If you’ve ever closed your eyes in utter defeat and frustration –
if you’ve ever not managed to be in two places at once –
if you’ve ever felt like a failure both as a mom or dad, and as an employee –
…. The White House Working Families Summit was the place for you on Monday June 23. Again and again whooping and hollering affirmed the truth spoken from the stage by business owners, policy experts, feminist icons, and working men and women about the great divide between how our families work and how work works. These days, our lives look more like “Modern Family”, but our policies were created for “Leave It To Beaver”. Quite possibly, it was the first White House Summit with its very own lactation room!
The wife of the Vice President, Dr. Jill Biden, laid the foundation by noting that all parents work in ¾ of US families. Caregiving is still mostly done by women, but fathers are doing more, and the number of single fathers is rising. Rather than assuming one income can support an entire family and one adult is always available to provide care, the workplace must suit a 21st century workforce. When half the workforce is female, men have to do more caregiving, both for their children or perhaps their parents. Everybody needs paid leave. Everybody needs paid sick days. And everybody needs some flexibility, to make it as great parents and thrive at work.
Over and over again, the message rang out. “You are not alone.” US Secretary of Labor Tom Perez riffed on wage fairness and the need for real-world policies that enable parents not just to put food on the table, but also the time to sit down together. After all, the most important family value is time spent with family. The demands of 24/7 workplaces, stagnant wages, patchy child care, inflexible work schedules, and discrimination against family caregivers puts families at risk, especially women, and most especially mothers.
The critical importance of raising children was a big topic of discussion. “Caregiving IS work” one panelist said, whether done for one’s own children or ill parents, or when done by early educators or home health aides. When done in the labor force, caregiving should pay a living wage and allow those who provide it with the ability to sustain themselves and have access to health care and paid sick leave for regular check-ups or recovery from a routine illness. If care is given by a family member, the caregiver should be able to access the flexibility and workplace supports he or she needs to stay connected to employment. Too often, workers cut back or leave work altogether, putting themselves at financial risk because they can’t reconcile the work vs. care conflict.
President Obama addressed the throng, having just come from a casual lunch with Summit participants across the street at Chipotle. He lamented the US’s failure to have any national paid leave policy, alone among rich nations. “Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth. That’s a pretty low bar. THAT we should be able to take care of.” With families absolutely dependent upon women’s wages, and child care and flexibility in short supply, women are prevented from reaching their full potential, and getting the best for their families, by a culture which discriminates and puts up barriers at every turn.
How to bring about this culture shift? Everyone agreed Congress would not be the answer. We would have to put pressure on all our representatives at every level, from mayors to governors to state legislatures. Michelle Obama expects the public conversation to drive the change, creating “momentum and movement”. Men and women can ask employers for what they need. Employers can be educated to find that good will is good business, and up to date policies are necessary to attract and retain the best talent. Women, she said, tend to think “Maybe it’s me?” We suck it up, assuming we are responsible for the difficulty, the stress, the inability to cope. But doing so only means that employers never get the message, and these issues stay under the rug.
It may not be much of a slogan, but “No More Sucking Up” is a good battle cry. When an entire country lacks paid leave, and pregnant workers are made to choose between following their doctors’ orders or losing their jobs, and having a baby means losing your income, and maybe your house too – well, then, power to the people. Our leaders must be led to paid family leave, a higher minimum wage, better child care and early education, and more family friendly policies. Only when #Women Succeed will the US approach its potential.