If We Can Take Children to Work, Why Not Have a Stay at Home and Care For Elders Day?

From waitress to CEO, the issue of childcare is messy, costly and crucial. Elder care is just as critical and worrisome
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hands of an elderly woman...
hands of an elderly woman...

One day a year, the children of working parents are publicly acknowledged and officially welcomed in the workplace with activities, speakers and sometimes a boxed lunch. But what about launching a similar effort acknowledging the obligations of workers with elder parents and allowing them a day with pay to stay home to care for them?

The 20-year anniversary of Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work Day this Thursday encourages parents to include their school-aged children in their daily work lives. The annual push that began earnestly in 1993 to demonstrate to daughters that they have a place in the labor force now reminds our sons as well that for the 70.9 percent of women heads of household and the 79.9 percent of fathers who are heads of households working with children ages 6 to 17, this is the only day of the year our family and professional lives can neatly intersect. But for millions of Americans, there is the additional obligation and worry for elder care. There is no place on the calendar for a national Stay Home and Take Care of Your Elder Parents Day. I believe there should be.

As a working mother myself who dealt with childcare, a demanding job and daily visits to a convalescing mother for years, I believe the lag in acceptance of this duality of family care is a much larger cultural and economic denial of familial importance. Employees, from hourly to salaried, simply are not forgiven for a complicated life.

Adults with or without children, adults with aging parents; none of us can easily maneuver the demands of our lives beyond the strict boundaries of our resumes. For freelancers or contract workers, a day not working is a day without pay. Regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status, chances are, most of us are faced with the realities of work demands and the concerns of family, however that may be defined.

In a study released this month from The U.S. Census Bureau, the national childcare landscape is painted as expensive, common and frustrating. More than 20.4 million children in this country under the age of 5 are in some manner of childcare arrangement. Whether it is at daycare, a provider's home, with a relative or in the child's home, someone is paid to watch the little ones while the parents work. And it costs a lot. Mothers with children under the age of 15 reported they paid an average of $135 a week, or $7,020 a year, for childcare. Families with children under 5 paid an average of $179 per week, or $9,300 per year, according to the 2011 study just released from the Census Bureau. I paid $1,200 per month for 20 hours of childcare per week ($15 an hour, including money for gas) for three sons in my home for several years while I worked full-time. In the six years before my youngest went to school full-time, I paid $350 per week, or $10 an hour for 35 hours of childcare in my home. A recent story in The New Republic , "The Hell of American Daycare," lays out evidence of a culture that disrespects the necessity to nurture the children of working parents. From waitress to CEO, the issue of childcare is messy, costly and crucial.

Elder care is just as critical and worrisome. In-home care can cost as much as $3,360 to $5,760 per month, while a private nursing home can reach up to $6,150 per month. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, there were 40. 3 million Americans older than 65. By 2030, the number of older Americans will reach 80 million. While Fortune's list of 100 Best Companies To Work For highlights the criterion for child care offerings, there is no separate notation in that collection for companies that are generous with elder care policies. Yet, last year the National Alliance for Caregiving released a study on best practices for elder care in the workplace and suggested that policies as simple as flex time and paid time off could be beneficial to workers with older parents.

Just as with parents caring for children, most often, caring for elders does not gel with professional ascent. According to a 2011 Brandeis University study, "Women who are caring for elders generally reduce their work hours, leave the workforce or make other adjustments that have negative financial or career implications. Some refuse overtime and pass up promotions, training, assignments that are more lucrative, jobs requiring travel and other challenging but time-consuming job opportunities." The U.S. Office of Personnel Management suggests guidelines and resources, but they are not enforced as mandatory. It is up to the largesse of an employer to decide whether or not to be generous with workers coping with childcare and/or elder care issues. When my mother was bedridden from 1998 until she passed away in 2002 following spinal and heart surgeries, my five brothers and sisters and I arranged for around the clock care for her in her home until she was hospitalized and then, ultimately, a resident in a critical care facility. We had staggered visiting schedules so all six of us saw her at different times. But, many sole surviving children handle that burden alone. None of it is easy and most all of it is considered a separate silo from your work identity. Esther was my last babysitter in a nearly 18-year parade of 13 women who cared for my three sons while I worked. The revolving door of childcare from 1989 to 2007 (in what became in 1996 my single-parent home when the boys were 6, 4 and 1) appeared at times to have a similar attrition rate to that of "The Apprentice." There were times when I was nearly so desperate for consistent childcare that I just may have considered Gary Busey a feasible candidate.

After three years of working in my home from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. during the week, Esther quit. While I was driving back to Chicago with Weldon in July 2007 after his college freshman orientation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she drove away from our house in her rumbling green van, apparently after an argument with my 15-year-old son, Brendan. She left Colin, then 12, and four of his friends on the front porch in football pads waiting for her to drive them to practice.

Four days later, she asked for her job back, but by then I had already done the mental gymnastics common to all working mothers and figured it all out with friends and carpools without having to hire someone. Weldon could drive himself and his brother to the high school and wrestling practice and I could drive Colin to middle school before I went to work. On nice days, Colin could walk or ride his bike. Besides, now I needed the child care money to pay tuition.

There were only a few years where I was sandwiched by childcare and helping to supervise care for my mother. I would visit my mother after work with my boys, and in her final months, I would visit her before I headed to work, sometimes still wearing my visitor's name tag to lecture to an auditorium of students. My sincere wish is for a culture where the expectation in the workplace is that we acknowledge our children more than once a year, and also our parents at least once. My vision of employment utopia would include workplaces that honor the complicated lives we lead before we head to work and after we head home.

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