What Working Parents Need Above All Else Right Now, According to 6 Experts

Answers ranged from far-reaching policy changes to simple respites from the grind.

by Adam Bulger

It’s easy to spot the problems working parents face under the pandemic. For months, parents have struggled with childcare shortfalls and gnawing anxiety while needing to do twice as much in half the time. For those who are working from home, every day is a short blur of Zoom meetings, chores, and remote learning supervision, occasionally interrupted by a doomscrolling session. For those still headed out of the home to work, it’s a struggle to find child care, make ends meet, or find any semblance of balance.

While the problems for working parents are conspicuous, solutions are elusive. There are numerous reasons for this. But in part, taking COVID seriously means losing a lot of freedoms and privileges we used to take for granted. Remember dropping the kids off at your in-laws to catch an afternoon movie playing in a movie theater? That’s not as much of a possibility anymore. So what do working parents really need? We rounded up six experts all of whom have different expertise about the needs of working parents, and asked each of them just that. Answers ranged from far-reaching policy changes to simple respites from the grind of working from a home filled with stir-crazy children. Here’s what they said.

Working Parents Who Leave the Home Need More Protection and Support

In a November report, Urban Institute Senior Fellow Gina Adams found that while the media has focused on the challenges faced by telecommuting parents during the pandemic, 42 million parents in the US are still going to work. Only one in six families with incomes under $50,000 work remotely. Less than a third of black and Latin parents are teleworking.

“It’s a perfect storm of horrendous trade offs for these families. If you don’t have a job you’re going to get evicted. You make a mistake in terms of exposing your family, your parents die. You don’t figure out your child care, your child ends up being significantly behind in school or could have major developmental issues. First, we need to make this a priority. Talk about it. Figure out what’s going on. We don’t have a good picture of this other than we know it’s an issue. But there are lots of things we can do. We can figure out ways of investing resources in the care settings that families are using and think about how schools can reach out to these caregivers for remote learning support. There are also issues around paid leave and job protections.If your family is exposed to COVID, you’re supposed to stay home. Most low wage jobs don’t let you do that. Without paid leave and job protections, there’s massive pressure on the low wage folks facing the greatest risk. They’re working in jobs where they have to take public transportation, they’re probably not getting the full level of PPE and support. They’re more likely to get sick if they don’t have the protections of paid leave and job protections. That whole body of policy is incredibly important.”

Working Parents Need Employers to Radically Rethink Work Benefits

University of California, Irvine informatics professor

Melissa Mazmanian’s studied the impossible standards working parents strain to live up to for her book Dreams of the Overworked. While the pandemic upended the average day-to-day reality of working parents, Mazmanian believes the book’s thesis, that modern parenting is an exhausting race to achieve impossible goals, is even more relevant.“We’re already seeing people leave the workforce in droves or being forced out because of the economy. So can we get out of our capitalist mindframe of grow, grow, grow and just keep a steady state and actually be humane to each other? You can do that in tiny ways. Management can reach out to their workers and ask if they’re able to get work done, how they’re getting work done and how can we structure your work so that you can feel productive. Because people want to feel productive. Organizations are saving a ton of money by not having people come into the office. They’re saving a ton of money for the services they provide in the workplace. Gyms, food service, dry cleaning, whatever it is. One question for higher management is what are you doing with those recovered expenses. And are there ways to more directly support your workers. We offloaded healthcare into workplaces and I don’t think that was a great solution for our nation’s healthcare. Organizations shouldn’t provide services that should be universal and should be provided by the government. That said, in the short term, organizations could pay for house cleaners. They pay for gyms in the workplace. How is that different? Really, if you’re thinking about your workforce as people whose time needs to be protected in some ways. They could pay for dog walkers. They need to ask how they can support peoples’ lives so they can be workers. It’s a very cold and transactional way to think about this. But if we don’t actually help people in their lives they won’t be able to focus and be good workers.”

Working Parents Need a Break Now and Change Going Forward

Daisy Dowling is the founder and CEO of Workparent, a specialty coaching and advisory firm focused on working parents and is working on a forthcoming book about balancing professional and family life. Her November Harvard Business Review article “A Way Forward for Working Parents” offered a blueprint for working parents during the pandemic and beyond.“The first smaller point is that working families right now need a break. Some time off. That sounds basic, it sounds obvious. But in my one-to-one work with working mothers and fathers, I’ve observed that everybody has been under such pressure that the first thing that’s gone to the cutting room floor and has stayed there is any kind of break, gap, time off or time to do nothing. It’s gotten to the point where in coaching sessions my first question is ‘when’s the last time you took a day off or what are your plans for a break at the end of the year.’

