How to Make Work Less Hostile to Parents with Jessica Grose | Crooked Media

How to Make Work Less Hostile to Parents with Jessica Grose | Crooked Media

American society is still organized around a presumption that every family unit has a full-time caregiver in the home. Jessica Grose, mom of 2 and opinion writer for The New York Times, joins host Anne Helen Petersen to answer questions about the struggle, sadness, and burnout that comes from trying to still get by in that space, even when it isn’t reality for millions of families.

If you’ve got a workplace quandary you want help figuring out, head to workappropriate.com to tell us about it.

Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. I’m Anne Helen Peterson. And this is Work Appropriate. [music break] I think I have spent the last 20 years of my adult life, essentially since I graduated from college and became a nanny, gradually realizing just how hostile workplaces are to parents. I mean, all of society is pretty hostile towards parents. I think parents understand this, even if they don’t necessarily know how to articulate it. But workplace culture in particular is hostile, and especially towards people who are the primary caregivers in their family, which is oftentimes mothers. Hostile sounds like kind of an intense word, and I get that. But I don’t think I have a better word to describe the situation because the workplace oftentimes assumes that we are working bodies without any needs outside of what we do every day in the workplace. And that’s complicated, no matter your situation. But it’s extra complicated when you have people, small people, older people, people with special needs in whatever way, depending on you. And so I think it’s a lot harder for working parents to try to invisibilize the needs of those other people on an everyday basis. Whenever we talk about the workplace, I also get a lot of questions about motherhood, even when I’m not explicitly asking about parents and the workplace. And so to answer these questions today, I wanted to turn to one of the people that I always read when I’m trying to understand the current situation when it comes to parenthood just generally, but also working parents.

Jessica Grose: My name is Jessica Grose. I am an opinion writer at The New York Times. I write a newsletter that focuses on parenting and family in the United States. I have a book coming out in December, on December 6th called Screaming on the Inside The Unsustainability of American Motherhood. And I am also a working mom of two kids who are now almost ten and six. Somehow, I have an almost ten year old, which is delightful and horrifying. [laughter]

Anne Helen Petersen: I think that you have a pretty compelling story in terms of your history as a working parent. Can you tell the abbreviated version of that?

Jessica Grose: Absolutely. So even though I always prided myself on not being the kind of chump that listens to platitudes from Facebook executives, I absolutely was taken in by the talk around Lean In, and it was before it was even a book. It was just a TED Talk. It was my late twenties. It was a time where I felt like I was really finally confident in my work and I knew where I wanted to go with it. And so I had taken a new job. I realized I was pregnant on my second day of that new job. I proceeded to get hyperemesis, which is when you throw up so much that you lose, I think the technical definition is 5% of your body weight. So I was throwing up minimum five times a day, usually more. I could not hold down any food. I also got off antidepressants to conceive, and so I was incredibly anxious and depressed. And so I was trying to do this new job, which I sucked at because I just couldn’t function. I mean, it’s like having a horrible stomach virus except for weeks at a time. And I ended up quitting that job and it was humiliating. And I’m still like, It’s hard for me to talk about now, and I have to get over that because I’m probably going to be talking about it a lot more, but I still find it totally embarrassing, which is, you know, it’s not my fault. There’s nothing I could have done to prevent an illness, which is what it is. But there was always this sort of idea that I think is very deep seated, that you’re totally responsible. And any time that you can’t be the ideal worker, that’s somehow your fault. And so I quit this job. I spent many months just in bed. And then when my older daughter was born and she was super healthy, which was great and I felt so much better. I mean, that’s typical with folks who have extreme vomiting that— [laughter]

Anne Helen Petersen: Once you stop extreme vomiting, you feel better.

Jessica Grose: Yeah, well, once the baby is born, you feel fine.

Jessica Grose: I was like, oh, my God, I feel human again. And so, you know, I was freelance for a couple of years, but I just couldn’t make enough money to make that work when we wanted to have a second kid. So I went back to a staff job and then so have been balancing a typical nine to five or sometimes, you know, eight to six job with one and then now two kids and also through a pandemic, which, you know, a real curveball that was a roughie for everybody. [laughter]

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And you wrote a book like you figured that, how to how to do that. I mean as—

Jessica Grose: I did figure out how to do that.

Jessica Grose: And again, I want to make it clear, like that sort of the origin story or the beginning of my motherhood. I mean, it was a complete act of privilege that I could quit my job.

Jessica Grose: Because we were on my husband’s health insurance. And I really don’t know what I would have done had I been a single parent or had my spouse had been the one who was freelance and we had health insurance through me.

