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Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza On Bringing His Baby to Work And Child Care Gaps

Mayor Jorge Elorza is much like any other working parent on a budget: he's just trying to make ends meet

Twitter/@Jorge_Elorza

Mayor Jorge Elorza of Providence, Rhode Island, has been in the national news lately. Not because of political scandal, corruption, outrage, but because of his struggles with finding affordable child care for his baby, Omar. Elorza, who works a lot of weekends, late nights, and early mornings, often brings his baby to work events. The reason is simple: his parents and his wife’s parents take care of their kid from 9-5, and Elorza and his wife, who is a full-time law student, have to watch him in the meantime. He’s a parent. Child care is prohibitively expensive. And he’s making it work. 

Omar’s presence has caused quite the stir in City Hall. Some say Elorza only gets away with it because he’s a father, not a mother. Others say it’s a political stunt. But Elorza says that when he became a dad, he realized how hard it is to find affordable child care that works for working parents and needed to bring Omar because it made financial sense. To hear more from Mayor Elorza, Fatherly spoke to him about his news-making arrangement with Omar, the criticism he’s received, and how he’s trying to make Providence a little bit easier to be a working parent. 

So, how often do you bring Omar to work with you?

Omar rarely comes into the office with me during work hours. His grandparents take care of him. They’re with him Monday through Friday. I try to stay home Wednesday morning to be with him. That’s nine-to-five, but sometimes I have events in the morning and in the evening, and weekends. That’s where I try to integrate him as much as possible. That’s when I have him with me whenever I’m out and about town.

In terms of bringing him to the office, I did some rough calculations of how much time he spends here with me. I would say during nine-to-five hours, we’re talking maybe an hour or so per month

How do you get work done at events or the hours he’s in the office with you?

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The reporting on this has given the impression that I have him with me all day during work hours. It would be very tough to get work done if I had him with me. But during the first six months, I did a lot of Skype meetings on conference calls. I’d work from home and oftentimes during Skype meetings I’d have my headset on and I’d be feeding him while we’re doing a Skype conference call. That was doable because he wasn’t very mobile, and he slept a lot during those early months. Once he became mobile, it was a whole new ballgame. Conference calls now when I’m at the house are now really, really difficult, just because I have to keep an eye on him every single second. So, now [that he’s older] on Wednesday mornings, I try to carve out some time in the morning and take him to the playground and spend time with him before I drop him off at his grandparents for daycare.

How did you and your wife come to your child care arrangement? Did you look into traditional day cares? 

First things first, I love being a dad. Everyone tells me how fast these years go by, and I want to be there to enjoy them as much as possible. I have a very demanding job in terms of my time. If I didn’t have him with me, then I wouldn’t see him, and I’d miss out on moments in his life. That’s something that I’m not willing to do. That’s one right off the bat.

The second thing is that his mom is a second-year law student. She’s just as busy, if not as busy as I am. Sometimes, I need to take on more of the share, just as there are moments where she takes on more of the share. We support each other as much as we can and make it work. I’d love to say that there’s some grand plan and design to all of this, but half the time, we’re in survival mode. We’re just trying to make it work. 

So, why did you choose to have his grandparents care for him instead of a traditional day care set up?

Child care is just too expensive. [My wife] Stephanie and I toured a daycare and early learning centers and when we saw the price tag of over $350 a week, we both just shook our heads and knew that that wasn’t something that was sustainable for us. We rely a great deal on my parents and on her parents. That’s been great for the baby, but our parents, you know, are getting up there in age, too. They have doctor’s appointments. They have other things going on. And sometimes Stephanie and I need to make other arrangements, and that’s where, typically, when I pick him up and he’s with me.

So $350 a week was unaffordable for you?

Stephanie is in law school right now, so we only have one income at this point. And, you know, we manage it the best that we can. But I can tell you as a family, we can’t afford that much a month. That’s just the reality. I think about that cost and think about residents in my city. I don’t see how many people in Providence can afford that much in daycare. It just makes the challenges around daycare more tangible, and real.

You’re bringing Omar around outside of non-traditional work hours. A lot of shift workers who are parents have to deal with this problem every day. Most daycare centers run from 9 to 5. Did you think about child care gaps before you had your son? Or was this something you only started to grapple with when you became a parent and were faced with the reality of this?

