- We pamper moms on Mother’s Day, but massages and gifts can’t make up for how society is stacked against mothers.
- Millions of parents are constantly stressing about filling childcare gaps or leaving work to pick up their kids.
- For Mother’s Day, all I really want is for work and school to end at the same time.
- Emily Dreyfuss is a writer and the senior editor at the Technology and Social Change Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
“Sorry, I can’t make that meeting because I have to pick up my kid.”
“Sorry about my kid talking during the call; school just got out.”
“Sorry honey, you have to stay in aftercare for a bazillion dollars so Mommy doesn’t get fired.”
Moms are always saying sorry, but we didn’t cause this mess. And by mess, I mean the status quo in the United States that we all accept as normal, but which is actually mind-bogglingly stupid: The school day and the work day don’t line up.
I think about this all the time, but especially this week, as every email filtered into my “Promotions” tab tried to sell me the perfect gift to celebrate my special day.
Hey mama, you deserve lingerie! A fashionable Covid mask! A four-course meal at a restaurant you’ve never been to in a town you lived in 15 years ago!
My husband asked me what he and our two boys should get me for Mother’s Day and my mind went completely blank. All I really want for Mother’s Day is for work and school to end at the same time so all parents – but, yes, mostly mothers – can stop constantly being put in the impossible situation of picking between work and kids.
Impossible childcare gaps
Last week, after another bullshit Mother’s Day email pinged, I tweeted about this problem, and it hit a nerve. Probably because there are millions of parents in America experiencing the utter chaos of this simple timing mismatch on a daily basis.
“Every day from 2:45-4 p.m., I’m working on my laptop in my car during softball practice,” one mom told me.
A teacher replied: “I’m a teacher and it’s impossible for me to 1. Make sure ALL my students are going home safely and as expected when dismissal starts at 3 p.m. WHILE 2. Getting my sons by 3:30. I can’t imagine how 9 to 5 parents survive if they are in an inflexible job.” She added, “and then I feel horrible for the teacher that must wait with my child because I’m late because I was waiting with someone’s child. It’s a snowball rolling downhill.”
That snowball affects not just parents, teachers, and kids, but a cobbled-together industry of after-school and part-time childcare programs – which depend on low-paying care jobs with no benefits or security – and the goodwill and free labor of relatives tasked with filling these gaps.
There are innumerable ways that our society is currently designed to deprioritize the needs of children and families, but to me, none is more glaring than this. For one day each year we tell moms they are worthy of foot massages, candy, and fancy face masks, while the rest of the year, our culture and policies leave parents to fend for themselves.
I’m not asking for the school day to go until 6 p.m., necessarily. Perhaps work and school could both end around 4 p.m., creating something closer to a 35-hour work week, which is still more hours than the 4-day work week that countries like Spain and New Zealand have adopted.
We need a systemic structure that spreads the responsibility for children’s wellbeing around so the burden doesn’t fall entirely on the parents. Let me spell out just a few of the ways the current system is absurd.
If the US government had a central HR department, this is what the conversation about having kids would sound like
So, you want to have kids, huh?
Well, if you live in a major metropolitan area, you’re going to need to set aside anywhere from $10,000–$29,500 each year for daycare (and more like $33,000 for a nanny), even though childcare workers in your area are likely paid poverty-level wages and often have children of their own who they can’t afford to send to the childcare center where they work. If you can’t afford that, maybe you should think of taking care of your own kids?
Now, early childhood education is extremely important for development, but the government doesn’t provide any, so you’ll need around $1,350 each month for preschool when your child is between ages 3 and 5 – and more if you live in a place like California. It’s just 2-3 years, so at most it’s an extra $48,600. Unless you have two kids in daycare at once, haha!
Once your kid is in elementary school, class starts promptly anywhere from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., and in some cities – oh, like San Francisco, where you live! – some kids get placed in schools miles and miles away, and there are no school busses to get them there. But they cannot be late. Also, school ends around 2:35 p.m., so try to find a job that pays you enough to afford your city but also is over by 2 p.m., since you’ll need to factor in traffic.
DO NOT TAKE WORK CALLS IN THE CAR. Before you even consider multitasking, we must remind you that talking on a hand-held phone in most metropolitan areas is illegal, and so is texting, so just because your boss is Slacking, “WHERE ARE YOU? THE MTG IS NOW” doesn’t mean you can text back, “im in line 2 pick up kid, so sorry.”
No, your kid cannot walk themselves home. Are you crazy? Should we call Child Protective Services?
If you can’t get your own kid on time, then you can pay for after-school care, although not all schools offer it, slots can fill up, and it’s hundreds of dollars a month. But hey, you’re planning to be a working parent, so that should be fine, right?
Or you could enroll them in sports or extracurricular classes. Start saving for those when they are babies, and don’t forget you’ll need to pick them up and drop them off and pick them up again, so ideally, you should be able to work from a parking lot. Also, you better have a car.
Don’t forget schools are out for the whole summer, but work doesn’t stop, nor does the government provide any universal alternative for the summer months, so, you might want to get on some summer camp lists! But be warned, those fill up quickly, cost thousands of dollars, and also usually end at 3 p.m. But hey, maybe you can bring your kid to work with you all summer! That sounds fun!
Our parental policies are living in the past
The structure of our society is set up for an era that no longer exists, when dads worked and moms didn’t. Moms were meant to keep the kids home until kindergarten, provide their early childhood education, walk them to school once they were old enough, pick them up at the end of the day, and watch them for the whole summer. Not only is that largely not what people want anymore, it’s also just not possible.
We live in an economy that all but requires both parents to work – if there are two parents – and if there is only one parent, it absolutely requires that parent to work. We also live in a culture where paid work is valued above all – not just monetarily, but in terms of prestige and a sense of personal dignity – so that for many parents the prospect of “just” being a parent is unfathomable, even though that work is incredibly hard.
For Mothers’ Day, what I really want is recognition that one day of gifts and massages is not enough to make up for the ways we leave moms to deal with all of this alone. Like so many other systemic problems, we treat this as though it’s the duty of individuals to solve for their own lives. But that makes no sense, and it’s not working.
Obviously systemic change won’t be easy. Even for the problem of when school and work end, you can’t just snap your fingers and say, OK, line them up. But we should at least begin by admitting that it would be better and should be the goal. Along with policies like public preschool and a livable minimum wage requirement for caregivers, aligning the work and school days is an obvious fix for a huge problem that parents spend inordinate amounts of time stressing about and dealing with. This shouldn’t be normal, it’s cruel. And a day to pamper moms doesn’t make up for it.