Out of Time How bad family policy screws primary earners, too

My first year in college I ran for student congress on a progressive slate with a student body president candidate who was a woman, black, and queer. I learned a tremendous amount from that experience, but the conversation I recall most often was when she scoffed at someone talking about wanting equality for women. I was taken aback–because isn’t that what this was all about?

“I don’t want the shitty deal men have,” she said. “I don’t want equality; I want justice.”

I have spent years studying social policy and could say a lot about America’s pathetic and inhuman lack of supportive family policies–what it does to women and families, what it does to workers and our economy, how we waste the potential of mothers by pushing them into all-or-nothing career v. family choices because mixing the two is so awful, how leaning in is bullshit and leaning out is impossible for many…the list of what could be said is long.

But that’s not why I’m writing (one handed, while nursing).

I’m writing because when my spouse and I sat down last night to figure out what had to give for us to not lose our minds, we agreed sadly that I was the one who had to find a way to make more time. Me, the one who makes the food, buys the food, and grows the food. Who takes care of the kids all day, every day. The one who has no time for taking a class of her own and rarely gets time away from the children. Who showers once every 5 days and never gets to go to the bathroom alone. Who nurses all night and schleps the baby, changes diapers, ferries the big kid, tends injuries, mends clothes, maintains the family social network, and sometimes works for pay.

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“the weekend”

Why? Because I’m the only one who can. Every moment of my partner’s time is already spoken for. He gets up with the kids at 5:30 and lets me sleep for an hour or two. He hustles to work after helping make lunches or doing a few minutes of reading with our 6 year old. He doesn’t get home until 6:30pm and the kids are in bed an hour later because, well, see above. That means he literally walks through the door and into bedtime routine. For a year all this included an average of six hours a day wearing our sleep-challenged baby, starting between three and four in the morning. When the kids are asleep we collapse to deal with grown up life–paying bills, making decisions about activities and scheduling, planning life. After I go to bed he stays up to clean the kitchen. He tries to play basketball Tuesday nights, but only makes it about once a month. Last week he had to work late. The week before he was sick with the the never-ending kid crud. On the weekends he vacuums and mows the grass, takes the kids to social engagements, lets me have some alone time with no one touching me, including him.

And his is an awesome deal that we are deeply grateful for. This is a privileged working parent’s normal life. He is lucky to have a stable job with flexibility enough that when I have mastitis or one of our kids gets injured, he can work from home or bail on a meeting. He is lucky to only have to leave us for work travel a few times a year. He is so very lucky to make enough that we can afford my choice to not work outside the home.

But when I had mastitis (the third time) a friend had to come over to care for our kids (with her kids in tow) because even though my husband was home, he was still working and I was in bed with chills and a sky high fever. In contrast, when my sister au pair-ed in Germany after high school and the mother (who was paid by the state and accrued social security because mothers at home with young children are also considered workers) broke her leg, the government provided a home helper 12 hours a week to do laundry and cook…because she couldn’t, and someone had to.

As weak as it may be, we do, as a society, have an accepted narrative critiquing the lack of support for employed and at-home mothers. The lack of paid leave, support for breastfeeding on the job, access to affordable childcare, leave to care for sick children, opportunities to advance at work without basically abandoning our offspring, etc. We sometimes extend this language to stay at home fathers, but we rarely stop and ask whether it’s okay for breadwinners–mothers or fathers–to have so little flexibility during their children’s formative years and to miss so much of it altogether. While half of both working fathers and mothers say they struggle with work life balance, twice as many dads say they are not getting enough time with their children.

We don’t talk enough about what mothers want and how to help them get it–whether the 40% who are at home with young children (in married families, 35% in single-mother households) or the 60% who are employed (Bureau of Labor Statistics). But we don’t talk at all about fathers, and 92.6% of those with children under 6 are working, and in over a third of heterosexual married-couple families are the only earner–in 62% the primary earner. It is rare that we question the notion that if someone is mostly home, someone else must be mostly working. Someone has to pay the bills. But what does that person’s life look like?

We have structured our expectations of breadwinners around the assumption that this person is peripheral to the beating heart of the family. We hear about it when women who have responsibilities for young children are also breadwinners, but we rarely ask ourselves what it means for the future of society that we assume it’s okay to ask this of non-mothers, as if somehow that person isn’t a real parent.

