6 and 9 years old — poked their heads into the screen, demanding to know to whom I was talking. “But where are your clothes?” I asked weakly. It was hot in the blanket fort, they said. But, they pointed out, they still had underwear on.
“For many parents, especially at startups, there was this feeling that you needed to hide your kids or not talk about your family,” says Marissa Evans Alden, mother of a 3- and a 1-year-old and CEO and co-founder of Sawyer, an online marketplace that helps parents find educational opportunities for their kids. But now, the spillover of kids and family into working lives is unmistakable, and the human-resources policies of many companies are being shaped by people who are themselves parents. Sawyer, for example, immediately implemented flexible hours and trusted that employees would get their work done when they could. Other companies, including Dell Technologies and PricewaterhouseCoopers, offered discounts for or subsidized child care and tutoring, or flexible COVID-related leave that could be used to care for a sick family member or just in-home “learning.”
At New Relic, a San Francisco-based software development company with remote work and flexible hours, the most consequential change has been the increased acceptance that working parents sometimes need to parent. “In the middle of the day, I have to say I’ve got to go pick up my kids,” says Kristy Friedrichs, the company’s chief people officer and mother of two young children. “We’re just a lot more open about it, and folks are appreciative of that. It’s more work-life integration as opposed to balance. . . . Sometimes, work needs to take more, and sometimes family needs to take more — it’s an ebbing and flowing.”
It’s possible to design policies that help parents. Company culture — which includes the examples set by higher-ups — can empower employees to take advantage of that help.
Brendan O’Donohoe, a father of two young children who is vice president of sales at Toast, a Boston-based company that develops software for restaurants, says that during one of Toast’s virtual all-hands meetings, his boss’s daughter walked into the frame. “He’s on a call with 500 or 600 people . . . he proceeds to get into a parenting moment with her,” he recalled. “He was modeling this behavior — maybe it was on purpose or it wasn’t, but it then made it OK for everyone’s kids to walk into the meetings that we’re on and no one is going to get in trouble for it. This is life now. . . . The bright lines between business and life — those lines are gone and it’s going to be OK.”
‘You’ve had enough time to get your life under control’
Welcome as this shift has been, it goes only so far.
After all, many employers simply can’t pivot to remote work, while many others can’t or won’t offer paid leave or child care assistance. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 32 million American workers would not be paid if they had to take time off to care for themselves or a loved one.
And while the pandemic has made the children of working parents more visible than ever, it’s also made it apparent that in most hetero, two-parent homes, it’s mothers who bear a disproportionate responsibility for child care, elder care, domestic chores, and household management, even when they’re working. As Indiana University sociologist Jessica Calarco says, America’s safety net is women.
“A lot of [mothers] feel like they have to parent all day and work all night. Even if both parents are home and working from home, if the kid needs a glass of milk or the siblings are fighting, they’re going to go to Mom,” Calarco says. “It’s the question of who gets to let the kids run through their Zoom meeting versus who has to stop working to help the kids.”
Remember that BBC interview? It was the wife, panicked and frazzled, who scrambled in to grab the little kid.
The fallout of this dynamic is painfully clear: The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently found that female participation in the US labor force dipped to 55.8 percent in February, a 34-year low. Some projections suggest that the pandemic and associated impacts will cost working mothers $64.5 billion in lost wages.
While it might come off as sweet now if a male CEO’s young daughter wanders into a work call, a mid-level female manager doesn’t necessarily feel so well supported if her daughter does so. “I think there’s a much bigger judgment on women when it happens,” says Jamie Cheney, co-founder of and strategist at Prokanga, a talent search firm with a focus on hiring for flexible positions, and mother of three school-age boys. “They have to appear on the screen as if they have it all together. It still needs to look perfect from here up.” Cheney believes that though such judgments were put on hold during the first few months of the pandemic, they’re back: “What we see now is that there is an expectation that there is child care in the house. There is an expectation that you’ve had enough time to get your life under control.”
When I asked Cheney whether she believed there would be positive changes for parents in the post-pandemic workplace, she was blunt: “No.”
What comes next
The shift toward flexibility and remote working isn’t likely to be reversed. Dell Technologies, for example, will not be going back to a full-time office requirement even after the pandemic ends, according to Kristi Hummel, Dell’s Massachusetts-based senior vice president for talent and culture and mother of a 9-year-old. Countless companies have made similar decisions. Cheney, of Prokanga, says that even her firm’s most conservative clients — asset management companies, financial services — are offering remote work. “We don’t have a single client who says they won’t hire remote,” a dramatic reversal from a year ago, she says. Moreover, she says, people are making long-term decisions, such as where they’ll live, based on being able to have flexible remote work. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing a huge backsliding on these benefits,” she says.
Attitudes in many workplaces have changed in a fundamental way. “Before the pandemic, we were living sort of in a false framework of work-life balance, where we were trying to put equal energy into all aspects of our lives,” says Alden, of Sawyer. “Now as professionals we understand you have a life outside of work. We understand that sometimes life interferes with work, but we trust that you will be able to get your work done, whether that is in a traditional 9 to 5 structure or not.”
But for real change, parents need more than just permission to parent and work at the same time. That’s where a stronger safety net would come in. How different might things be if paid parental leave were offered equally to both parents, establishing a pattern that the role of caregiver is equally shared? Or if there were equal pay for women and access to inexpensive child care, so that leaving their careers wasn’t for so many women the “rational” decision? It’s telling that the percentage of women working in the United Kingdom, where the safety net is stronger, has hardly shifted at all during the pandemic.
Perhaps now, with so many parents fed up or just plain exhausted, the moment is finally ripe for meaningful change to arrive.
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American writer based in London. Follow her on Twitter @LinRod.