Jessica Grose: I don’t know what I would have done, I guess. Suffered through it. Gotten fired? I don’t know. [laughter]

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. And, you know, sometimes we’re like, you know, this is the thing that people always say about parenting. Just generally it’s like you make it work. And in our society, there are ways that people would make it work. Like you would go on COBRA, like you would go on maybe short term disability somehow, you know, like there’s all these different things. None of them are ideal, though. None of them are like the way that you if you could have said, how do I want my first experiences of parenthood to go? Would they be like that? You know?

Jessica Grose: No. And I think, like, what is underlying and under-discussed is like, let’s say all of that had happened and we had to go on COBRA and we figured it out, this sort of cumulative stress of those situations and the fear that it’s all going to fall apart with any false step is it weighs on you year after year. And I think that sort of stressor, it can’t even be quantified. I don’t know how you would begin to quantify it, but it’s something that whenever I talk to parents who don’t live in the United States and try to explain some of the pretzels that we put ourselves in to try to make it work, they’re just both confused, mystified, horrified, like they don’t even understand the systems that we have to navigate because it’s so foreign to them.

Anne Helen Petersen: Well, this is a good segue way to something else that I wanted to ask you about just before we get into the questions, which when I talk about the hostility towards parents generally, I think some of it is that ongoing aggregate precarity and anxiety. Right. So sometimes people say, like, it’s so much easier to be a parent today because, you know, we have vaccines, we have all sorts of things that make it so that like child mortality rates are not what they were 100 years ago. But then also there are all of these other contemporary problems that like as a developed nation, we should not have. That’s like something that I often think about, like one of the richest nations in the world. But why do we have these problems every day? So maybe my question is like, where does this hostility come from? What’s the root of it, you think?

Jessica Grose: I agree with you. That is it’s a sense of scarcity and it’s a sense of I’m working so hard that I can’t spare any of what I’m getting because there’s not enough for me. So how how can you try to take away what I’ve earned for your family? I think that sort of the root of it. And I think, you know, especially for our generation, which you write about so beautifully and wonderfully, like things are less secure by basically every metric than they were for many of our parents. I mean, just sort of generationally speaking, not in terms of individual cases, but, you know, finances are more precarious. It’s harder to buy a house. There’s more debt. Like all of these things are just facts of the matter. And so it makes sense that it just sort of feels like we’re all fighting for scraps and there’s not a lot of grace to go around, which is unfortunate.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. In the workplace, in our communities, the way that we talk about each other, in the media, on social media and all of these things, and like some of the things that I think are huge stressors for lower income parents would be solved by more money. Right. Just like that basic social safety net stuff. And then some of the stuff for middle class and more well-off parents would be solved by more community and more reliance on each other.

Anne Helen Petersen: And also, there was expansion of those safety net things like affordable and accessible child care benefits up and down the entire income scale. But sometimes I think everyone is having a really hard time and it’s a hard time in different ways.

Jessica Grose: Yeah, I think that is exactly how it is. [music break]

Anne Helen Petersen: So our first question is going to be about explicit norms and expectations in the workplace that make it really hard to parent and specifically business trips. So let’s hear from Maureen.

Maureen: I work in civil engineering as a support staffer. I had infrequent business travel before COVID. Now I have a kid and business travel is happening again. And my new department was restructured. My line management scheduled a three day training in Boston, and I’m in New Jersey and recently told everyone to start booking accommodations. My husband is a restaurant manager and now feels impossible for me to travel for work. Who will watch my kid after daycare since it’s not in my normal job description? How do I handle infrequent requests like this? Does no one else have children in my department? How do people manage?

Anne Helen Petersen: Whew. So what I’m hearing here are two different questions. And the first is like the very practical, very immediate need of what am I going to do? Do I tell my boss that I can’t do this? And does that make me seem like a less competent worker or less reliable in some way? And also, like how how in the world could I structure this? And then the second question is this overarching question, which is why are workplaces expecting this sort of travel in the first place? What does that indicate about our workplace norms in general? So I want to tackle that second question first. Jess, why do companies have these norms about you should just be able to travel all the time.

Jessica Grose: I think because they have not thought it through. [laugh] And usually the leaders of the company have not been primary caretakers of children at any point in their career. And if they were, they were high up enough to be able to pay out the wazoo or they had live in grandparents. Like there was always something that allowed them to work at any time. I find it productive in work situations to approach things like this as if they are just neglectful and not malicious. Because in my own personal life, whenever stuff like this has happened and I just assume malice, then I just get super angry and that’s not good for me. [laughter] So it’s like—

Jessica Grose: —start with like the intentions are neutral. They just didn’t think it through. And that historically people who have run companies have not been primary caretakers of children. So they don’t even think about it.

