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Opinion

Opinion

Sitter’s ‘flexibility’ stirs dilemma

February 5, 2010

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— My husband and I were away last week — working, but away. My mother was watching the kids, but she also works. So it was particularly important, I told my new but already somewhat spotty babysitter, that she turn up on time, every day.

Monday, she came. Tuesday, there was trouble with her own child care; she is a single mom of a 2-year-old. Wednesday, her car broke down. Thursday, the car wasn’t fixed. Friday, she came but had to leave early; child care issues, again.

My kids are 12 and 14, so they need a chauffeur more than a babysitter, but still: they need a chauffeur. Their grandmother canceled her afternoon appointments to fetch them at school, throw in the laundry, get to the supermarket — all the things the babysitter was supposed to do.

I had done everything I could think of to make sure things were under control. Pre-made dinners were in the fridge. My fellow moms had signed up for morning carpooling. The daily schedule was as detailed as the itinerary for a presidential trip. I was in Switzerland, fuming.

So now, what to do about the babysitter?

I write a lot about flexibility in the workplace and the need to accommodate the competing demands on working mothers — make that working parents. I benefit, hugely, from the flexibility of my own workplace. Technology allows me to do my job as well at home as at the office. An understanding boss allows me to work hours that fit my family’s needs. When I can, I pick my daughters up from school. When they are sick, I stay home. When they have school events, I’m there.

So now, what to do about the babysitter?

As it happens, I had brought along, as airplane reading — yes, I know, some people watch movies — a new report from the Center for WorkLife Law and the Center for American Progress: “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle.”

The report, by Joan Williams and Heather Boushey, outlines the differing needs of — and the differing employer responses to — working parents in these three groups. The public debate has focused on the first two: professional mothers who face pressures to scale back or opt out, and poor mothers required under welfare reform to work despite inadequate child care.

“One of the challenges is that the policies in place tend to be lopsided — flexible work hours and paid leave are often available only to the highest-paid employees, while government subsidies for child care are often available to only the least paid,” they note. “Policies, both public and private, need to be smoothed out, so that they help not only the poor and professionals but also the missing middle.”

These middle-income families, they write in a passage that could well be about my babysitter, “often struggle to arrange both child care and back-up care, only to see their best-laid plans fall apart.”

With 70 percent of children living in households where all adults are working, Williams and Boushey say, employers must understand that last-minute problems arise and accommodate short-term absences as well as more extended leaves. The government, they argue, should expand available child care subsidies, require paid days off so parents can care for sick children, and mandate that part-time employees receive proportional pay and benefits.

On the first set of recommendations, employer flexibility, I am convinced this is not only the decent approach but the most enlightened one; more flexibility yields lower turnover and greater loyalty, ultimately saving employers money. As to the government’s role, I am sympathetic but skeptical — about additional federal funding in an age of soaring deficits, and about the potential unintended consequences of piling additional costs on employers.

So now, what to do about the babysitter? As an employer, I think this unreliable arrangement is unsustainable; I can be flexible but not masochistic. As a fellow mom, as a human being, I empathize and identify. It is not so much liberal guilt as basic decency that makes me cringe at the thought of demanding more flexibility than I am willing to extend.

Where does this leave me? Crossing my fingers — and hoping she shows up.

— Ruth Marcus is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group marcusr@washpost.com

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