Many of us have reached a state of fatigue when it comes to talking about work-life balance. We’re frustrated by the way it often perpetuates the idea that women are responsible for care work and annoyed by the very American boot-strap optimism behind the idea that individuals can achieve balance, if only we try harder. We’re also put off by our culture’s deep resistance to change.
As tired as we may be of the work-life balance conversation, there are occasionally signs of progress and hope that deserve our attention. The success of Patagonia’s in-house child care center is one of them. For more than 30 years, the outdoor clothing and gear company has run an on-site child care program for its employees. The Edenic center is staffed by teachers, who, as one would expect at Patagonia, encourage children to spend a lot of time outside. When parents need a break, they are free to leave their desks and immerse themselves in this mini-Xanadu. As Jenny Anderson recently explained in Quartz, “Parents often eat lunch with their kids, take them to the farmer’s market or pick vegetables with them in the ‘secret’ garden. Patagonia buses school-aged kids back to the company’s headquarters, allowing parents to connect with them after school over chocolate milk.” (If reading this is causing you to experience paroxysms of jealousy, you are not alone. Also, jealousy can be a great motivating force to fight for change. Stay jealous!)
In a recently self-published book called Family Business: Innovative On-Site Child Care Since 1983, Patagonia makes the business case for on-site child care programs and explains how its program has benefited all parties involved. Between its two child care centers, including a long-standing one in Ventura, California, and a newer one in Reno, Nevada, Patagonia employs 33 staff members and serves 80 kids. According to CEO Rose Marcario, the center in Ventura costs the company $1 million a year to run after taking into account the tuition that parents pay. However, Marcario estimates that 91 percent of its costs are recouped: 50 percent through tax breaks, 30 percent through employee retention, and 11 percent in employee engagement. She also believes there are other less quantifiable benefits that bring the return on investment up to an estimated 125 percent. One of these is the fact that women make up 50 percent of their workforce and nearly around half of their management; studies show that diversity can lead to a more creative and innovative workforce.
The most surprising, and exciting, effect of Patagonia’s on-site child care program that it encourages women to go back to work after having children. At Patagonia, 100 percent of women return to work after childbirth, compared with a 75 percent rate nationwide. This success not only serves as evidence that workplace policies matter, but also refutes the notion that mothers don’t want to work, or that it goes against human instinct for a mother to be separated from her child. To be sure, there are plenty of women who don’t want to be separated from their children and would feel that way even if the circumstances of their employment were ideal and men were experiencing an identical dose of social pressure to be good caretakers. The problem is that we can’t know how many women really feel this way, and we won’t until these decisions can be made outside the web of crappy policies, family unfriendly workplaces, and sexist cultural expectations that pigeon-holed women as caretakers. To be sure, the Patagonia experiment is small, and the company is likely to draw people with more progressive attitudes in the first place. Still, the 100 percent retention is pretty amazing and can be read as evidence that women’s choices are still largely informed by external circumstances.
It’s unfortunate then that on-site child care has become vanishingly rare. As Bloomberg reports, only 3 percent of businesses offer such a program, down from 9 percent in 1996. Employers complain about the costs of on-site child care programs, potential liability issues, and the difficulty of following state regulations. Instead, many companies are now offering other benefits to make life easier for working parents, including generous parental leave policies and tax-free flexible-spending accounts that parents can use to pay for child care. While these are better than nothing, they’re ultimately just a way to make a bad situation a little less bad. Patagonia’s model might not currently be realistic for many businesses, but it sets a standard that both the private and public sector should aspire to.