For years I watched co-workers and employees —mostly women — hurriedly packing their belongings just before closing time at work, and I wondered why that was? Were they all that miserable at work? Did they all share a phobia for Miami rush-hour traffic?
None of it made sense until a few years ago, when I became a single dad. At that moment, it all became apparent.
The first time I was charged with picking up my daughter from after-school care and I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper gridlock as the minutes on my dashboard clock kept drawing closer to the time highlighted by my daughter’s mother on a sheet of paper on the passenger seat, I realized why all of those women had been packing up early — they were picking up their children.
My daughter’s mother and I, fortunately, have always maintained an amicable relationship. When we split up, we decided that we would co-parent, meaning that our child spends equal time with both of us. I was always hands-on when my daughter was a baby, so I didn’t think that being a single dad would be much of a shift.
How wrong I was.
The first thing that stood out was the fact that society is still designed for the traditional family unit — married couple, two kids, living in a single family home with a dog named Whiskey. This Leave it to Beaver paradigm dates back to a post-war America, when there was a burgeoning middle class and the United States was basking in the economic spoils of being the world’s only true super power.
Although many politicians harken back to those “good old days” and draw attention to the family values of that era, American life has changed radically and the American family is nothing like the days of June and Ward Cleaver.
Being a single parent significantly transforms your life, or at least it should. Even though my daughter’s mother and I chat daily to brief each other on our child’s happenings and events, I am frequently faced with a slew of unilateral decisions. What will I feed my child today? Does she have a clean uniform for school tomorrow?
I now shop at more-affordable grocery stores and I’m more aware of the costs of items that would have never caught my attention before. I am also painfully aware of the challenges of childcare. My daughter’s mom and I don’t have much of an extended family, at least not one that can readily take care of our kid. The past few years we have scrambled to cover teacher planning days, Christmas and spring breaks, not to mention the seemingly eternal summer months.
I question why our school schedule is programmed the way it is. Are we appeasing the needs of a long-gone societal structure? We clearly are.
Miami-Dade County School Board member Raquel Regalado agrees: “I have always been in favor of extending class time if it means better educating our kids and better fitting into the schedules of working parents,” she says. “Elected officials need to be cognizant of the fact that the needs of our families have changed.”
Regalado is a single mother of two. “Communication is paramount. Teachers need to be aware of a child’s family nucleus and need to communicate more via the computer rather than just sending information home in the student’s book bag,” she says. “This way it affords all parents and caretakers equal access to information.”
As the needs of American families change, so should the structures of the institutions that shape our lives. Of course, this would mean a more serious financial commitment from elected officials to meet the current needs of American families rather than to remind us of the “good old days.”