Jessica Grose: And if it is brought to their attention in a way that it would explain that it’s better for the business, it’s better for you to do your job if you’re allowed some more flexibility on sort of these issues, that’s always sort of the place to start, is that they just haven’t thought it through.

Anne Helen Petersen: You know, I was thinking about this. A friend of mine is doing some political reporting right now and she’s like, I can always tell if the comms team are younger and don’t have kids yet because they just think that like you can email someone in the morning or text them in the morning and then they can come to an event no matter what, like that afternoon.

Anne Helen Petersen: Especially like across the state. And my friends, like, I have to get childcare and also dog-care. But like there are plans that need to be made for my life that if you are a younger person, maybe this isn’t always true, but oftentimes you have not yet become empathetic towards those needs. And all you need, though, is one person saying really kindly, like, it’ll be really helpful for me if you give me more than one day’s notice. Right? Making that explicit. And I think that like, yes, in ideal world, everyone would be like thinking about everyone else’s scenarios. And that comes to child care and elder care. And do you have a child who needs more like a special needs child or a high needs child or a medically complicated child? But there’s so many different things, situations that people could need more notice about. But that’s not our world. And I think sometimes we still have to do that educating ourselves, even though it feels really annoying.

Jessica Grose: Yeah, absolutely. And she did have one question in there that I thought was very insightful and does no one else who works here have kids? And I think one of the most important things that you can do is find out who else does have kids. And they can be not only your allies just like to vent, but also in terms of asking for things as a group. So it doesn’t seem like a special privilege. I mean, in the best case scenario, you have a union like I do, which like I have, this is the first time I’ve ever been in a union. Love it. So happy. I feel so much safer. [laugh] But most unfortunately in this country that is unusual. So but you know if you can  point things out with a group and show that it is beneficial to several employees. That is always incredibly helpful. And actually, earlier in my career, one of the mistakes that I made was the job that I talked about that I first took when I got pregnant. I realized after the fact that there were no mothers in basically any positions of power at that time.

Jessica Grose: And so that’s just a little bit of advice in terms of you’re looking for a new job. Obviously, you can’t make that change if you’re in a current job where that’s but like do a little low key poking around. And if there are no parents who are very involved in the upper echelons, I would side eye that. Don’t necessarily say like don’t take that job, but like, you know, ask around.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. Yeah. No, this is one of the things that I always think about in terms of like attracting and retaining a truly diverse workplace. And I mean diversity in terms of race and diversity in terms of gender diversity in terms of parents and non-parents, is that you have to have people operating from all of those different perspectives, not just at your company, but in decision making places within that company, right.

Anne Helen Petersen: So we we kind of addressed some of the more practical things that this person could do. To look for other parents. But like, what do you think she should do? Like in the immediate term?

Jessica Grose: In the immediate term—

Anne Helen Petersen: What’s the way she could approach, yeah?

Jessica Grose: You know, I think hopefully she has a good relationship with her boss. Like that’s yeah, that’s ideally she has a good enough relationship with her boss that she can just level with them and be like, Look, I really want to attend this meeting. It seems really important. I just cannot make it work with my child and invite them into the. Like, say, like I’ve thought of X, Y and Z ways to solve this problem. I cannot solve this problem on my own. I would like to. Is there a way the company can help me solve this problem? So treat it as like if this is an essential part of her job, they need to help her solve it.

Jessica Grose: Because this is, as she has said above, her job description, not, you know. So there may be ways that, like, can she bring the kid with her like. Which also, again, is terrible. I don’t ever want to give my bring my children on a business trip. It is distracting and terrible. I don’t recommend it. But like this is not a problem where there is going to be compromise. It’s like there’s a kid who needs to be taken care of.

Anne Helen Petersen: When I talk to companies that are trying to figure out how do we go to hybrid situations or how do we go to almost fully remote situations? But then also ask that our employees come back to the office every quarter. Right. For team building, you know, all of the different things like the cultural checking in. And one thing I say is that unless you want to make your company a place where you can’t have any single parents, a place where you can’t have, or that you are really discouraging people who are primary caregivers from from being part of that organization. You have to think about, okay, when are we going to schedule these? How are we either going to help supplement child care or create solutions where there will be child care on site, depending on the amount of travel that’s necessary for someone to get there. So like I have heard of people who like they do these sorts of mass, you know, reskilling, retraining, things like they, you know, it’s at a Marriott in Dallas or whatever and people are coming in from a couple of hours away. And they do they say, like, we’re going to do this in the summer because that’s a time when it’s easier for kids to not be in school. Right. And if you want to bring your kid with you on this on this trip, then there will be you know, we will have skilled caregivers there to to offer offer care while you do this. And if you can’t do that, then in which is what I think a lot of companies say, like, oh, that’s too big of an expense. Then you are losing those employees.

