Do you live to work, or work to live?
Regardless of where their hearts are, many Americans spend more time with their colleagues each week than they do with their own families. Work sets the rhythm of our week. The type of work parents perform dictates how much flexibility is feasible, with regard to both the timing and location of that work. For those with young children, flexibility is vital, because work must complement significant family responsibilities.
As a mother with three young children, I appreciate being able to work near my daughters and to write around their schedules. My preference is not unique, either. As Pew reported in 2013:
Working part time has consistently been the top choice for women with at least one child under the age of 18 in the three years that the question was asked. Nearly half of mothers (47%) in 2012 said that their ideal situation would be to work part time. The share was 50% in 2007 and 44% in 1997.
So, how does reality compare to parents’ reported preferences? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 26% of “mothers with young children (under 3 years old)” worked part time last year. As for other parents, the BLS recently released the American Time Use Survey for 2016, and the results shed more light on contemporary family life. The report notes that on work days, "83% of employed persons did some or all of their work at their workplace and 22% did some or all of their work at home.” But this figure includes both parents and those without children, so it’s crucial to ask, who are these at-home workers? The BLS also notes:
Among workers age 25 and over, those with an advanced degree were more likely to work at home than were persons with lower levels of educational attainment—43% of those with an advanced degree performed some work at home on days worked, compared with 12% of those with a high school diploma.
In other words, at-home workers significantly overlap with the pool of American college graduates—the one subset of American adults who are significantly more likely to marry before having children. Parents in these families can split the burden of breadwinning, in addition to any child care responsibilities.
As for child care, the BLS reports that “adults living in households with children under age 6 spent an average of 2.1 hours per day providing primary childcare to household children.” Meanwhile,
adults living in households with at least one child under age 6 spent an average of 5.3 hours per day providing secondary childcare—that is, they had at least one child in their care while doing activities other than primary childcare. Secondary childcare provided by adults living in households with children under age 6 was most commonly provided while doing leisure activities (2.1 hours) or household activities (1.3 hours).
That at least some (mostly highly educated) parents have the option to work closer to their families—and operationalize that option—is a consequential detail. It helps explain how two-parent households manage to devote more time and attention to their youngest members.
When families can afford to have at least one parent work part-time or keep reasonably flexible hours, it makes a difference for the whole family. That’s particularly the case when parents use that extra time to read bedtime stories to young children, help with homework, eat dinner together, and generally engage children, who benefit both socially and academically.
The challenge here is that not all jobs lend themselves to flexibility. Waitresses, factory workers, and ER doctors can’t telecommute; they must work in a specific place during set hours. Single parents are also unlikely to have much room to maneuver on scheduling at least when compared to their two-parent family counterparts.
For those who are parents of young children, the most important takeaway here may simply be the importance of creativity. If at all possible, consider how you might adapt your job description so that you can be more available to your children on a regular basis. For others whose work defies flexibility or who are parenting solo, make the most of whatever time you do have at home with your kids. They’ll thank you for it later.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. Department of State speechwriter, is now an independent writer in Washington, D.C. She frequently writes about culture, religion, and issues affecting families. She shares all of her writing on her website.