“Now I’m going to ask you something that you officially don’t have to answer, but I’m going to ask you anyway…”
I was in the middle of a job interview, and the résumé splayed out on the table betrayed my age. I knew exactly what was coming.
“Do you have kids?” the interviewer asked.
“No,” I smiled, remembering that German law protected me from having to tell him if and when I ever planned to.
“Good,” he smiled back, glancing to the side as if afraid of being overheard. “Because I hate to say it, but employees with kids will not be able to do this job.”
It was clear to me he wasn’t being sexist or anti-family – just honest. The job in question involved shifts at all hours of the day that would change from week to week. There wasn’t any room for developing a schedule of any regularity, or for excusing oneself repeatedly during flu season. And it wasn’t the only profession I’d heard of that demanded flexibility while offering none back. This year has seen study after study reveal that childless women are heavily favored in academia and the corporate world, while men in any field face miserable stigma if they dare prioritize paternal commitments over professional ones. Parents have it so hard.
But then again, so do childless employees. Yet another study out this year revealed that middle class childless women in the public service sector face stigma and sometimes even harassment in the work place for defying traditional gender expectations. In these jobs, working moms are sometimes accommodated more readily than single ladies, leading Amanda Marcotte to complain at Slate of “women missing dates, exercise classes, and social outings in order to cover for the mothers they work with.” In New York magazine, feminist Ann Friedman argued:
Many corporations now strive for a veneer of family friendliness, so it’s not likely a woman will get the stink-eye for leaving early to catch her kid’s soccer game. Which is a feminist victory. But if a childless employee cops to the fact that she’s ducking out for a yoga class? It’s seen as downright indulgent and may even show up on a performance review.
If you’ve ever waded into the debate between childfree adults and parents, online or off, you know they tend to be rather resentful of one another. I usually find myself playing devil’s advocate to both. At this time last year I wrote about the depths of the pain self-righteous parents can inflict on others. But for every supercilious mother I’ve witnessed flaunting her offspring like Olympic gold medals, I’ve also seen huffy child-freers rolling their eyes the moment a toddler enters their field of vision, having no qualms with letting everyone know that the mere existence of a child in their presence is an assault on their personal freedom. Which brings new meaning to the word “childish.”
It’s a shame because the childfree movement has many excellent points to make about society and gender bias. Summing it all up to the inherent undesirability of children is the worst possible political tactic because no one who believes in human rights can write off an entire group of people who have no choice about belonging to that group. Would we tolerate anyone saying, “I can’t stand the elderly”? Or “There is no way I am ever going to learn to like mentally disabled people”? And anyone who trashes someone else’s reproductive decisions in order to justify their own will never, ever convince the skeptics they need on their side. They’ll just come off as intolerant and judgmental.
And while mothers hit a wall if they insist that theirs is the hardest job in the world, I don’t think we’re going to get very far arguing that employees should have just as much right to leave work early to make it to yoga class as they do to make it to their kid’s soccer game. In the choice between work versus yoga, nothing but my own happiness is riding on the decision. Because it’s me-time. In the choice between work versus my nephew’s soccer game, someone else’s happiness is also at stake. Because it’s caregiving.
This is not to say that single people have less important lives than those with children. Nor do I intend to suggest that parenting is the hardest job in the world. (As mother and feminist Jessica Valenti pointed out in Why Have Kids?, can anyone say with a straight face that being a parent is harder than being a firefighter or an oncologist?) But those who dedicate a large chunk of their time to others in need of care should always be accommodated more readily than those who don’t. Because helping others in need—whether it’s your kids, your parents, your friend’s kids, or anyone you know who is dependent due to age, disability or illness—is work in itself. It’s often a labor of love, but it’s labor nonetheless. And usually it increases your need for me-time, while leaving you with even less time for it.
As a childless woman, I have occasionally been an unpaid caregiver and frequently the one in need of care. I’ve taken time off from work to babysit my neighbors’ toddler, to bring my nephews to the pediatrician, to pick up a friend’s daughter from kindergarten, to help organize a funeral and sort through an estate. And my parents, relatives, husband and friends have taken time off from work in order to take me to physical therapy, to check-ups and procedures, to be at my bedside before and after surgery. The ideal family-friendly workplace would accommodate any employee’s need to help someone in regular need of assistance.
And maybe if we extend the value of good parenting to the value of good caregiving, we’ll be able to have more discussions about how freakin’ hard it can be. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is. And some are naturally better at caregiving than others, regardless of gender.
But why is taking time off for your child’s recital more generous than taking time off for a date with a friend? Isn’t a childless peer just as valuable as a family member? Of course, but let’s not fool ourselves. Sitting through an entire school recital is a lot less fun than fine dining. (Hence the rule at Springfield Elementary: “No leaving after your kid’s part is done.”) And helping a friend through a typical young adult “crisis” like a breakup will never require the same sort of patience, empathy and thick skin that you need for helping someone through serious illness, severe injury, death or divorce. Commiserating, while still noble in its intentions, is simply saying, “I’ve been there!” and swapping sob stories within the boundaries of our comfort zone. Empathizing is forcing ourselves to stretch our imaginations and open our hearts to someone whose experience frustrates us, or maybe even scares us, because it is essentially different from our own experience. Because empathizing is so much harder, it is undeniably more noble.
Young, childless, upper/middle class adults like me will probably always be seen as the most self-indulgent because our stage in life is the least likely to involve illness or dependency. But those who volunteer after work to play with underprivileged children or tutor illiterate adults or regularly call their lonely relatives demonstrate that social segregation is in part a choice.
This is not to guilt everyone into feeling that our lives are meaningless unless we start volunteering. But we should be honest, not touchy, if our lifestyles are in fact more self-centered than others’. This year, unlike years past, I find myself only occasionally dedicating my time to someone else. My husband has been the giver, exerting himself to maintain the work-life balance constantly threatened by the pressures of his job and my medical needs. And for that he deserves accommodation from his employers, and both gratitude and admiration from me.