The moment of truth — when I realized that the world was organized in such a way that it in no way reflected the reality of my life — hit the summer after my son’s kindergarten year. All of a sudden, I had to figure out how I was to get him to a camp that started at 9 a.m. and ended at 2 p.m. I soon discovered after-school activities — T-ball practices that started at 4 p.m. across town from his school and in a different state from my office — were no better.
Over the years, I’ve jury-rigged some complex carpooling schedules, hired babysitters and drivers, and slipped out of work myself when everything fell through.
So what struck me most as I was reporting a story about stretched parents now turning to Uber and the On Demand economy, and how services like Shuddle, a new San Francisco Bay company that ferries kids around solo as young as 7 — is that the world is still organized in such a way that it in no way reflects the reality of most people’s lives.
Work schedules are often demanding, rigid and inflexible, as if, like in 1950, one parent can devote body and soul to work. And many kid activities are still set up for that same 1950s world. Never mind that the majority of children, census data show, are growing up in families where both parents work, followed by families headed by single moms. Barely one in five children are raised in traditional breadwinner-homemaker families.
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Despite all the moaning about over-scheduled kids — and many are — good research shows that some level of activity is really good for kids. And that the more people are willing to try new things as kids — to be bad at something, and learn to get better — the more likely they’re willing to take on new challenges as adults. All of which rewires the brain in positive ways and adds to a sense of well-being.
Bright Horizons, the childcare provider that operates more than 750 childcare centers for governments and corporations throughout the world, surveyed about 1,000 American parents in recent months for their Modern Family Index and found that fully 92 percent of the parents surveyed said it’s important for children to find hobbies and interests outside of school.
So how to make the impossible logistics work? Uber or On Demand transportation services may be a temporary fix — but only for those with means. Curbing the number of kid activities, and changing the timing and transportation offerings may be another. But, to my mind, what really needs to change is the 1950s workplace culture.
Creating flexible workplaces that understand men and women have lives and caregiving responsibilities outside of work — not just for kids, but for aging parents as well — is good not only for kids and parents and family stress levels, it’s also good for business. Why? Because distracted workers — worried about whether the afternoon carpool is going to fall through, whether the kids got from points A to B to C — aren’t doing their best work. And workers with managers who understand and work with the pressures of family responsibilities, studies funded by the National Institutes of Health have shown, are healthier, less stressed out and more productive.
Which leads me to my final point: many parents are already quietly finding ways to make their impossible schedules work while keeping up with their demanding workloads. Many are just keeping it to themselves. In fact, many say they’d rather lie to their bosses than be honest about their logistical juggles.
That fact was unearthed in another Modern Family Index survey by Bright Horizons. Nearly half the parents surveyed worried that their family responsibilities could get them fired. Fired! Nearly 40 percent were afraid that caregiving duties meant they wouldn’t get a raise. One in five feared that family commitments cost them key projects at work. More than half said they were too nervous to broach the subject of flexible or remote work or reduced hours to handle family duties.
So nervous, in fact, that about one in four parents admitted that lying to the boss about family obligations that happen during work hours was easier than being honest. One-third said they’d rather fake being sick.
I put out a call to parents. Many said being less than honest about family was a survival strategy in the workplace. Almost everyone I asked said not to use their names, for fear of retaliation at work. Here are five stories:
▪ A woman who works for a woman’s advocacy organization in Washington called from her car. “I’m sneaking out to pick my son up from school now,” she whispered. Her babysitter fell through and her son would be stranded. My boss is on Capitol Hill right now, and she won’t know. The boss requires strict office hours from 9 to 5, she explained, and doesn’t allow flexible or remote work. So instead of being able to flex her hours so she can both work and fit in childcare responsibilities, this woman is required to use vacation time, and hers is almost out. “There’s this belief that if you’re not physically in the office, you’re not working,” the woman said. “And yet most of what I do could be done from Starbucks.”
▪ “I used to lie all the time,” said a woman named Adriel. “I had two layers of bosses who had no kids and no belief in work-life balance and there was no way they would let me run out for an hour for a school event, even if I offered to work late. I finally gave up and took a lower-prestige job (for the same money) and now work for great bosses who support more balance.”
▪ “I constantly find myself lying about going to school for commitments — whether it is to volunteer as a reader, for a party, to go to a PTA meeting or to attend a performance of some sort,” said a lawyer in Bethesda, Maryland. “It makes you feel less empowered, less of a professional or less trustworthy. It creates this feeling of a ‘daddy’ supervisor versus being a professional who can exercise discretion. The irony of the fact that I went from a high-paying job at a New York City firm to a government job with a significant pay cut expressly for the benefit of a lifestyle I thought I’d have but don’t does not elude me.”
▪ Meg, who owns a business with her husband, said their organization has flexible hours, so it doesn’t matter that she cuts out at 3 p.m. to pick their kids up from school. But, to clients, she says she has to scoot for her next meeting. “It is totally not OK that I feel I have to do that,” she said. “But I don’t want there to be any perceived decrement to my credibility or the credibility of the organization. Clients seem to accept that I’ve got another meeting to run to. I don’t want them to feel they’re at all second fiddle. But it’s like I’ve made my kids second fiddle. And that in itself is sad.”
▪ Cara didn’t lie. “But I probably should have,” she wrote me in an e-mail. “I was let go because I was a single mom with no family in the city to help me after my husband moved out and so I HAD to leave every day at 5 p.m. no matter what was happening at work (because I had a 1 year old to pick up). That did not fly for them. So they literally fired me … It’s this kind of thing that led me to start my own consulting practice. Now I have huge flexibility on my hours and make more money than I ever did working a regular job. But it’s definitely an issue — the backlash at work of actually meeting family obligations instead of neglecting family in favor of work.”
This kind of work environment isn’t good for anyone. And notice most of the people who responded were women? Though men are clearly doing more than in previous generations, time-diary studies show it is still women who are largely expected to shoulder most of the childcare work and arranging, often reducing their hours or taking lesser roles in 1950s workplaces.
Transforming the workplace to both reflect the reality of workers’ lives — and to work more productively and efficiently — is the mission behind the Modern Family Index surveys, Bright Horizons CEO Dave Lissy told me.
“The best employers try to foster a culture where you don’t have to lie. Where being open around family responsibilities is important, and you figure out a way to make it work,” he said. “People in business know how to do this. It’s just an area that needs to be taken more seriously.”
So before you start bashing parents for putting their kids in Uber cars once in a while instead of tearing their hair out, try aiming that vitriol where it belongs: an outdated workplace. And use that energy to help it grow up.
© 2015, The Washington Post