As for the challenges of what do we do on these days when I have evening events and mommy is in school, I just hustle and figure it out and have my kid with me even if I have to have him at evening events. Those evening events really run the gamut — sometimes it’s formal and I’ll carry him around. Sometimes it’s informal, we’re outside and we’ll walk around. But what’s clear is that I have no problem bringing my child around. I love spending time with him, whether it’s work or if I’m just bringing him to the playground.

So has your policy shifted in response to you understanding and experiencing the reality of unaffordable child care? 

We’re doing a number of things here in the city to help support that. For example, I’ve made Universal Pre-K one of my priorities for my second term. I’m working hard and looking forward to making that a reality. We’ve also invested a great deal in holistic support around our schools. We’ve invested in summer learning opportunities, summer job opportunities, and summer camp opportunities.  The city now provides high quality child care for families throughout the city that costs five dollars a week throughout the summer. As you can imagine, this has been extremely, extremely popular with parents, and it’s something we continue to grow and invest in every single year.

During the summer months, you can compare spending $350+ a week to $5 a week? That’s a no-brainer. It’s nice that the city is in a position where we can help lighten that burden for families.

We’ve also done things such as extended paid family leave for care givers here in the city. We’ve also piloted some work from home options. I’ve made it pretty clear to my entire team that, if they are ever in a pinch and their child care options fall through, that they are welcome to bring their children into work on those days. We want to create a supportive environment for all young families. 

How have you seen that environment play out in your own office? Do people bring kids to work like you do?

About a week and a half ago, I had a really interesting experience. I had a meeting set up with a group of community leaders. One of the people that was part of the meeting was a mom, who I think is the main caregiver for her child. Her daycare situation fell through that day. She had heard that I was very open and welcoming of kids and families in City Hall, so she felt comfortable bringing her one year old daughter to the meeting with me. Otherwise, she would have had to miss the meeting with all of the other folks. Her daughter played with the toys the entire time. It was very neat for me to see that, even though it’s not a direct employee of mine, through these policies that we’ve been able to promote, we’re making it easier for people to not have to choose between family and career — that they can do both. 

So, how long will your makeshift child care plan work out for you and your wife? Do you have plans to put him in pre-k eventually or a daycare center in a year or so?

You mean, do I need to find a second job? Who knows, daddy may have to drive Uber. I’m joking, of course. We really don’t know how long it will last. For now, it’s been working really well with Omar’s grandparents, but we also want him to socialize and be around other kids. We’re taking it day by day. We try to surround Omar with the most enriching experiences possible, so we’ll see what that means. 

Because Stephanie is a full-time law student now, I think that it will be a lot easier once there’s that second income. But that’s not going to be for a couple of years. So we’re just going to survive and advance until then.

There has been a backlash to you bringing your son to events; people saying that you bring your son to events for ‘optics.’ Other people say that the reaction to this would be different if you were a mother, and not a father. What do you make of that criticism?

There’s an impression that the reporting has left that out of 40 hours a week in the 9-5 hours, my kid is with me for a good chunk of those. That’s certainly not the case. That just wouldn’t be possible in a work environment. But I have a very demanding job. I work during the days, I work evenings, I work weekends. I work all of the time. I’m not willing to sacrifice not being a parent for anything. And that’s just the choice that I make.

To folks who say that there is a double standard – I think the point that they’re getting at is that this is a moment to highlight that women shouldn’t be criticized when they bring their children into work. I don’t think the point is that men should be criticized as well. So, it’s just getting down to understanding exactly what folks mean behind what they say. I think that if I can be an ally and if I can help be a part of the conversation so that that double standard that exists in society is removed and mitigated, if we reduce it in any way, then certainly, I want to play my role.

I’m conscious that it sends that message out to the community. I didn’t intend it, but given that it’s a thing, I’m fine with it. Men have to step up and take up at least our share of parenting responsibilities as well.

What do you mean?

For too long, it’s been women who juggle parenting and career. And it shouldn’t only be women that are in that position. I do what I can to do what I balance it as well as possible, and be a voice for other dads out there that they need to step up as well and play at least their share as parents. I’ll have Omar with me out in the community and people have said, “Oh, you’re babysitting today.” It’s not babysitting when it’s your baby.

But I think that comments like that are reflective of the low expectations that we have of men as parents in our society. Parenting means changing diapers, preparing foods, getting food, feeding. It means picking up, dropping off, putting to sleep, and everything in between. Guys need to be willing to lean in and step up our role.