Friday, January 28, 2011

Second Shift

It's that time of year again - cold and flu season is at its worst. (Actually, the peak appears to be in February, but let's not split hairs here, people.) This means lots of germs passing around, and inevitably lots of sick children. That leads to lots of parents taking time off work to stay home with their sick children. Seeing as I work in a building of 100+ employees with all but 7 of them being women, the subject of working mothers figuring out what to do about having sick children is something I am very aware of.

The unfortunate thing about sick leave is that you only get so much of it. Obviously, this is because our employers are not made of money and cannot afford to continue to pay someone who is not working. But it does make things very tricky for a working mom. You only have so much sick leave, and you feel like you need to guard it with your life because you never know what kind of emergency might come up where you need a lot of time off. I am fortunate to be someone who rarely gets sick, so I was able to get my entire 7 week maternity leave paid for because I had the sick leave saved up for it. (I'll save my thoughts on the United States' ridiculous maternity leave policies for another post...) But what do you do when you run out of sick leave? Do you send your still sick child back to school, feeling like the worst parent in the world for doing so? Or do you take the time off without pay, and then later find yourself unable to afford the things that you and your child need?

Working and being a mom is difficult. Really, to only use the word "difficult" downplays how much of a struggle it really is at time. I came across the concept of The Second Shift through a friend's blog last year, and I've been thinking about it a lot lately. Even though Hochschild wrote this book over 20 years ago, I think what she had to say is still applies today. I guess in a way that's sad, because even though more people are aware of how working mothers are trying to juggle everything, things still aren't changing. According to this book, the extra work that a woman does in the home after working at her paying job adds up to one extra month's worth of work each year. Even when a woman has a full time career, she is still seen as the one who is primarily responsible for the couple's children.

Why is that? I can give an example from my own experience that illustrates this very well. Being Zane's stepmom limits some of the things I can do when it comes to him. I don't have the same "legal" status in his life that his mom and dad do. I couldn't make life-altering medical decisions for him, for example. I am on his emergency contact list at school. Anytime that Zane has been sick at school in the 7 years that I've been helping Luke to raise him, I am always the first person the school calls. I know that Luke and Zane's mom are both listed on his emergency contact form. I know that the school has Luke's work number, and Zane's mom's cell phone number. I know that the form clearly states that I am Zane's stepmom. Yet I am always called before Luke. (I assume they don't call Zane's mom first because she is non-custodial and lives 45 minutes away.) Perfect example of how the mom (even the not-quite-a-mom) is seen by everyone as the person mainly responsible for the children.

As I mentioned above, part of the reason this has been on my mind lately is because of all the illness floating around this time of year. Two women at work told me this week when they came back after being home the day before with their sick child, "I told my husband if Little Johnny wasn't better by today I was going to *make* him stay home with him so I could be at work." And this isn't the first time I've heard that statement. I've worked with another woman for a couple years now, and she is just now to the point where she actually asks her husband to stay home with their son if he's sick. (Note the "ask" instead of "tell" - Zane's school or Raegan's daycare don't "ask" me if I'll come pick up a sick child, by the way.) Why do working women still assume that they need to bear the full responsibility of taking care of the children? If you are a stay at home mom, then yes, by all means. You have chosen to raise your children as a career (and P.S. I am very jealous of you!) But I chose to teach as a career, just like my husband chose to assemble farm implements as a career. Why should I always be the one to set aside my career for my child?

Two things that I would like to note. One, I do not begrudge my child the time I miss from work if she is sick. I always *want* to be home with her if she is ill, but because I have chosen to have a career, I have to figure out a way to balance both responsibilities. And that's where Luke comes in (along with Point Two.) My husband does a wonderful job of trading off with me when the kids are sick. We discuss who has what going on at work and figure out how to make it work to the best for both of our jobs. We are very blessed to have our mothers both close by, so we also have backup if neither of us really can miss work. I know another woman whose husband was okay staying home when one of their kids was sick, but when the second kid got sick in the middle of the night and he was going to have to stay home with both, he assumed his wife was going to be the one to stay home now instead!

I'm not a feminist by any means, nor am I old fashioned. I do think that roles within the family structure have not yet caught up to the changes brought about in the last 40 years or so. I think that women should be able to have a family and a high powered career if they so choose. I also think women should be able to make being a stay at home mom their career, and the world should recognize it as such. I just wonder how to change things so that the inequality in the second shift isn't nearly as big as it is now.

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