Anne Helen Petersen: You are saying we want we want our workforce to look like what it looked like in 1850.

Jessica Grose: Yep. I think this is a conversation that she needs to have sooner rather than later with with management, just because it’s like if this is going to keep coming up, this is not a role for her.

Jessica Grose: Like this I mean, that’s hard to say because, like, obviously, you can’t just, like, leave your job in a snap, find a new job, but like, you know, this wasn’t the responsibility before. It doesn’t work with her life. And that’s that’s something that’s got to be figured out. [music break]

Anne Helen Petersen: Our second question is from Sarah, who got what she needed from her employer, but only at the 11th hour.

Sarah: I’m a mom of two kids under four. I have a hybrid work schedule, but I had to put my two weeks notice in to get it. When we came back to the office full time post-COVID, the message for anyone who wanted to keep working from home was, if you don’t like coming into the office, you can go work somewhere else. So that’s exactly what I did. After I put in my notice, my boss and their boss sat me down, told me they couldn’t afford to lose me, and they were confident I had demonstrated during COVID that I could successfully do my job from home. Flexibility was my sole reason for leaving. So once I had it, I stayed. I work from home pretty seamlessly and I’m now able to manage my kids schedules and my workload so much easier than before. What I don’t understand is, one, why did it come to me literally quitting my job for my employer to give me the flexibility that I needed and, two, why does it still feel like if I need to, quote unquote, “take time away from work for my kids,” that I’m a less than employee? There seems to be a standard belief that if you’re not in the office, you’re not working, or that you need to be at your computer during a specific set of hours to get your work done. I don’t understand why it’s still frowned upon to schedule a 2 p.m. appointment or to log off at four if all pressing matters are handled and my job is getting done even with the flexibility to work from home I still feel tied to the eight to five business day.

Anne Helen Petersen: So we actually got several questions like this and they all boil down to something that is basically like, why can’t I be in charge of when I do my job and when I take care of my kids because I’m an adult and really good at my job and can figure this stuff out. And I think, Sarah’s situation is the kind of thing that businesses should be doing for their employees. And this is the sort of thing that I talk about advocating for in terms of healthy flex and blah, blah, blah, but very much the reality that many companies are not adopting these policies and are adopting the come back into the office and if you don’t like it, you can quit. So I guess my question to you, Jess, is why is it so hard for these companies to get on board with what someone like Sarah is asking for without her threatening quitting?

Jessica Grose: I mean, a lot of it is most of these folks are not Internet natives. None of these people have made friends over AIM. [laugh] Like they, their idea of creating a culture and creating relationships is just pre virtual. They don’t I mean, there’s just a complete lack of understanding and and a lack of ability to look outside themselves and think, oh, maybe other people can work efficiently and well in a way that I couldn’t work efficiently and well. So they think I couldn’t do this. So clearly my employees can’t. And some of it certainly is a control thing. They think if they can’t see you, they have bad ideas about what you might be doing with your time. Despite clear evidence that people have been highly productive working from home. I mean—

Jessica Grose: —you know that research as well as anybody there is, there was no dip in productivity among folks who, you know, went fully remote during the pandemic. I mean, in fact, people work more and longer hours, especially when you don’t have that commute. There is more I mean, most people are commuting at least. What is it like half an hour? You’re wasting an hour of your day to sit in an office. And for many folks, not just parents, that makes no sense [laugh] for their for their quality of life and for, you know, having any. So I think it’s inertia. It’s an idea. It’s the people in charge have never done it, so they don’t think it’s possible. And norms and all sorts of spheres of life are incredibly hard to change. I mean, this week I was working on a newsletter about why the school year is the way it is.

Jessica Grose: And a lot of it is just because we set in place the idea that summer there is no school during summer. And that’s it.

Jessica Grose: And that is in people’s heads. And that some very powerful industries, the tourism industry and the amusement park lobby in some states have pushed for laws that make sure that school does not start until the end of August or early September because they are worried about losing money. It’s norms, it’s money. It’s all of these different things. So I think that’s why I am optimistic actually, that this is something that really is going to change in the next 10 to 20 years.

