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Since last weekend, my 20-month-old has had a cough and runny nose. Daycare wants me to pick her up, and won’t let her return without a pediatrician note. My only two appointments available: The so-called beginning of the day, at 10 a.m., or end of the day: 3:45 p.m.
It’s like I’m facing some sort of cosmic penalty for being a full-time working mom. But there’s no reason why I should.
Almost three in 10 American mothers stay at home with their kids, says a 2014 Pew Research Poll. That’s an uptick from 1999, when it was just 23 percent, but it’s still the minority — so why does modern parenthood orient itself around half-day preschool and mid-morning story hour? Why are YMCA swim lessons just cruelly out of reach in the 4 o’clock hour? In fact, every dance class, play gym session, and form of enrichment I’ve researched over my lunch break seem to take place exclusively from Monday to Thursday.
This outdated way of doing business makes life harder for everyone, says Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of “Mommy Wars.” “I’ll never understand how we live in country that exalts child-rearing and holds us to such high standards yet is so unwilling to accommodate the realities of parenthood,” she says. “And it would be so easy! A pediatrician with evening or weekend hours would get noticed the way a flexible employer does.”
So we “choose,” by default, Saturday morning swim and Gymboree. Throw in a haircut, grocery store stop, or an online return, and weekends are toast. Says my best friend who works “part time” (Monday to Thursday, losing her benefits to see her son one day a week): “I looked for Little Gym or some sort of class but couldn’t find anything nearby for his age range on a Friday. We usually go food shopping so we can have family time on the weekend.” Steiner’s two kids couldn’t attend her old nursery school because they were assigned to separate sessions, and she would’ve made eight trips to and from home to get them there. “I would have to hire somebody to drive back and forth all day. Who do they think has time for this?” she says.
The most insidious thing about the working mom penalty is that it hurts us all. “It puts pressure on women to stop working, which has consequences for them and their children, not to mention ratchets up the stress on men to be the breadwinner,” says Steiner. And it codifies the us-versus-them divide: As much as I’d like to, I don’t have time to chit-chat with the stay at home mom across the street, and our kids aren’t going to hang out until first grade because hers is enrolled into activities reserved for her sphere. We’re on tracks that never cross, and that’s a shame.
Restructuring the world takes time and energy, a luxury most parents don’t have whether they’re employed or not — but the first part of the solution may be recognizing that there’s a problem. Schools, pediatricians, and family-centric institutions need to be more sensitive and flexible, Steiner says. Until then, we each have to find our own way through.
At the start of every school year, she recalls, one mom sat down with her kids and asked them to pick three events she absolutely had to attend. “I thought it was a great way of letting herself off the hook while putting the kids in control, and they got a sense of how difficult the juggling is. They don’t take her for granted the way kids do when you show up to everything.”
And sometimes, it’s as easy as sending an email. A mom’s group in my town recently requested more story-time slots at the library and they agreed to host “pajama story time” sessions at 6:30 to accommodate working parents.
In the end, feeling guilty for missing afternoon swim lessons is probably more detrimental to the parent than her kid.
"Worrying does you no good. Ask yourself, is this really going to make a difference to my child? Then go out and do what you can," Steiner says.