Parenting media is mostly bullshit. It’s like mainstream beauty media, only with the added gravitas of being about, you know, the nurturing of the next generation. A list of the best strollers isn’t any different than a list of the best mascaras; like, all the versions basically work. Some are better, but they are usually more expensive? The end! Bullshit of this sort can be fun and kinda necessary, but sometimes it obscures truths that are festering—throbbing!—in obscurity.
One such truth is this: There is only one thing that every American parent needs in 2016, and that is time. Time that is their own, time that is not being quantified by an employer, time where they can be human adults and parents and find the mental space to look around and feel the blazing fullness of being alive. If you think this is some kind of joke, then you probably need it extra-bad.
Time is one of the most valuable commodities in post-industrial capitalism. It’s valuable because it’s scarce; we run around acting so busy all the time, partly because our jobs are squeezing us for it, and partly because there are so many competing entities constantly vying for our time and attention. Many popular products’ dollar values are determined based on how much time you spend using them: every single for-profit website, app, and digital game, for starters. Many of today’s smartest innovators are using their massive brains to figure out how to access and control your time. As the Fat Jew captions about 75 percent of his Instagram posts: “What a time to be alive.”
There are two ways in which American parents are in critical need of more time. First, they need guaranteed paid leave after they have kids: six months is a decent minimum, three is preposterous and needs to stop being considered an acceptable norm. (Zero, obviously, is beyond the pale.) No parent is ready to send their baby to full-time daycare at a few weeks, or even at three months old. That’s too fucking young.
Second, parents need working conditions that can accommodate slight schedule adjustments, in particular around getting kids to and from school, and days when kids are home sick. I’m far from the first person to say it, but for such a rabidly pro-family country, the United States’ labor policies (and lack thereof) are absolutely brutalizing to families right across the economic spectrum.
The concept of “work-life balance” puts the responsibility in the hands of workers rather than employers or governments, which, OK, this is America, that’s not exactly shocking. But there’s an ever-accelerating avalanche of information indicating that “work-life balance” is at best a lucrative niche in self-help book publishing, and at worst a sadistic joke on all of us.
There are of course notable exceptions. Netflix, Facebook, etc—must be nice. Then there are small businesses who work to accommodate families; last week, Meghan Keane Graham, co-founder of Brick Wall Media, published an essay in The Billfold titled “Parents (And All Workers) Need More Flexibility On The Job,” about her company’s flexible work scheduling policy. “Hourly and location flexibility can help retain happy and quality workers if companies shift towards appreciating the product produced rather than the time spent creating it,” she wrote.
In an email, Graham explained how her company approaches scheduling: “We plan out meetings at the onset of projects and establish whether they require attendance or not. That way, employees can schedule their time around those deadlines. Of course emergencies and sicknesses happen, which we treat like any other company. But we’ve found that if you give people autonomy to manage their own schedule, self-directed employees thrive.”
Graham set her company up this way because after she had her son, she found that working in traditional media was putting impossible amounts of pressure on her schedule. Her approach is totally reasonable, and who knows? Maybe it’s a sign of things to come. Unfortunately, most people don’t work for progressive media companies like Brick Wall and Netflix. And most industries require that people be at work between fixed hours: service, law enforcement, transportation, and education, to start. That’s why this time, capitalism probably isn’t going to fix the problem itself on the strength of the ingenuity and commitment of a small group of hard-working people, despite what many, many people with no stake in helping families will tell you.
What is my beef with this, besides that I am a parent in a two-income family trying to, occasionally, chill?
After living in the States from high school through my late 20s, I’ve settled down in Quebec. It’s the only place in North America that has robust policies designed for families. Other Canadian provinces have some decent policies, but Quebec’s are by far the most generous. These policies have made my life radically easier than the lives of my American friends with kids. It takes under an hour to drive from my apartment to the American border. My experience as a mother who works full-time has been so different from people so close to me that I can’t stop thinking about it. In Quebec, full-time employees are entitled to up to a year of paid parental leave. It can be split between parents. I opted to take 10 months’ leave after each of my kids were born; I was paid 75 percent of my salary by the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan, a tax-funded agency. Meanwhile, my friends across the border are blowing all their savings and all their vacation days to eke out a precious fourth-month leave.
Each time I went on leave, someone was hired to replace me. (Shout out to Adam and Emily! You were great but didn’t make me look bad by comparison, which is the dream.) The law guaranteed that my job would be there for me at the end of my leave, my salary unchanged. Ten-month or year-long “mat-leave contracts” are a common way that people get a foot in the door with a new employer or try out a new field. I’m about to start one myself! I am replacing someone for a year, writing press material and speeches for a university. If she decides to return to work early for whatever reason, I get two weeks’ notice — but it’s a risk many people are happy to take for a year of interim income between career paths or long-term jobs.
Quebec also has very accessible subsidized daycare (I pay $7.30 a day for my kid, it’s about to go up to around $15 a day for people in my income bracket, which is a huge deal here, but knowing the alternative, that is an increase I can live with). But daycare is a topic for another time. And while we don’t have workplace policies that protect workers who require more flexibility in their schedules, I don’t think that such a thing is impossible to imagine in a society where family policies are actively debated and defended parts of the government budget.
Sane policies that carve out and protect time and flexibility for working families is a political cause that I believe could mobilize millions of people across race and class lines. Spending the first 10 months at home with each of my kids was enormously empowering. By the time I returned to work, I was ready for the company of adults again; work even seemed easy compared to caring for a nonverbal person all day. The time we’d spent together absolved me of a lot of the guilt that many people feel when they first put their kids in the care of others. It also gave me the privilege of feeling confident—even a little cavalier!—about my parenting choices. Is there any wonder that parenting media is full of insecurity and passive-aggressive shaming, when everyone’s fighting over the scraps of a relaxed home life?
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton lives in Montreal with her husband and two sons. She’s 33, her kids are 2 and 5, and she’ll be contributing a semi-regular parenting column called Hey Ma here on Jezebel.