Anne Helen Petersen: I am too. There are a handful of industries that have just been very, very slow to want to do any sort of change in these sorts of realms. Right. A lot of them are companies that are headquartered in the center of the country. And that I’m not making a judgment call there. I’m just talking about what the norms of those organizations are. And I do think that even they will get on board because they’re going to lose talent. They’re going to lose people like Sarah.

Anne Helen Petersen: Who say what I do, I’m very good at my job, but my skills are transferable, and I’m going to go work for some place that does have flex. And I you know the stats bear this out. Slack’s future forum is one of the places where I go for this sort of data and the stats on like the parents who would look for a new job if flex was totally taken from them, it’s so high.

Anne Helen Petersen: And even even with the economic downturn and the tightening of the labor market, like, people just do not want to go back. And I think some of that has to do with how long people had the privilege of flex. Like if this had been four weeks that had been even if it had been like for four months. But once something becomes as normalized as it has, you can’t take that away and say like, oh yeah, well, you know, that was it. That was a gift that we gave you almost because of that. Like a parent, especially, people I’ve talked to have said, like I’m the franticness with which we got out of the house every morning. Right. Like to to get everyone to leave to do, like drop offs at two places. And then for the parent to get on the subway and go into work and then trying to leave work at the precise time to get home to relieve whatever caregiver they had gotten. Like that is a mad dash that no one wants to return to so they can possibly avoid it. They’re going to.

Jessica Grose: Yeah. I mean, obviously. And there are jobs and projects that require you to be someplace in person.

Jessica Grose: And no shade on that. But I find often that many companies that are now insisting people come back to the office for some amorphous cultural reason have absolutely nothing to back that up like nothing in terms of productivity, in terms of statistics like there’s no there there. And I think employees are pretty clear about that.

Anne Helen Petersen: So I’m trying to think like. How can we help this person feel like they are not tied to this idea of office hours? So what other conversations can she have or even tricks, since it’s clear that right now this company is not interested in a more company wide systemic change, that this is an allowance that is being given to her, which is always precarious because that means that it can be very easily taken away because it’s not codified in any way. But I think that there are things that she can do to make them feel like she is working, even when she’s not working. Do you know what? I’m just trying to figure out how she can manage up.

Jessica Grose: Absolutely. So one trick that I’ve heard about, it’s a lot of like calendar jujitsu, depending on how much people are looking at your Microsoft or Google calendar is, but like sort of ostentatiously [laugh] putting things on the calendar that maybe are not the full truth but will make it appear that you are working the standard office hours. That’s one trick that I’ve heard a lot of parents employ. If it is frowned upon or seen that like, oh, you know, going to my kids practice at 4 p.m. on Thursday is, is, you know, going to make me seem less committed. Maybe there’s just a super important meeting or work that you can put on your calendar that you’re doing at that point that you actually do at 7 p.m. that night or whenever is better for you.

Anne Helen Petersen: Right, so totally. We are taping this at a moment when the discourse around quiet quitting is still very much in the air and what we’re talking about here isn’t even quiet quitting. It’s just about like doing your work when you want to do your work and still doing your work really well. Right? This isn’t about shirking responsibility. It isn’t about whether, like one CEO told me one time that if someone got all their work done for a given day. In 6 hours, but they were expected to work an eight hour workday. And if they didn’t sit in their chairs and just like be there, that they would be committing wage theft just by, right. Because they were they weren’t working during that time. And I think one of the things that we have to shift our understanding of is like different tasks take different times for different people. And if someone is salaried and they’re getting the same amount of work done on their own schedule as they would have, or if they’re even getting more work done on their own schedule than they would have working at eight to five, then why not let them? But also, how do we convince those those higher ups that that that’s the case? Maybe it involves a little bit of magic tricking.

Jessica Grose: I think it involves a little bit of magic tricking. I think it involves unfortunate. I mean, we have these beautiful portable devices in our hands [laugh] that allow people to have no idea where we are physically in space at the time.

Jessica Grose: And so, like, I don’t know why anyone keeps sent from my iPhone on their iPhone. I have, I took that off immediately. [laughter]

Jessica Grose: Nobody needs to know them. Nobody needs to know that I, like where I am in space, I am responding to your email and that is the output that the output you want. You don’t you don’t need to know where I am. [laugh] I always felt that way since the invention of the iPhone.

Jessica Grose: As long as I’ve been employed. So like, you know, nobody needs to, they don’t need to know where you are. They just don’t.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. Or you could like, you know, schedule a send a reply to go like two hours after the time that you usually send it. So like if you were, you’ve completed the email at 2 p.m., have its end at 4 p.m..