When we had our first baby my spouse’s employer gave fathers one day of paternity leave. One. Day. When we had our second they had given up the farce and eliminated even that one day of leave. You got a day off for moving, but not for your child’s birth. We felt lucky he had a couple weeks of vacation and that the birth was uncomplicated.

I sit here, raising boys with a full time working partner–a father who would give anything for more time with his kids, more time with me, more time with friends–and the palor of his days makes me ache. How do I offer this to my sons as a future when this is just about the best gig they’ll get, if they’re lucky? My partner gets snatches of our life when we are at our worst–tired and hectic. His time is not his own. He has handed it over to me with open arms because he knows my days are harder. He comes home and says “what do you want me to do with these 30 minutes? How can I help?” There is no give, no wiggle room. And that’s in a middle class family with a strong support network.

Last night my social media was overflowing with Donald Trump and the Stanford rapist. For months we’ve been drowning in the sick hatred of our North Carolina state legislators. We have a problem with patriarchy, yes, but the (mostly) men whose sense of impotent rage fuels that machine were children once and something happened to them. Yes, institutional racism and sexism. But we have been an economy that doesn’t care for families for a very long time and even in the Golden Age of the 1950s when white middle class families happily got by on one income, fathers were gone at work. For poor families everyone has always worked in one way or another. Mothers working across income levels has not given the other parent any extra freedom to be home with family more. Mothers working has simply meant more work done by the family, on average (58.5 hours of work a week between them in 2011, compared to 50 in 1965).

I am not arguing for simplistic explanations of major social problems, nor that women should be home. Quite the contrary–I am arguing that our public policies have failed to deliver equality, certainly, but have never even contemplated justice for families. There is no amount of money that would convince me to switch places with my spouse. I couldn’t anyway because me working the way he does wouldn’t free him from working the way he does. The jobs in his area–like so many white collar jobs–are not structured to allow for part time options. Because we don’t have equality, we couldn’t get by on my one income the way we can on his because I can’t make nearly as much. But we almost never ask what the costs are to primary earners, mothers or fathers, of this kind of economy. We almost never ask what it means for children to grow up with this view of their future. Sure, we talk about the glass ceiling (some of us, sometimes) and how to make sure girls see women in positions of leadership. But what are we really offering them?

It’s not a new question–in family policy it’s called American exceptionalism because everywhere else in the world that offers such horrendous choices for parents gets dramatically falling birth rates or female labor force participation. They watch us and wonder who on earth raises our children when we have no paid leave, no public daycare, and no public preschool. The answer is parents and grandparents whose lives have been stripped bare. Whose time has no give. And the price is paid in domestic violence, substance abuse, and lifespans shortened by stress and poor health–risk factors that are all exacerbated by the presence of young children. And let’s not forget generation after generation of children who see parenting as an exhausting slog that eats us down to our most vulnerable selves.

The worst part (or perhaps the best part?) is that this ain’t that hard to fix. In 2000 the Netherlands passed a law requiring employers to permit all workers to be part time if they wanted–with proportional losses in pay and benefits, more or less (here’s a nice lay person’s summary). Overnight a quarter of the population went part time. Women AND men. The Dutch choose less work and less income and so would much of America. And they are really happy. Hell yeah, I’d like for us to pay mothers salaries and provide free high quality public childcare from age 0-6 and do a million other things to support breastfeeding and early child development. We need those things. But if we aren’t going to be Sweden, we could still be a way better America and vastly expand means tested benefits for those who really need them and make part time employment options mandatory. Oh, and mandate paid leave for new parents like nearly every other country in the entire world, for crying out loud.

Families come in all shapes and sizes. My circle is full of amazing combinations of multiple mothers, multiple fathers, all one or the other, grandparents and cousins and friends who could be blood. Families where fathers are home with children and families where everyone is employed. Family is what we make it. But this country is failing itself by not acting like our families matter, on so many levels. I want something better for myself, yes, but I also want something better for my full time working partner because he wants to be the parent that his kids deserve. And he could be…if only he had the time.

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