The Crisis Facing America's Working Daughters

Many are familiar with the challenges faced by working moms, but the troubles of women with aging parents are unseen and widely ignored.

Jonathan Bachman / Reuters

For America’s working moms, there is pretty much an endless stream of resources to guide and comfort them on how to tell the boss they’re pregnant, how to find a private place to pump at work, how to negotiate flex time, how to split the chores at home, and whether or not to display pictures of their kids at the office. They can read all day and all night about the many stresses of working motherhood including pregnancy discrimination, the wage gap, the mommy wars, leaning in, and opting out.  But for America’s working daughters, there is little to help them navigate between their careers and the needs of their aging parents.

There are currently 44 million unpaid eldercare providers in the United States according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the majority are women. And yet there are very few support programs, formal or informal, in place to support these family caregivers, many of whom are struggling at work and at home. Working daughters often find they need to switch to a less demanding job, take time off, or quit work altogether in order to make time for their caregiving duties. As a result, they suffer loss of wages and risk losing job-related benefits such as health insurance, retirement savings, and Social Security benefits. In fact, a study from MetLife and the National Alliance for Caregiving calculated women lose an average $324,044 in compensation due to caregiving.

This impact to a woman’s career is significant. Caregiving tends to hit women in their mid-40s, just around the time their earning potential starts to wane and dangerously close to the age when they may not be able to reenter the workforce if they leave. According to a recent New York Times article, the job market is not promising for women 50 and older.

These same women are expected to live well into their mid-80s, and outlive (by about two years) the average man. How will they afford their own care later in life if they can’t save for it at midlife while they are caring for someone else?

By no means is the United States the model for how to treat working mothers. America is, after all, the only developed country that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave. But at least there is a national dialogue about the need for affordable childcare and paid parental leave. Elder caregivers are all but absent from the conversation. Sure, paid family leave is starting to be framed as both a childcare and eldercare issue, but many policies only address the working parent, not the worker with parents. Just recently, Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, signed an order giving city employees six weeks of fully paid leave but only for the birth or adoption of a child—not for taking care of sick family members. And yet new research from Northwestern Mutual reveals the majority of Americans feel caring for two elderly adults would be more difficult than caring for two toddlers.

“People tend to think that caregiving is mainly about chores like food shopping,” says Kamilah Williams-Kemp, the vice president of long-term care for the financial-services firm, “so the intimate nature of some of the tasks and the general role reversal between parent and child can be quite eye-opening. Often people don’t consider the emotional component, which can be challenging.”

Anne Tumlinson, a health-care-policy analyst and consultant who also runs, a website for caregivers, says, “Caring for an aging parent is a much more significant life passage than we give it credit for being. When you are caring for a child, it doesn’t threaten your identity. Because that’s what parents do. But when you are a daughter, you are cared for. You turn to your parents for refuge. When they seek refuge from you it shakes your identity.”

Another source of a working daughter’s stress stems from the fact that eldercare is not a problem that can be solved with money. “That’s a part of what makes it so much different and harder than raising a child,” says Tumlinson. “As a society we are organized reasonably well to support parents. If you have enough money you can get high-quality day care. There are schools that educate your child for a better part of the day. But even if you have the money to pay for a caregiver, even when they are the Mary Poppins for the elderly, it doesn’t mean your parents want them. Eldercare requires a high amount of emotional engagement that only a family member can provide. It’s not a situation where economically advantaged women are spared. I know lots of very accomplished women with lots of degrees who have dropped out.”

This was the case for the social-media consultant Shelley Boyle, whose mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s nine months ago and refuses a professional caregiver even though her doctors want her to receive support everyday. So Boyle, who owns her own business, was until recently visiting her mother daily and calling her four to five times.

“It’s absolutely been a strain on my job and my company,” said Boyle. “I had to drop a couple of clients to make time for my mom and therefore I had a change in my income. My expenses are increasing but right now that’s my choice. I wonder, where is this disease going? What is the next stage?”

“My life all of a sudden feels limited,” she says. “Here I was forging a career and building a life and now I have to spend 20 to 30 hours on top of my full time job to take care of her.”

With that kind of time commitment, eldercare is a challenge even for women who have support at work. Miriam Diwan was on the fast track at a big private equity firm when her mother was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Management, Diwan says, was supportive. “My managing director kept telling me my mom was my number one priority,” she says.  That helped alleviate some short-term pressure at work, but ultimately Diwan resigned from the firm. She and her mother relocated to Los Angeles to be near doctors at UCLA and Diwan chose to move to a company with a more flexible schedule than her first firm afforded. “It’s really tough when it’s up or out,” says Miriam. “In a high-stress career you have to make the career your life. But to be the primary caregiver takes up a lot of time.”

And therein lies the problem that affects not only working daughters, but also their employers. Every day 10,000 people turn 65 in this country and the AARP predicts that by 2030, the United States will need between 5.7 and 6.6 million caregivers to support the sick and aging. Unpaid, family caregivers will be called upon to meet that demand. What will the economic impact be if America can’t keep caregivers like Boyle and Diwan at work? The same MetLife and National Alliance for Caregiving study calculated the cost to businesses to replace women caregivers who quit their jobs because of their caregiving responsibilities at an estimated $3.3 billion. And how will society  pay for the care that these women, with their compromised pensions, retirement funds, and savings accounts, will inevitably need? As Boyle says, “The biggest issue is I am now living hand-to-mouth. I am just getting by and I am not able to put money away for a rainy day. A lot of the stress is thinking about when my mom dies, what will my life look like?”

American’s conversation about the competing demands of work and family needs to take working daughters into account. The focus must not just be on the need for maternity leave or even parental leave, but family leave—and other accommodations such as flex time, mentoring, and reentry-assistance programs—that will enable workers to care for their aging parents without their lives falling apart.