Mother's Day — let's address the growing childcare crisis

Mother's Day — let's address the growing childcare crisis
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The 2018 midterm elections saw a record number of women running for office — and winning — at every level of government. That historic wave, coupled with the record number of women running for President in 2020, might lead you to think that women are making major advancements — or even, in the immortal words of Beyonce, that we "run the world."

Unfortunately, in the workplace at least, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

That’s why this weekend, as millions of Americans celebrate Mother’s Day, I’m especially mindful of the particular barriers that working moms face every day. I also think about the distinct challenges facing single moms — like my own — and women of color, who remain the most underrepresented and least supported of all.

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One of the biggest barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace is access to affordable childcare. The problem is pretty straightforward: in many places, quality child care is extraordinarily expensive. Families are often confronted with a stark choice: between spending a sizeable portion of their income on care, or leaving the workforce altogether. If the latter, it’s often the mother who makes that sacrifice in a two-parent household.

For single moms who are the sole breadwinners of their families, however, leaving the workforce is not an option. Yet family survival literally depends on access to some form of childcare — whether it’s cheaper, lower-quality care, or finding informal support through family members. Indeed, my mom, who had me when she was 17, has often said that without access to childcare, it would have been impossible for her to provide for me. Even for families who do have childcare, there are a host of unforeseen circumstances — like the illness of a child, or an obligation at school — that may intervene and force parents to unexpectedly miss work. In such instances, mothers are eight times more likely to stay home and take care of a sick kid.

Although my mom had some childcare (when she was in law school, for example), more often than not she just took me everywhere she went — including, sometimes, to class. She always seemed to find a way to make it work, because that’s what working moms do.

But it wasn’t easy. And the point is, it should have been.

That’s why, although it’s laudable that the Senate changed its rules to allow babies on the floor so that Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthDuckworth celebrates Veterans Day with deported veterans in Mexico Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect military families from deportation Nuclear command nominee sidesteps questions on arms control treaties MORE (D-Ill.) didn’t have to miss a vote, it’s not even close to good enough. Working moms need real support, not baseline policies that don’t actually get at the core issue: that our workplaces are not welcoming to working mothers.

What would be better is a flexible-work policy, where FaceTime in the office is not a hard requirement. Instead, moms would have the latitude and autonomy to create schedules that allow them to succeed at their jobs while taking care of their families. What would be better is expansive paid caregiver leave that contemplates support at every stage of life, from childbirth, to staying home with a sick kid, to taking care of elderly parents — all of which are responsibilities that disproportionately fall on women and mothers, who are more likely to stop working in order to provide the required care.

As with all forms of workplace inequity, however, policy changes mean little without cultural changes to match. In addition to things like affordable, quality childcare; paid family and medical leave; paid sick days; and flexible hours, we have to fundamentally change expectations about how people work. After all, a culture that prizes long hours and rewards “overwork” also seriously disadvantages working mothers.

My mom often reflects on a moment from early in her career — at the first law firm where she worked — when she was rushing home, at the end of a long workday, to pick me up from daycare. As she was waiting for the elevator, one of the firm’s partners happened to walk by, saw her, and tried to pull her into an important meeting.

She faced a choice: leave to pick me up and risk angering a more senior coworker, with potential implications for her career, or stay for the meeting, miss daycare pickup, and leave me sitting on the curb. It was a dilemma that no parent should have to face, and it sparked unwarranted feelings of stress and guilt on top of the many additional barriers to professional success women must overcome.

That day, my mom chose to leave — without apologizing for putting her family first. She was fortunate to work in an environment, and surrounded by coworkers, supportive of that decision. But not all women are so lucky. Many work at jobs that don’t afford basic benefits like paid personal leave, paid sick leave, or the flexibility to address family needs as they arise. And that doesn’t just hurt families, leaving women breadwinners and caretakers to contend with unreasonable competing pressures and inadequate resources. It hurts American businesses, too.

Every year, businesses across the country forfeit an estimated $12.7 billion solely because of the childcare-related challenges their employees face. When you factor in reduced productivity, lost earnings, and lost revenue associated with inadequate child care, the total rises to an astonishing $57 billion — every year.

It’s past time for our leaders — from the corporate world to the presidential campaign trail to the halls of Congress — to address the growing childcare crisis, save billions of dollars for American businesses, and take a stand for what’s right. When we make workplaces more supportive of single mothers, like my mom, we necessarily make them better for all moms. This, in turn, makes companies both more productive and more profitable. It’s the rare situation in which simply doing the right thing will generate tangible benefits for everyone, starting with the women we’re celebrating this Mother’s Day.

Meena Harris is the founder of Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign and is a recognized and respected rising voice for activism and women’s equality. Harris also serves as commissioner on the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, and head of strategy and leadership at Uber, where she leads bold transformation initiatives focused on positive brand impact, customer loyalty and employee engagement.