Anne Helen Petersen: This is the opposite of all advice that I give to people who actually have flex in their workplace. Like for those people, I’m always like figure out how to make boundaries between like work and the rest of your life. Like, you know, be have a little bit more hygiene with that slipperiness that sometimes comes with remote and portable work. Whereas this person, we’re basically saying like figure out how to LARP your job, how to live action role play your job—

Anne Helen Petersen: —a little bit more so that your bosses won’t be so weird about this.

Jessica Grose: In an ideal world, obviously, this person would be able to change her office culture and she would be able to, like, get up on the desk network style and say, like, I’m mad as hell and I’m not taking anymore. We need X, Y and Z for this company. It is always left to the folks who will be most easily and first punished to do that work, to change the culture.

Jessica Grose: And I’m just in my old age seeing so many people who have tried to change cultures, get fed up and quit, basically, or just get sort of. Pushed aside and not allowed to reach their full potential at a company or in a job.

Jessica Grose: And so, listen, we all, we need those reformers, companies will never change. But especially if you have little kids and you need a job to survive like. It’s not always the right time to stick your neck out.

Anne Helen Petersen: Right. And maybe in five years, that’s the time when you get on a committee that advocates for this change for people who want it, like maybe this is a long term plan for this very inflexible company is like when you accumulate more power, you use that power so that other people can have the same privileges that you had. So our advice for Sarah boils down to. One, see if she can communicate with her bosses in a way that suggests that like, here’s all the work that I’m doing, like basically showing that productivity if she wants to. That’s the beginning of the conversation. But if she’s tired of advocating for this sort of thing, there are workarounds that create a sleight of hand that she is working at these times that other people think she should be working at. But then the third is really that she is not singularly responsible for changing this pretty old school culture of her company. She can be the beginning of this change, but especially if she has younger kids, if she’s exhausted, if it just feels like it’s very ossified, that change can come. But she does not have to be wholly responsible for it herself. [music break] So our last question. I think it is perfect for you, but it is also going to frustrate you, I think, or maybe just like throw something at the wall. I don’t know. The topic always makes me want to throw things, but it might also give us an opportunity to talk about some brighter things to do with the future. This is from someone named Chelsea and our producer Melody is going to read it.

Melody: Is anything concrete developing for affordable access to reliable child care? I’m a single parent and have been on a waiting list for my daughter’s after school program for over a year. Babysitters are charging $25 an hour for care in my city, and my work requires on site hours. This has impacted my progress at work, my income and added another layer of stress. How are other working parents managing?

Anne Helen Petersen: So, Jess, what good news do you have for Chelsea?

Jessica Grose: Well, I feel like just replying to the question, how are other parents managing with that gif from Dorinda, from Real Housewives of New York saying not well, bitch like we’re not [laughter] it’s like not. No one is managing this well.

Jessica Grose: So you are really not alone. It is expensive. It is inaccessible. In December, I wrote a story that I think was titled Parents are Back to Work, but Child Care Resources are “Laughable”.

Jessica Grose: Child care was already a broken system and not reliable and very expensive before COVID hit. And now it is worse. And that is just full stop the truth. So many, many, many, many parents are struggling to make this work. So that’s just the first part that you’re not alone.

Jessica Grose: In terms of systemic change, there are a lot of amazing activists who are working so hard, especially on the state level. I think as we know, the federal government is not working great right now in a lot of ways. I mean, there have been a couple of bright lights recently, but not around child care. And so there was a lot of money pumped into state governments during COVID in a good way. And so some of them, particularly I’ve heard of New Mexico, the city of Washington, D.C., Washington state, where things like universal preschool, better paid child care workers like there are so many people who care about this issue so much and are working so hard to make these systemic changes happen. That said, like in the near term, I wish I could get you off that waitlist tomorrow, but I don’t know that the ambulance is coming in the very near term for folks living through this right now. And I just wanted to also say that I’m so sorry that this is happening for you. It’s so stressful. And it just shouldn’t it shouldn’t be this way. So I just my heart really goes out to this listener because it’s it’s terrible. It’s the worst feeling because you need to provide for your kids and you need to have a safe place for them to be. And not being able to do that is just it stinks. So I feel really, you know, it’s a not fun place to be in.

