Did someone forward you this newsletter? Subscribe for free here. However, paying membership is what makes this newsletter possible. Plus, you get audio newsletters, hangouts and more. It starts at $7/mo. Join us!
This summer, my family has been dealing with some childcare snafus combined with the ending of naptime for our three and half year-old twins. This is being paired with a sleep regression, which all goes together about as well as rancid wine and expired cheese. The result is toddler parties in the 5am hour and allowing them some solo play time before dawn means they also completely trash their room and playroom every day. My husband and I have of course dealt with disrupted sleep many times in our parenting history, but there’s something about not being in the regular habit of a sleep deficit that makes when it happens so destabilizing and exhausting. So, in Double Shift fashion, I’m turning my personal parenting misery into a way to look at our society.
But first, I just want to say to any parent who is reading this who is not regularly getting a full night’s sleep who is also required to form sentences, use executive functioning and expected to be bearable to be around, I see you and I know how hard it is. While sleep disruption (along with kid illnesses) is probably an unavoidable part of having small children, the conditions that make it so hard to survive it while also maintaining paid employment are a uniquely American phenomenon. Elliot Haspel recently wrote in The Atlantic that when parents are forced to deal with a lack of social safety net and constant unpredictability, whether it’s daycares abruptly closing due to staff shortages or canceled camps due to wildfire smoke, it creates ongoing stress that has contributed to increased levels parental dissatisfaction and burnout since the start of the pandemic.
Certainly, if we lived in a country that allowed 120 days paid sick leave to take care of an ill child per year and generously subsidized childcare so shelling out for a babysitter on a weekend wouldn’t be as much of a bank breaker, those policies would be a great start in stabilizing some of what is so challenging about raising children in America right now. But of course, this isn’t some earth-shattering epiphany. What’s been on my mind this summer is that instead of continuing to talk about the mountains of longstanding evidence that robust social safety nets help improve outcomes for children and that they benefit society on the whole in the long run, we should be arguing that the lack of social safety net for families is creating unacceptable working conditions for parents.
Instead of continuing to talk about the mountains of longstanding evidence that robust social safety nets help improve outcomes for children, we should be arguing that the lack of social safety net for families is creating unacceptable working conditions for parents.
73% of workers identify as a caregiver, and parents with young and school-age children are desperately needed in the workforce to fill labor shortages created both by our strange economic times and the 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day. What would universal protections, accommodations and improving work conditions for parents and those who are raising young children look like? A school calendar that matched the workday with fun and enriching aftercare options? Or a workday that matched the school calendar with appropriate months of paid vacation? Paid leave to recover fully from childbirth and/or bond with a new child? High quality childcare that’s affordable without years-long waitlists?
While it’s important to dream up these wish lists, perhaps the more defiant question we should be asking is, “How the fuck can we be expected to work without these safety nets in place? The lack of universal social safety nets paired with employer expectations that are removed from the reality of caregiving should actually be considered unacceptable working conditions, as absurd as requiring an employee to physically be on two assembly lines at the same time.
This all reminds me of a section in my friend Angela Garbes’ book, Essential Labor. She suggests the idea to her husband, who’s a labor organizer, that parents should form a union. He replies, “and who would you take your demands to?” Given that parents in America aren't a typical group of workers who could use a union to negotiate with an employer, the question flummoxes her. I’ve also been thinking about it for about a year since I read it in her book, and I’m wading through my own set of ideas about it.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been resurgent interest in labor unions, new groups unionizing and record-breaking strike actions. While union membership is still at lower levels than the 90s, this flurry of action and fawning coverage of celebrities on the picket line this year has certainly introduced a brand-new generation of workers to the power of unions. But who is the “employer of record” for parents?
I’ve concluded that the answer to “who do we take our demands to?” is the government.
For myself, I’ve concluded that the answer to “who do we take our demands to?” is the government. One model I take inspiration from is care worker unions who are turning the traditional, adversarial approach of employer vs. employee on its head. In many care unionization efforts, administrators, workers, those who need care, and their loved ones all rally together on the side of unions, rather than fighting each other. For example, SEIU 2015 represents IHSS (In-Home Supportive Service) workers and long term care facility workers in California, rather than taking their demands for better pay and benefits to small local agencies, or to the individual families who are employing them who could ill afford to personally pay what care workers need and deserve, they first successfully organized to collectively bargain with their county about pay and benefits through state reimbursement programs like Medicaid. Next, they lobbied to be able to collectively bargain as 385,000 workers with the state of California. Governor Newsom’s administration is now working on the logistics of implementing collective bargaining for these workers. Governments have access to way more resources than employers. It’s not a perfect parallel, but I really like the idea of making governments the entity to bargain with as an important idea to noodle on for a parent’s union.
Parents have also never had a political lobby to fight in Washington for our needs. Dr. Dana Suskind has suggested that caregivers should form a lobby on a model similar to the AARP, but her suggestion uses the argument that improving safety nets for parents is ultimately in service of the needs of children. Chamber of Mothers is a new group that is interested in promoting mothers’ rights and their tenants are around paid leave, childcare and maternal mental health, but they are a new non-profit and haven’t yet created a substantial lobbying presence in Washington. Labor Unions are some of the biggest political lobby groups, but since there is no parent’s union, the combined idea of independently lobbying for parents’ needs as its own constituency in the frame of a labor/workforce issue hasn’t happened. Yet. [Sidenote: There is an organization called The National Parents Union, but it focuses on K-12 education policy, so not precisely what I have in mind.]
In thinking about how to pitch a modern parents union, leaders like Ai-Jen Poo and organizations like The National Domestic Workers Alliance inform my thinking. I’ve spoken to Poo about an idea she champions that investing in well-paying care jobs is a “triple dignity investment,” meaning there are three levels of benefit: to the workers, to the families of the workers, and to those they care for, including seniors, children, and those with disabilities. I wonder if this concept could be adapted to argue that investing in safety nets that improve the lives of parents could be considered a similar triple dignity investment, benefiting workers, the children they are raising, and the employers who need those parent-workers to thrive at their full potential in the workforce. But that will require many new levels of organization and amassing of political power.
I know these thoughts are leaving several stones unturned and this isn’t a clear step-by-step playbook. But I hope these ideas and reframes are provocative ways to push this discussion forward.
In this week’s members-only thread, I want to know, if parents had a powerful political union that was lobbying up a storm and influencing state and federal policy, what would YOU want it to fight for? I’d love to hear your practical and creative suggestions!!
To weigh in on this thread and get more member benefits like audio newsletters and hangouts, become a member. It starts at $7/mo.
What I’m Reading: As a childhood fanatic of Eloise, I LOVED Virginia Sole-Smith’s newsletter on taking her daughter to Tea at The Plaza, and lots of forgotten history of the author Kay Thompson’s subversive genius.
To Make My Life Easier: I am so tired of my children’s $15-20 water bottles vanishing into thin air that I broke down and bought a bulk pack of 10 that are $45 total. They are not as nice as the Thermos brand, but who cares, they are just fine and are going to get lost anyway.
YUM: This spicy eggplant stir fry is the best thing I’ve cooked in a long time.
August Member Hangout: AMA Free-for-All
Friday Aug 25th at 2PM EST
Let’s enjoy our semi-annual open-thread member conversation... You can ask me anything, you can ask each other anything. I’ll have some discussion prompts and we’ll have a good ole time. Come for end of summer solidarity, laughs, and connection with fellow Double Shifters!
Check your inboxes for a calendar invite!