Caitlyn Collins: Take Your Child to Work Day

MotherhoodFor my mom, Take Your Child to Work Day happened a lot more than once a year. And they weren’t planned as part of a national “holiday” sponsored by the likes of Goldman Sachs, MetLife, and Chevron. They usually weren’t planned at all, and they weren’t a celebration.

Babysitters called in sick and daycare closed early. Schools had snow days, teacher planning days, holidays, and what seemed to be closed-for-no-clear-reason days. We ran a fever or caught a cold and needed to be picked up early. Or we were too sick to attend daycare or school at all.

So like mothers throughout the country, she hauled us to her office. I realize now, only decades later, the many ways she paid a price. Trying to keep us happy and quiet while she rushed to finish her work wasn’t Alyson’s idea of a quality learning experience for her kids or an ideal workday for her. These times filled her with dread, not joy.

And they weren’t always fun for us either. A child sick with the flu would rather be home than napping in an office during a conference call (not to mention that the flu is a health risk at work as well as at school). And a snow day spent cooped up at a parent’s workplace is a special kind of hell for kids.

This isn’t what the creators of Take Your Child to Work Day envisioned.

My mom would rarely have had to bear these panicked days if our system was set up differently. Work and family are largely incompatible in the United States. Women still to do most of the work involved in raising kids today. And benefits to support this caring labor are few and far between. U.S. society thinks of kids and families as private responsibilities. For instance, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation with no minimum standard for sick days and vacation days. The country stands alone as the only nation with no federal paid maternity leave (well, the U.S. and Papua New Guinea). The word “family” appears in nearly every country’s Constitution except the U.S.’ National childcare is the norm in other western market economies, but it’s not even a glimmer on the horizon here.

What does life look like for mothers elsewhere? Do all moms struggle like mine to schlep their children to work when plans go awry? Or are there other ways to organize work and care (that still involve donuts and snow days)?

My book, Making Motherhood Work (forthcoming 2019), explores the daily lives of working moms in four countries that offer very different policy solutions to work-family conflict and gender inequality. Using interviews with 135 women in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the U.S., I consider how women perceive motherhood and employment in light of the available policies.

After five years of conversations, I realized that work-family conflict like my mom’s is not an unfortunate certainty for women everywhere. Life for all women and their families—regardless of income, race, region, faith, or migration background—can look different, and better.

The tradition of taking one’s children to work each April began 25 years ago with Gloria Steinem and the Ms. Foundation for Women. Then it was called “Take Our Daughters to Work Day.” Ten years later, it expanded to include boys and is now “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.” I see two big reasons to celebrate this day.

First, the original intent was to introduce girls to a wide variety of occupations. Encouraging girls and young women to dream big about their career aspirations remains a laudable goal. Our work organizations and labor market remain deeply unequal. Women still lag behind men in hiring, earnings, and promotions in the workplace—especially women of color. Many women remain clustered in female-typed jobs that are less prestigious with lower pay, which sociologists Maria Charles and David Grusky call “occupational ghettos.” And a woman has yet to hold the highest office in the country.

You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s important that girls meet women role models in all lines and at all levels of work. I witnessed my mother achieve her career goals, but others don’t get this privilege. Not all jobs are good jobs. The lessons a child learns visiting a parent who works as a bus driver are wildly different than those gleaned from a day at a parent’s law firm. Upgrading working conditions across the labor market would give children of all backgrounds more to aspire to, and better odds of achieving these goals with the resources necessary to survive and thrive.

Second, employers come face to face with the reality that workers have responsibilities outside of their jobs, and these commitments are very often to children. Recognizing employees’ childrearing responsibilities shouldn’t mean that these workers are seen as less capable and committed on the job as a result. Helping parents is good not only for families, but also for business.

I would like us to set our sets much higher than Take Your Child to Work Day. Let’s think more ambitiously and brightly about what it means to work and care and dream about one’s future in the United States.

Rather than asking girls to set their sights higher or for workplaces to accommodate families one day a year, what changes can be made on a national level to make the lives of all families better and happier? And what role can organizations play in making this vision a reality? Making Motherhood Work demonstrates that we need to overhaul our social policies and cultural attitudes about work and family if we really want to improve conditions for families.

So take your child to work today, or even someone else’s. Encourage kids to think expansively about their interests, especially those who too often aren’t encouraged to dream at all. Remind employers that you’re a better worker because of your family, not in spite of it.

But let’s also hold ourselves to a higher standard as a nation.

Moms like mine deserve better, and so do the country’s kids. And not just 1/365th of the time.

Caitlyn Collins is assistant professor of sociology at Washington University. Her new book, Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, is forthcoming in January 2019.