An open letter on so-called parenting privilege in the workplace

I don’t talk about parenting issues too much on this blog. But an article in the Globe and Mail yesterday (“Why is it single people who get stuck working weekends?”), arguing that parents are “privileged” in the workplace, and moreover that maternity leave is an unfair form of privilege/discrimination, left me so enraged, I have to interrupt my normal proceedings to rant. Because parenting privilege in the workplace? Not a thing.

It’s a poorly organized article to begin with, painting office politics, labour laws, and the wedding industry all with one same, thick brush. That brush being “woe is the single person.” The general gist is that some people have bosses who make single staff work unreasonable overtime (and miss waterpolo) while parents get to go home. I’m not disputing that this happens, and that it doesn’t suck. There are asshole bosses, and likewise, there are parents who use their kids as an excuse (though I’d venture that they were assholes before they became parents). But most parents are just trying to get through the day—they rush out of work to pick up their kids, get home, get dinner, do homework or housework or both, and get the kids to bed all within a few hours of leaving the office. And then often, those “privileged” parents get back on their computers and put in the work hours they missed. If their kids aren’t in school yet, then a large part of their paycheque goes to childcare. And when they work on the weekend they have to pay a sitter.

The things parents are not doing include career-making networking over evening cocktails, or padding their salary with bonuses and overtime pay. I won’t even mention the long-term effects of motherhood on women’s salaries, pensions and so forth.

Like I said, the article is a jumbled mess, but this is the main point that jumped out:

Ms. Hoffman, an employment lawyer who blogs about workplace issues and “the childfree,” first made that case during a classroom discussion when she was in her third year at Harvard Law School. She suggested that leave “privileges breeding.”
“My opinion … was that if leave would be available to parents, it should also be available to people who choose to make some other significant commitment of their time. I didn’t see any moral distinction between having children and having a life goal of, say, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or something. I was the only person in the room who felt that way.”

I’m probably going to piss off a few people, but here’s how I break it down.

1. Empathy

Since becoming a parent, the most salient lesson I’ve received from society-at-large is that no matter what you do—co-sleeping or crib, breastfeeding or formula, daycare or nanny—there’s always someone ready to tell you what and how you’ve done it wrong. These types of articles just encourage our uglier selves—the parts of us that are selfish and narrow-minded and judgmental; that lack empathy and any sense of a common good in society.

It makes me sad. Sad for all of us that despite our privileges and opportunities, this is the best we can do for each other. The divisiveness such “news” pieces foster—whether it’s between working moms and SAHMs, or “breeders” and not (and at the risk of pissing off all the animal rights folks, I submit that mothers are not cows)—adds nothing. It does nothing for society or culture, it doesn’t reveal any life truths or broaden our perspective, and it leaves no lasting impact except bitterness and resentment.

If all you can see in a workplace that’s supportive of families is your inner six-year-old whinging “it’s not fair,” then you have a problem. Providing people with the space to look after their families, whether that’s children or sick parents, is a basic social good, and one that people are still fighting for in many places. When those things falls apart—when children are neglected or seniors are fending for themselves—we’re all tut-tut and appalled. Rightly so, but then I have to ask—why the disconnect between that and how we treat people in the workplace?

2. Insecurity

I don’t understand why we obsess so much about parents vs. non-parents. I truly don’t. I can theorize about it—the internet has given rise to a level of scrutiny never before possible, for one thing—but at the end of the day, I simply don’t understand why we’re so mean about and to one another. Are we so insecure in our decisions that we can’t see anything else? Why are we so quick to feel judged and then judge back?

Because ultimately, that’s what I hear in these discussions—a deep-seated insecurity/anxiety in the validity of our lives.

3. Discrimination

We have an increasingly narrow perspective about what constitutes discrimination and a genuine life challenge. Being forced out of a job because you have children—that’s discrimination. Being inconvenienced by working on a Sunday and missing water polo—that’s not discrimination, that’s shitty luck. But if that’s the worst of your problems, then some perspective is in order. Twisting hard-won labour reforms into a rallying cry against discrimination and privilege is short-sighted. And stupid.

And let’s not even bring up all the other, real -isms that people struggle with. Of course, people who face legitimate discrimination because of their race, colour, sexual orientation, economic status, and so forth, are not giving interviews about missing water polo. And they’re not studying law at Harvard either.

4. Choice

First, parental leave isn’t a “sabbatical” as the article claims. It’s keeping another human being alive, and hopefully raising them to be decent, contributing members of society. But more importantly, “choosing” to have children isn’t a choice in the same way as “lobster or steak tonight?” (Never mind all the women who don’t even get to choose because their family or culture forces it on them.) And while more people are choosing not to have children (and let me throw in the requisite “and that’s a-ok” disclaimer here), for many people it still remains a basic human desire (witness the amount of money spent on fertility treatments). The re-positioning of parenting as a lifestyle choice leaves us all short-sighted. And let’s try to remember that those children I’m choosing to raise are going to grow up and do things like cure cancer, run against the conservatives in an election, and wipe your ass when you’re too old and drool-y to do it yourself.

5. Suck it up

If you’re single and/or childless, and you can’t manage to appreciate the freedoms you have, that’s just a waste. Because eventually you will find yourself with children and/or a sick family member and/or poor health of your own, and/or any number of other genuine life problems. Someone you love will die suddenly and tragically. You’ll lose your job. You’ll decide to have a child and they’ll have mental health issues. Your parents will lose their home and move in with you. Don’t worry, things will come up. So please, take a moment to appreciate your good fortune. And hope that when you need to make use of bereavement leave or parental leave or sick leave or EI, your co-workers will have a little more understanding of you than you do of them.

Finally, let me be clear—I’m not trying to make a case that parents are special. (Though I always appreciate a hand getting the stroller onto the streetcar.) It’s not an either/or. It’s just what I’m doing right now. When I’m up half the night with a screaming baby, and my co-workers are up half the night partying, we both feel like hell the next day. Why add to the misery by comparing who feels worse or why, or who’s more superior, or who has a right to feel bad and who doesn’t? Why make ourselves feel worse by being antagonistic and angry? I’ve been where they are, and there’s a good chance that there’ll be where I am one day.

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