Anne Helen Petersen: You know, one of the things that I found when I was reporting about basically just how broken the child care system was and is is that there’s a real amnesia that happens oftentimes with parents like this is the reason why there hasn’t been as much activism as one might expect, given that so many people are parents in this country, is that once you get through it, you’re exhausted and you’re angry in part because you’ve spent so much money. But you start to focus on other things instead of thinking, how can I build this system so that no one else has to go through what I went through? And I understand that. Absolutely. But I think it also we see it a little bit in terms of what happens with after school and before school care, because it seems like people are really, really struggling, absolutely struggling with care for. I mean, infant care is incredible, massaffordable infant care. And if you don’t have leave, just what are you going to do? But also with, you know, pre-K, all that sort of thing, that’s where there’s a lot of energy focused when that interstitial care, when the kids are done with school, but you’re not done with work. And what do you do for those hours? When we were kids in a lot of places, you went home alone or you had a family member who was there. And our civilization is still really organized around the idea that every family has someone who is in the home.

Anne Helen Petersen: And so those. Those parents, like even our previous listener who can be home when her kids are done. In some ways that makes it so that there’s less pressure for the change that needs to happen for people who can’t be home. Does that make sense?

Jessica Grose: Absolutely. But that’s like the ultimate problem is that everyone is figuring out their own individual solutions because they have to. There is you know, your kids have to go somewhere that you feel they’re safe. And so I don’t think that it’s a lack of desire to make a more systemic change. It’s that in the near term, it’s not something you can neglect to deal with.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yes one hundred percent. [laughter] Yes, like you need the childcare so that you can even advocate for the change that would be systemic in the future.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, no. And I don’t want to mistake that. I’m saying that like, people don’t care about this.

Jessica Grose: No of course.

Anne Helen Petersen: It’s more that they they exhaust their their body battery, again, of caring by looking for all of the care that then there’s just so little left to advocate for the longer term changes.

Jessica Grose: Yeah. And I think this would be such a societal change that it’s like I don’t even know how you would begin to make it happen. But Americans work more hours than people in many developed countries do.

Jessica Grose: And I can speak for myself and say that like my ideal scenario, if I could choose, if there were no societal pressures, if there were no set work hours, I would like to work what would be thought of as three quarter time.

Jessica Grose: And actually spend more time with my children. Those situations are almost impossible to come by—

Jessica Grose: —without taking such a financial hit that you know, that wouldn’t work for most families that need that income. I personally am like, I don’t want to be a top manager anywhere ever. I would like to work less. I would like to spend more, more time with my family and less stressed time with my family where I’m thinking about 17 other things. And I can’t be present because I’m worried about, you know, getting something else done. And that’s not again, it’s not a childcare solution. But— [laughter]

Anne Helen Petersen: No, and that the fact that in many different industries there only is full time or no time.

Anne Helen Petersen: Is part of what I think is forcing some mothers to drop out of the workforce right now.

Jessica Grose: Right. But I mean, in the case of this questioner—

Jessica Grose: —there there might be enough childcare to go around with our current system if we could have other release valves. Because right now the situation that it is, it’s like we need a complete overhaul of the childcare system to even have enough supply for the demand that exists.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah like to even have enough teachers who are willing to do this work.

Anne Helen Petersen: Who, many people want to do this work. It’s just that it pays. In many states, poverty, wages. [laugh]

Jessica Grose: Yep, it’s ridiculous. I mean, the whole thing is just like every time you try to find a solution for a problem, it creates another problem.

Jessica Grose: I’m afraid that any sort of suggestion I give is just going to sound so basic and stupid. And I’m sure this person has already exhausted every potential lead in her community. So, like I would say, especially during the pandemic, I know a lot of folks who did sort of co-op style childcare where, you know, when it was remote school every day. And so all the kids would just be at one house for a one day a week. So it was less of a burden for everyone. But that one day was so horrible, [laughter] like I couldn’t do it.

Jessica Grose: But that’s like the only if there’s no family around to help, I’m like, is there some sort of cooperative solution?

Jessica Grose: Because I’m sure that this listener is not the only person who is waitlisted.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Yeah. And if there’s whether it’s a parent listserve or a community group, like on Facebook or on whatever, like there are other people that you could do essentially. Like, I don’t think you’d call it a nanny share. You’d call it a babysitter share.

Anne Helen Petersen: It’s for older kids. A babysitter taking care of, like, four infants is very different than a babysitter watching over four nine-year-olds.

Jessica Grose: Totally. And if you have a local college, that is usually a really great source of potential babysitters and again, can share the cost if they’re older kids. It’s just like not that hard to take them to the park and and watch all of them for, you know, a couple hours every day. You know, again, these things are hard to find their sweat equity in finding them. And it stinks. But that’s the only sort of solution that I can think of that she maybe hasn’t already done, but maybe she already has tried it.

