It was a scene to which so many of us have become resigned: at 5:00 on a Wednesday, I mustered my most professional voice to lead an important work call with dozens of colleagues, while cooking and watching my kids. My two boys – 5 and 3 – were happily ensconced in the playroom with a tv show that I had previously derided as having no plot.
All of a sudden, my older son sauntered into the kitchen shimmying his bare-behind rhythmically with a sing-songy na, na, na, na. na. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or both as I muted, screamed PUT ON SOME PANTS, unmuted and returned with attempted composure to talk about matters tantalizingly out of reach: consistency, strategy, organization. It sometimes feels like the entire world is mooning us working parents.
On a near daily basis I hear about a child-care or school related crisis, all of us trying to make it work while minimizing any outward signs of strain. Kind colleagues chuckle while screaming kids tear through the background zoom, but no overt expectations have shifted with regard to productivity or hours of work. While vaccines offer hope, the problems working parents face are too immediate to wait for herd immunity, if and when that is ever achieved.
What is so incredibly challenging in the here and now is that many of us— particularly those in small-medium sized organizations—feel like we are negotiating one-off arrangements to manage the chaos. But just as Covid-19 has wrought havoc and revealed potential moments of innovation, our local and state governments have a unique moment to formalize flexibility for working parents, marshalling resources and expertise to be a leading light on this vitally important workforce issue.
Beyond empathy, there are myriad reasons to help parents bear this weight. Numerous studies demonstrate the value to an organization of having productive working parents be a part of the workforce . Employers too should recognize that these supports help recruitment strategies in that how companies treat working parents is an “indicator of how you treat talent in general, especially in the eyes of prospective or more junior employees.”
The value of a governmental effort to formalize flexibility is that is enables cross-pollination across industries and prevents individuals within organizations from individually bearing the burden and devising the solutions. President Biden’s Mobilizing American Talent and Heart to Create a 21st Century Caregiving and Education Workforce includes important (albeit difficult to fund) ideas including subsidizing childcare and ensuring 12 weeks of paid family medical leave. These are helpful steps, but only part of the equation.
Various states and localities, like my home-state of New York, have convened task forces charged with holistically examining issues from maternal mortality and morbidity to the common core in education. States and local governments can and should assemble cross-sector groups focused on Formalizing Flexibility for Working Parents to complement and augment any federal efforts. These groups could offer guidance on areas like:
- Ready to use leave policies for individuals who need short-term flexibility
- Guidance and support for transitioning between full and part time work statuses
- Systems for sharing and donating accrued leave within organizations to support caregivers in need
- Strategies for subsidizing child-care, including a list of accredited childcare providers and daycares
- Behavioral health resources, including virtual care, for overtaxed parents
Organizations that invest in working parents could receive formal designations to help employers recruit and prospective employees assess options. While it arguably should not take a crisis to force action, the crisis is here and women in particular are already dropping out or considering dropping out of the workforce in record numbers due to Covid-19. Our nation’s long-term resiliency and recovery depends on better caring for our caregivers.