Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Working Parents and Childcare

Mothers tend to keep a pretty low profile, so whenever a mother is in the news, it usually is pretty significant. Chicago single mother Rhiannon Broschat is no exception. Because her story is sadly indicative of what many mothers face, her situation managed to garner media attention and social support. Thus, it is a perfect vehicle through which to analyze mothering issues in the workplace.

For those of you unaware of her story, Ms. Broschat was fired by Whole Foods on January 28th when she chose to stay home with her special needs son when school was closed for the polar vortex and she could not find childcare. Ms. Broschat was already on “final warning” but expected that Whole Foods would honor their policy about weather concerns and excuse her absence. That did not happen. There are a whole host of other details involved in the story, including the lack of worker protections within Whole Foods (which has strongly resisted unionization), issues unique to part-time workers and their point system for absences and tardies, but those are not what I want to discuss.

The really important part of this story is what many of the media articles have missed: the impossibility of her choice. Ms. Broschat had to choose between doing what was best for her child or doing what was expected by her employer. If she chose her child (which most people would say that she should), then she gets fired with many saying she deserved her fate. If she chose her employer, then she risked her child’s safety and the prospect that child protective services would take him away from her. In that instance, many would label her a bad mother. Thus, she was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Lest you think this is hyperbole, I assure you that it is not. There are stories upon stories of parents, usually mothers, who leave their children home alone in order to work and suffer the consequences.

A lot of people understand the problem because we have faced that difficulty too. After the news of what happened to Ms. Borshat came out, 70,000 people signed petitions urging Whole Foods to give her back her job and 5,000 people called them with the same message. There were protests of Whole Foods in 19 cities across the United States and some people paid for a billboard to make more people aware of the situation. Even her co-workers got into the act and walked off the job in support of Ms. Borshat the day after she was fired. Thus, thousands of people agree that something must be done to enable families to both work and take good care of their children.

Unfortunately, the dreadful decision Ms. Borshat had to make is not a new one. For as long as lower-income mothers have worked, they have had to choose between earning money and the best interests of their children. Many children have died because of the impossibility of this choice. Yet we still insist upon viewing this as a personal problem rather than a systemic one. And that makes no sense. In fact, few of the United States “family values” policies are logical, forget about compassionate. I find this weird in a country which at least talks a lot about the importance of family.

Despite our “family values,” childcare is not a topic that gets much attention. This is disturbing given that childcare is a gigantic issue for parents in general and single parents in particular. Yet the last time any kind of major childcare legislation was passed was over 40 years ago. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but things have changed a lot since then. Employees are working longer hours, childcare costs have skyrocketed (although childcare workers still aren’t getting paid much), extended families are scattered and communities are no longer as solid as they used to be. In other words, we’re in the midst of a childcare crisis but you’d never know it for all the attention it gets paid. Ms. Borshat’s story changed that.

Everyone probably knows about the high cost of good childcare (which currently averages around $12,000 per year!) but few discuss the desperation parents feel when our child is sick or home from school and we have to work. What then? For those of us fortunate enough to have social or financial resources, we can figure it out. But what about parents like Ms. Borshat whose Plan A fell through and she had nowhere else to turn? Plans only work when there are actually alternatives. And this becomes even more problematic for parents during the summer months when school is closed (I will discuss the ridiculous nature of an outdated educational calendar another time) and we must scramble for other options, ones that are all too often expensive and time-limited.

How can we adequately deal with the problem of working parents and childcare? Well, there are solutions available to us, things like mandatory paid sick leave, government funded high quality childcare, and the reinstitution of a strong community. Other countries have these solutions and it works for them; we just have to be brave enough and assertive enough to push for them here. And some people are doing just that. For example, the media attention surrounding Ms. Borshat’s case pushed the Chicago City Council to introduce an ordinance that would make paid sick days mandatory at every job (something San Francisco workers have had since 2006). Workers could use these days to stay home with sick children if necessary. Best of all, research shows that offering such a benefit has absolutely no negative effect on the business’s bottom line. In other words, there is nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

Government funded high quality childcare is something that United States can do. I know this because we have done it in the past. During World War II, women were needed in factories to support the war effort. Knowing that mothers could not work outside the home without good childcare, the government managed to institute childcare programs across the country. For a small fee from families, these childcare centers stayed open around the clock (to accommodate shift work), had medical professionals on duty to deal with sick children, and some even offered other amenities like hot meals and laundry service. So, such an undertaking is possible and other countries still provide this service.

Other people are trying to shore up communities. People in a number of different states are living in and forming intentional communities known as cohousing. This is a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods. Private homes are the same as those in other areas but residents have access to common facilities, like open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house. This really helps with childcare because there are usually people around available to help.

There are existing solutions to our problem of working parents and childcare should we choose to take advantage of them. We just have to realize that they are the right thing to do, for children, working parents and for the country as a whole. It’s even good for business because, as Whole Foods discovered, people do care about workers and their families. What Whole Foods will choose to do from here is still being decided. The regional directors are in the process of setting up a review of Ms. Broschat’s firing and the manager of the store who originally fired her has been relocated. I hope they will give her back her job but, failing that, perhaps next time they face a situation involving a single parent, they will choose compassion over convenience.

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