Anne Helen Petersen: Well, and I you know, her question, the way that it was posed really highlights to me, the fact that when you don’t have this system in place, this infrastructure, child care as infrastructure as Elizabeth Warren and many others put it. Then every other part of our infrastructure suffers right. It is it is a structural component of a functioning society to have some measure of care. That doesn’t mean that every single mother needs to be working or every single parent needs to be working. But there needs to be some measure of care that people can use that’s affordable and accessible. And if you don’t have it, then people aren’t as good at their jobs. They aren’t as good at being a member of their community. There’s just all sorts of things that begin to falter as well.

Anne Helen Petersen: [laugh] So that was all. That’s not really good news. But I’m trying to think something from recent reporting in recent stories that really makes you feel like, oh, things might change in this realm. We might we might be coming up on something that’s going to make parenting easier moving forward. Um. [laughter] And it could even be a gadget. It can be an app. It can be the new season of Bluey. Right.

Jessica Grose: Yeah. So what I would say is that I do think more people are just calling bullshit on the entire way that we are supposed to survive in this current system of demands, on our time and on our souls and on our children, and trying to find a way forward that might be very radical or might be a little incremental, but sort of just seeing through a lot of the bullshit for what it is.

Jessica Grose: And so I do think more, more and more people are sort of questioning a lot of the expectations that are put on parents and trying to find new ways of doing things.

Anne Helen Petersen: And you think part of the bullshit that they’re calling is just this whole individualist family narrative of self-sufficiency, right? Like you just can’t do it by yourself.

Jessica Grose: No, for me personally, and we’re obviously very lucky to have this, we live near my parents and I don’t think I we would have been able to have a second kid if we didn’t live near a family. And just as, you know, knowing in the back of my head that that’s an emergency stopgap for us has been just immeasurably satisfying. And I think during the pandemic, a lot of folks moved to be closer to family and I and that I wouldn’t say that gives me hope, but I do think that that’s going to make life richer and easier for a lot of families. Just your kids having relationships with other trusted adults makes their lives so much richer and better. I mean, it’s suffocating to have just, you know, the nuclear family to rely on at all.

Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. I really encourage other people who don’t have kids or do have kids to become that person in other kids lives, too.

Anne Helen Petersen: Because no matter what age you are, if you’re older, if you’re younger, the parents of those children will be grateful for you in many different ways. But also, it’s really wonderful to have a relationship with a kid that’s like that. It’s just fun.

Jessica Grose: Yeah, we have one of our best friends lives in the apartment across the street from us, and she loves my kids. She comes over with her dogs. They watch movies together like it’s the sweetest, most fun. She tells them that they they can’t wrestle because she’s not that kind of babysitter. Like, just don’t, like, you can hurt yourselves while I’m here, like— [laughter] You have to be cool. Just be cool. And they’re like, okay, we got it. And they do it. They would never they never do that for me, but they have so much fun with her and it’s such a fruitful relationship for everybody. So yeah, I mean, I think more people are certainly realizing the value of that and that’s excellent.

Anne Helen Petersen: I am so grateful that you were willing to come and address these questions with me today, because you have that perfect mix of like deep knowledge of policy. And also having spoken to hundreds and hundreds of parents about everything that’s going on over the last few years. But then also you just have a really empathetic heart and I think that that’s a great quality to have in an advice giver. So thank you for coming on.

Jessica Grose: Oh. Thank you so much for having me. That really that’s so sweet. That really touched that really touched me. [laughter] I hope my advice was not too sassy telling people just to lie to their employers. [laughter] And just full disclosure, I would never lie to my current employer about anything. Only the 100% truth ever. So, you know.

Anne Helen Petersen: Every email is sent from your computer.

Jessica Grose: From my computer. I never leave my desk. [laughter]

Anne Helen Petersen: [music break] I was so glad to talk to Jessica Grose for this episode. And thanks so much to those of you who submitted questions for us. I genuinely hope your lives gets easier soon. And thanks to you for listening to Work Appropriate. If you’ve got a workplace quandary, you want help figuring out, get in touch. You can find submission guidelines at WorkAppropriate.com or send a voice memo with your questions to Work Appropriate at Crooked.com. Some of the episodes we’re working on involve what to do when the work you love is sucking your soul, or how to process traumatic things that happened to you against the backdrop of work and then all things union and labor and organizing. We’d love to hear from you. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Sandy Girard. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen or on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen. You can sign up for my newsletter at AnneHelen.substack.com. Meet me back here next week as we try to untangle all of your shitty office culture questions with someone who works at a place that seems to actually have figured out how to have healthy workplace culture.

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