Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
While much of the rest of the country is trying to figure out some sort of “new normal,” working parents of small children feel utterly abandoned, and many of them are at their breaking point.
With children under 5 still not able to be vaccinated—although that’s coming, but who knows how soon—and day cares frequently closing for COVID cases or exposures, parents of young kids are struggling. Without reliable child care, they’re regularly forced to take time off work—often unpaid if they’ve already used up all their PTO—or to try to work from home while simultaneously caring for kids so young they require constant supervision.
This letter I received is typical of what I’m hearing from parents of young children:
I have two small children, one who is just barely two and a four-year-old. Since Covid started when I was on a leave of absence with my youngest, born January 2020, I’ve just never felt settled or on top of my job. I’m consistently two months behind on my work and my daycare keeps closing for either positive cases or exposures. Every time this happens I’m left to work from home or take unpaid leave. I’m out of PTO, which I get a generous amount of but it’s all been used on staying home with my children while daycare closes. My husband is now recently out of PTO as well and since he earns the higher wage, it just makes sense for me to be the one watching the kids while he works.
… Working from home is pure hell. I have to wake up at 4 am and work until my kids are up, work while they nap and then work once they go to sleep. … So this means I’m usually busy with work or children from 4 am to 11 or 12 at night. I have no time for myself. I barely recognize myself. … I’m doing a bad job at work, I hate the feeling of being behind, I hate being so busy all day every day and then on top of it my work is so broken up I’m not able to put in a 40-hour week or get a full paycheck … ever. I’m working harder than ever and getting nothing out of it.
People with no kids or older kids might hear this and suggest, “Get a nanny!” But there’s a huge shortage of child care right now, and even people who could theoretically afford a nanny (which is definitely not everyone) or split the costs with another family (still definitely not everyone) have found there’s no one available to hire. So working parents are left juggling an unrealistically large amount of responsibilities for which there is literally not enough time in the day.
Here’s some of what I’ve been hearing in my inbox:
• “Us parents of kids under 5 are breaking. My mental health is abysmal, as is my partner’s. We are exhausted, burnt out, fight all the time, and I, at least, am constantly on the edge of a true mental health crisis that would have most people scrambling to send me to the hospital. And we’ve been lucky—we only have one kid and our preschool has great COVID protocols so has had fewer closures over the last 3 months than many in our community.”
• “I’ve used up all my PTO and my check gets docked with every day I take off now. I’m a high school teacher on top of it all, but I have no one else to watch my children. My husband and I switch off, since he’s also a teacher and makes the same amount as I do, but we’re both out of time. I feel like I’m terrible at my job—I can’t even work from home, because all classes are in person. I’ve had 3 separate 10 day quarantines with my kids since October and it’s a significant burden on my co-workers, too, especially the ones who don’t understand that I can’t just take them out of daycare and put them somewhere else. ALL daycares follow these rules.”
• “We’re on our third quarantine and haven’t had daycare since before Christmas. I feel like a failure as a mom and employee most days. Some days are ok, but then some days I’m working on my spreadsheets through tears at doing every job not to my high standards. It feels like this year is even worse than last year or 2020, because now most people have decided to move on, despite the pandemic clearly raging on. I’m so anxious because my youngest still cannot be vaccinated. Doesn’t help that leadership tends to be in an age group where childcare is a distant memory.”
• “I’m crying at my temporary kitchen table office while I’m writing this, at home with my quarantined toddler and desperately trying to stay on top of my work while feeling like I’m about to be fired because this is the 4th time this has happened in as many months. I dragged myself into the office with strep and an abscessed tonsil (because it wasn’t Covid!) the last two weeks so I could save my PTO for situations like this. … I feel like a shell of myself after the last two years.”
• “Just last week, I was let go from my job after having to take 2 weeks off in the last 5 weeks due to daycare closures. I did what I could from home, but it wasn’t enough and I was working in a completely un-empathetic work environment where I was the only parent, let alone single parent. … While I’m extremely stressed about money and healthcare and paying for daycare, there’s a small amount of relief mixed in with my anxiety because I haven’t had a moment to myself in a long time and it’s so hard.”
What’s more, the supports that the government put in place near the start of the pandemic, which were a lifeline for working parents, have now expired. Paid family leave for COVID exposures expired in December 2020. Monthly child tax payments stopped last month. And many employers that were sympathetic to working parents during the first year of COVID have become tired of accommodating parents and expect employees to just somehow make it work now—even though they’re still in essentially the same situation as March of 2020. As one person wrote to me, “It feels like the world has forgotten about us and moved on.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s women who are bearing the brunt of this—both to their mental health and to their careers. Many of them are concluding they have no choice but to quit working:
• “I have 3 kiddos—5, 2, and 1. The quarantines are never ending. I quit my job earlier this month, even though I was poised for much higher leadership positions and salary. I have no family support and the almost daily anxiety attacks and deep, deep depression born purely out of this awful situation became too much. I feel so much relief. And I’m still processing my grief because I know I’ve probably torpedoed my career that I’ve worked SO HARD for. It’s unfair.”
• “I like my job. I like being a working mom. But I have decided to quit my job in a month. I don’t think it’s fair for my 2.5 year old to be plopped in front of the TV all day while my husband works from home. I’m in healthcare and expected to be in the office. I don’t think it’s fair to expose my child to long COVID or unknown future health problems because I want, but don’t financially need, to work (my husband makes twice what I do, them’s the breaks).”
• “It’s so insidious how it ‘just works out’ that the mother’s job is the one to take the hit. I make more than my husband, our health insurance is through my job, and yet somehow it still ‘just worked out’ that I’ve been the one home with the kids for the last 2 years. We do have our reasons and they make sense to us, but lots and lots of individual family decisions that make sense in microcosm add up to a disproportionate effect on mothers’ work, quality of life, and emotional wellbeing.”
The only good solutions for working parents are structural ones. This won’t be solved by finding that one magical day care provider that doesn’t close frequently, and it’s not even about employers instituting more family-friendly policies (although that would help!). Those changes only work for the limited number of people affected by them. The true solution for working parents right now would be broad institutional action: stronger labor protections, subsidized child care, and health care that’s not tied to full-time employment. Instead, though, parents of young kids have been left to find individual answers to systemic problems, and that’s an impossible task.
Update, Feb. 14, 2022: This post has been updated since publication.