Normalize part-time work for parents

Wanting to work less isn't anti-feminist

A businesswoman.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

On Mother's Day, The New York Times published an article by Elizabeth Bruenig that mixed a reflection on her experience as a young mother with a broader analysis of demographic trends, federal family policy, and American culture. I read it and moved on with my weekend. A certain subset of Twitter read it and, dear reader, if you have not glimpsed the vicious, multi-day brouhaha that ensued, don't go looking.

Much of the contempt lobbed at Bruenig isn't worth engaging with, but one line of attack caught my eye. When she writes about the high cost of child care or the value of rest or her joy in parenting, critics claimed her real agenda is coercing American women to work less — or not at all. "Bruenig habitually implies we put too much emphasis on work for women, and we should be reinforcing heteronormative gender roles for women who 'want' to stay home," charged a representative tweet in a thread with thousands of likes, "though her subtext is clearly that women should stay home." Don't let Bruenig's own career as a writer confuse you, her denouncers said; she's just "pulling a Phyllis Schlafly."

Is voluntary deviation from the 40-hour week really so unfathomable? Bruenig's detractors see her celebration of time spent on parenting, homemaking, and recreation as evidence that she's a secret patriarchalist, as if arguing some parents want to spend more time with their kids is code for we must make all women stay in the house. But why is it hard to believe some mothers, as well as fathers, sincerely want to work less and be with their children more? Why is fulltime employment (with, implicitly, paid child care) such a strongly assumed ideal? Maybe it's because we've built our economy on that model, so much so that alternatives can be hard to imagine.

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I've been thinking about this since I wrote last month about polling data which suggests most low-income and working-class parents in our country don't want to pay someone outside their family to watch their kids, while most middle- and upper-class Americans are far more comfortable with the idea. The class gap on paid child care and two-career families is striking.

What I didn't explore then was an equally striking agreement across class lines. The least popular option for all four classes was having both parents work part-time and perform child care part-time. Even among low-income Americans, the class in which this arrangement was most popular, it was the top choice of just one in 10 respondents.

Some of this disinterest in a double part-time household is attributable to a true preference for fulltime work. I'd largely put myself in that category — I can see going for a four-day workweek, but not less. I like what I do, and I don't want to reduce my schedule of paid work to perform child care instead.

There are psychological and cultural factors contributing to this pattern as well. Part-time employment might look lazy or inadequate in a society afflicted by workism and prone to undervaluing child care and domestic labor. Many Americans treat their jobs as a source of identity, so fewer hours could feel personally destabilizing. For some men, there's an added element of strict "expectations that being a successful man requires having a successful career," as a Harvard Business Review report observes, "and that 'success' means power and money" only accessible through a fulltime job.

But I don't think all of this sufficiently explains why there's such a universal rejection of the double part-time household. Some significant part of it, I suspect, is how difficult this arrangement is to achieve in our economy as it's currently structured. Working part-time means many jobs (and the promotions and careers to which they contribute) become wholly unavailable to you. This is especially true of professional-managerial and other white-collar work. Unless you own a business, you have to commit fulltime. There aren't really part-time executives or web developers or mortgage officers. Stereotypical working-class jobs like factory and trade work also tend to be fulltime. Low-paying service jobs are an obvious exception here, and some health-care workers and first responders have condensed shifts that approximate a part-time schedule, but 40 hours spread over five days is the standard deal.

For families who do manage to find two reasonably well-paying part-time jobs, however, a second big hurdle remains: Part-time jobs typically don't get benefits. A family of one fulltime worker and one at-home parent and a double part-time family may have the same wages, but they don't have the same total remuneration. The first family probably gets employer-subsidized health insurance, paid vacation, and sick leave for the employed parent, and perhaps other benefits like paid family leave. The double part-time family gets none of that. There are workarounds to replicate some of these benefits, like the Affordable Care Act's insurance marketplace, but that requires more time and effort and may be more expensive, too.

Without these impediments — if more jobs could be done part-time, and if we somehow decoupled benefits from employment — would the double part-time household be more popular? I think it would. Given a real, financially viable option, lots of moms and dads might choose to work less and hang out with their children more, particularly in the pre-school years. That's not about gender roles; it's about parents liking rest and their kids.

At the very least, part-time employment for parents would be normalized. We could admit that we do, in fact, put too much emphasis on one rigid structure of paid work in this country, and that you don't need some nefarious ulterior motive to object to cramming every family into its confines.

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