Watching this morning’s city council discussion on gender pay equity–a goal to which the council has agreed to dedicate all of $25,000–I was struck again by how many obstacles stand in the way of closing the wage gap, including the pervasive lack of paid parental leave. Women who take time off from work to recover from childbirth and nurture a newborn are often punished for doing so. This punishment can be as apparently innocent as reduced hours (“we can’t give you a flexible schedule, but we can keep you on part-time”), as direct as outright discrimination (no safe place to nurse, no accommodations for child-related appointments), or as insidious as a subtle reduction in status (“we gave that part of your job to Gina, since she can work longer hours.”)
I’ve been arguing for a while that both parents and nonparents should have paid time off from work, because people’s life choices outside work have value even if they don’t involve parenting. Paid time off, I’ve argued, is equally important if I’m having six kids or building houses for Habitat for Humanity or taking care of my ailing grandma–or sitting on the beach and restoring my mental health. It shouldn’t be up to my employer, or my government, to judge one life choice as more or less valid than another. Currently, our system rewards the life choice of having children. But what if I’m a shitty parent? What if I have kids I can’t afford? What if I spend my paid parental leave on a cruise and leave the children with a nanny? My employer shouldn’t be allowed to monitor those life choices any more than he or she monitors whether I squander my paid vacation time.
When I posted my thoughts about paid time off, and my frustration at the myriad ways we privilege parenting over every other lifestyle choice (which, just like parenting, may or may not benefit society), many readers responded by arguing that there is nothing in the world more difficult or valuable than being a parent. Others added that paid leave is actually about the kids, not the parents–that the only reason to provide paid leave is to allow parents to do the selfless work of protecting and raising the most vulnerable among us.
I call bullshit, on two counts. First, parenting isn’t selfless. Not according to the parents I know who say they really didn’t know what life was about until they had children, and not according to the US government, which rewards its citizens financially, in the form of tax breaks, for reproducing. And second, paid leave isn’t just about the children, nor should it be. Benefits to workers exist because workers have successfully argued, with lawsuits and pickets and walkouts and lockouts and shutdowns, that workers deserve a life outside of work; if the weekend was just about spending time with our kids, the childless among us should really be working seven days a week.
We’ve come to view “work-life balance” as synonymous with “work-parenting balance,” and that’s a problem. From leave reserved for parents (usually mothers) only, to parental leave policies that are more generous for non-adoptive parents, to flex time policies that apply primarily to parents, our country privileges parenting over every other non-work activity. This leads not just to imbalanced leave policies, but to the expectation that non-parents will work longer hours and cover for parents who need time off to care for their kids, for no extra pay–because what could they possibly be doing outside work that’s as important as getting little Johnny to his annual checkup? This system is bad for moms and dads as well, because it gives those who do work extra hours to pick up the slack for parents more credibility when asking for raises and promotions. They were dependable worker bees, while the parents were choosing other priorities.
If we’re ever going to level the workplace playing field between men and women, paid time off needs to become a guaranteed benefit for all workers, regardless of gender or how or whether one chooses to become a parent. Non-parents shouldn’t be expected to work harder than parents all year for their two weeks of vacation, any more than parents should expect to accept demotions or pay cuts for taking time off to be with their kids. The pervasive idea that childless people live lives of leisure outside work (recently, one parent instructed me to “enjoy my freedom” and said she couldn’t “wait to be single and childless!”), is insulting to those who have chosen other pursuits, not to mention those who wanted kids and couldn’t have them, or who couldn’t afford to have as many as they wanted.
I’ll be following the council’s work on gender pay equity, but I firmly believe we won’t achieve that equity until we have a consensus that parenting isn’t primarily a job for women, nor that people who aren’t parents should be expected to sacrifice their own work-life balance to support their peers’ socially-endorsed life choices.
New council member Lorena Gonzalez, former house Republican majority leader Bill Finkbeiner, and I discuss paid leave (as well as what to say to relatives you disagree with politically at the holiday table) on KUOW’s The Record.
Footnote: I realize that in discussing paid parental leave, a benefit that’s utterly out of reach for most low-income workers, I’m writing primarily about professional women. I believe paid time off should be a benefit afforded to all workers, not just middle- and upper-income white-collar ones, but unfortunately discussions about benefits beyond a living wage for the lowest-income tend to come from the professional class, who enjoy the privilege of bickering over issues like who deserves paid leave and how much.