A second complicating factor is the geographic mobility of our interviewees. The 2010 U.S. census found that 53 percent of working mothers rely on a grandparent to watch their preschoolers while they’re at work. But many of our former classmates’ jobs had taken them far from their families (which puts them in line with this 2012 study by Atlas Van Lines showing an increase nationwide in corporate relocation), and they had no one to call on in an emergency, never mind day-to-day childcare. As a result, many felt isolated when it came to childcare—and if they didn’t feel comfortable with daycare or a nanny, or couldn’t afford it, the obvious choice was to work less and parent more.
“We’ve never lived near any family, which would have been helpful as a working parent,” wrote a former school-district fundraiser, explaining why she’d left her job shortly after her daughter was born. Some of our subjects have gone to extremes to make their jobs work despite the lack of grandparents nearby. A partner at a management-consulting firm described how she’d flown her father from Ohio to Boston to babysit while she and her husband were both traveling for work. (On the plus side, he potty-trained her 3-year-old while there.) When her banking job forced her to relocate to Charlotte, North Carolina, with an infant, one woman convinced her parents to move with her, only for them to visit and then change their minds, insisting they’d confused the town with Charleston, South Carolina.
While moving far from home means you can’t call your mother to come watch a sick kid, and the work world continues to function as though there is some phantom third household partner buying groceries and shuttling children to pediatrician checkups, the final blow comes from perhaps an unexpected institution: school. The school day still ends at 3 p.m., or earlier, a holdover from the 19th century when students left their books behind and went to work on the family farm. Some schools offer after-school programs, but even these typically end at 5:45, as though everyone is still leaving work at 5 o’clock sharp and has an easy commute from work to school. As a result, what to do with children after school dismissal is an issue that looms large for our interviewees. And they’re not alone. A 2009 study by the Afterschool Alliance found that 15 million children are left home alone every day across the country, with some as young as 5 years old.
Not only does school end at an inconvenient time for working parents, but in an effort to be more transparent about what kids are learning and to feel more inclusive, schools now invite parents (often with minimal notice) into the classroom to participate in events on a regular basis. Between fundraising for schools with paltry budgets and attendance at school plays and birthday parties and sporting events and monthly parents-as-learning-partners programs, parents find themselves being asked to put in an appearance at school on a weekly basis. For working parents, this amounts to a lose-lose choice between work and parenting—either take a ridiculous amount of time off of work and risk getting fired, or leave your first grader in tears because she’s the only one whose parent didn’t show up to color with her.