Working parents need a personal acknowledgement that it is OK to be a professional and a parent at the same time. And we need a greater openness about that fact. And that openness can start with individuals. It doesn’t have to be sanctioned by an organization or a policy or a program or something. It can be each of us just talking more about what we have going on. And then the other thing that’s also really important is that we need to be more comfortable creating more distinct, deliberate boundaries between our work time and our parenting time. We’ve all been trained for years to think of work life integration as this sort of holy grail or managing ourselves and getting it all done. There’s been a lot of focus on that phrase. But this year we’ve integrated our work lives and our parenting lives to the point where there are no seams visible at all. And it’s crushing us. Starting right now, this can make us feel better as we try to balance parenting and professional pressures. As you’re working at home during the pandemic, you can say here’s the 30 minutes in the day I’m deliberately not going to work. I’m just going to focus on my kids. Or I close my laptop after 7:30 P.M. and I don’t open it until the next morning. Or I’m not going to return your call now. Or I’m not going to spend time with my kids right now because I’m fully focused on work. Creating artificial boundaries even when there aren’t any.”

Working Parents Need Paid Leave

The longer the pandemic drags on, the more clear it becomes America’s lack of paid leave policies are a public health risk. Only 17 percent of U.S. employees work jobs offering paid family leave. Twenty-four percent of workers lack paid sick leave. As director of the national campaign Paid Leave for All campaign, Dawn Huckelbridge has advocated for national paid leave protection.“Throughout this pandemic, working parents have had to juggle multiple new responsibilities at once. We’re the daycare, the part-time teacher, sometimes nurse, all the while working to keep bringing home a paycheck during one of the worst recessions in history—and millions have already been pushed out of the workforce. That is why paid leave is vital protection that working families desperately need. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and more schools switch back to only remote learning, working parents must be given the ability to take the time off they need to care for their children. This is especially true for frontline and essential workers who do not have the luxury of working remotely from home.

At the start of the pandemic, Congress passed emergency paid leave protections in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but now those protections are set to expire on December 31st, with no plan of replacement. Paid leave has proven to be effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19 and we cannot afford to lose a crucial tool that combats the virus and helps keep families afloat, especially as the pandemic is peaking. Working parents and caregivers deserve better. Congress must extend the paid leave protections into the new year, and continue to protect the millions of working families that need all the relief and security they can get.”

Working Parents Need Flexibility and Predictability

To make holding down a job and caring for a child possible, Ellen Ernst Kossek, management professor at Purdue University, has proposed a paradox. Researching how the pandemic strains working parents and the challenge that poses for people managing them, she advises supervisors to offer their harried employees consistency and predictability for working parents on their teams. “I think you need to offer the same things in some ways, for different types of jobs, whether somebody’s working at a grocery store or a hospital or teleworking at home, they need the same principles. You just customize it as a manager differently. So the first is they need to have some predictability in what’s expected for job demands in hours. It’s kind of a paradox. They also need flexibility. And a way to restructure for emergencies or changes in the family life, like if the kid gets sick or somebody gets COVID and the parent has to be home.

The best managers know how to do both. And what they do is they create backup systems. So for somebody who’s teleworking, you might allow them to be in meetings with their camera off and sound off. If something happens with school and not stigmatize them, or have a backup. COVID buddies that you have somebody who could grow out a meeting, that’s all he is on it for the occasional time that you have to miss it. You have core hours where you get input from everybody about when they can be available. And keep the meetings short and make these meetings matter. We’ve all been in meetings that don’t matter. Microsoft is following a 30 minute rule.”

Working Parents Need a Working Child Care System

America’s childcare system was in tatters before COVID. The U.S. spends less than 0.5 percent of our GDP on child care, far less than most industrialized countries. American child care funding relies on a patchwork of funding sources, often overburdening parents and keeping quality care inaccessible for low income families. The number of child care providers fell short of the demand for child care before the pandemic and dwindled further as centers shuttered under lockdown. Child Care Aware of America CEO Lynette M. Fraga says America urgently needs to repair its broken child care system. “The shortcomings in our nation’s child care system have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is underscoring the precariousness of the current system and the challenges in attaining high-quality, affordable and accessible child care for families—the result of years of underinvestment in the system.  As of July 2020, 35 percent of child care centers and 21% of family child care programs remained closed nationwide. The cost to provide quality child care is likely to increase due to enhanced, necessary safety measures such as lower provider-child ratios and increased costs for personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies. Without significant public investment in our child care system, providers will likely have to pass along extra costs related to COVID-19 to parents who are already struggling to stay afloat during this economic downturn. Child care is a foundational issue in every community in this country. It fosters children’s development and enables parents to work, which has allowed it to gain national attention during the pandemic. We continue to urge Congress to swiftly enact COVID-19 emergency funding with at least $50 billion in child care relief to help the sector recover from the pandemic. We need this investment to continue after the pandemic as well.”