The XX Factor

There Is Not a Legislative Fix for Every Work-Life Balance Problem

The decision to stay home with your child does not always have to do with gender.

Photo by Adam Berry

In The Nation, Ashley Nelson laments her choice to quit a full-time job when she had kids. It doesn’t sound like she ever stepped back completely—she mentions freelance income and hiring a sitter—but her career certainly took second place to her then-husband’s, as her family moved several times for his jobs, eventually overseas. When they got divorced, she realized how economically vulnerable she was and now wishes she had done things differently.

Nelson frames this as a women’s issue, which I think is a mistake. Certainly the gender wage gap exists, and mothers are penalized in the workplace more than fathers are, but the fact is that the lower-earning spouse in any relationship with children—regardless of gender—is more vulnerable. The assumption that women always earn less is becoming more and more antiquated, as we read reports of breadwinning women on the rise. Nelson also says she doesn’t blame women who “leave work because they are tired of spending their entire paycheck on childcare.” But as I’ve pointed out before, a husband and wife are both in need of child care—why should a woman frame it as her expense alone?

The second, more complicated issue Nelson addresses is that parenting young children is very difficult to do in America because of the cost of child care and the lack of paid leave, not to mention the expectations on workers. If I had a full-time, nonflexible job, our child care costs would go up a great deal, and I would not see my daughter during the week, since she sleeps from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. In families that don’t have the pooled money to outsource child care, cleaning, and cooking, it is much more efficient for one person—again, regardless of gender—to work fewer hours if it’s possible.

Nelson believes that there are legislative fixes, like giving parents the right to ask for a flexible work schedule, that will make it easier for women to re-enter the workplace after leaving and help prevent them from leaving in the first place. I’m all for that. But even if those things were in place, lots of people are going to make career choices for a spouse or to step back from work a bit to do some caretaking, which will make them more vulnerable. There’s nothing innately wrong with that, and preparing for a divorce isn’t something that can be legislated.