Childfree in the workplace: the forgotten front of the Mommy Wars

“The Mommy Wars” are something that most adult women are, in some way, at least a little bit aware of. For most people, the issues that immediately spring to mind are things like working mothers vs. stay-at-home mothers, or the “right” way to parent with regards to things like what food you feed your kids or what schools they go to. There’s a whole other battle in the Mommy Wars, though, and that’s the one being fought by the Non-Mommies, and the front it’s being fought on is the workplace.

The issues that the childfree (those who have chosen not to have children) face in the workplace are often unexplored in an examination of the many facets of the Mommy Wars, but these issues exist, and they could use some discussion.

I work in an environment that skews fairly strongly “female,” and for the sake of this post, when I talk about “the workplace,” I’m referring to non-executive, primarily female-dominated fields, such as retail, customer service, education, and other fields where you find a majority of women in the workforce, and jobs that require “coverage,” or for someone to physically be present to do the job at specified times. I don’t have experience with the types of jobs where you can leave your work on your desk for the next day, so I can’t speak to the childfree experience in that type of environment.

In industries where working a specific shift is the norm, and where coverage is king, the childfree often find themselves holding the short straw when it comes to scheduling and job duties. Parents who work, I’m sure you’ve found yourself in the position of having to stay home from work with a sick child, or having to leave early because of an important parent-teacher conference, or coming in late because there was a delay in the drop-off line at school in the morning. I know that these are all common occurrences, and I know this because I’m the one who has to cover those times when the employee with kids isn’t at work.

The childfree are often the ones who are expected to work on holidays, weekends, and nights, because there’s a presumption that “no kids” equals “no life.” And if a childfree employee tries to get a workplace to adhere to a more fair way of assigning less-than-desirable shifts, such as seniority or alternating holidays, they’re accused of not being a team player. Need to leave two hours early because little Johnny has a school play that you simply can’t miss? Well, sure, that’s understandable. Until you ask the childfree employee who’s had to reschedule a doctor’s appointment for themselves three times because they can’t take the time off, and are expected to handle their personal business on their personal time. Someone called out sick? Well, jeez, call the employee without kids, because they have nothing else in their life but work, and it’s not fair to ask parents to do anything extra on what was supposed to be their time off.

I don’t blame parents for this unfair standard. I blame employers who allow it to happen; employers who have created an environment where parents have special rules and special exemptions and the childfree are expected to suck it up and deal. “Don’t like it? Get another job!” is the common response when these inequities are pointed out, but the economy hardly makes that feasible, and my experience has been that it’s the same in every workplace. Kids are a legitimate excuse for missing work, and employees without kids have to pick up the slack or be told they’re bad workers.

Is there a solution to this problem? Is there a way for the childfree not to feel resentment when they see parents being granted all sorts of lenience with scheduling? Is there any way that parents can maintain a work-life balance without their childfree coworkers being taken advantage of? Is there a way for the world at large to realize that “work-life balance” applies to everyone, not just parents? I hope so, but it needs to start with employers. Either all employees can come and go at will because of personal issues, or none can.

Shift work is tricky. You can’t always predict when your kid is going to get sick, or your babysitter falls through, or there’s a critically important soccer game that means you can’t work your scheduled shift on Saturday (well, actually, yeah, you can predict that last one), but having a job that requires you to bodily be there means you sometimes have to sacrifice things. But by the same token, it’s not feasible to say that parents maybe can’t do these sorts of jobs because of the predictable unpredictability of a parent’s schedule. Bills still need to get paid, and the job you can get is the job you take. Trust me, I get this. I may not have kids, but I sure as hell have bills. I’ve had to miss doctor’s appointments, funerals, holiday celebrations, and all sorts of things because I’m scheduled to work, and the expectation is that I’ll be there, working. And if I’m not, there are consequences. The trouble is, these consequences are not applied evenly to all employees, and that’s where the resentment comes from.

I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I think parents will always ask, “Well, what do you expect me to do? If my kid is home sick, I need to stay home, too,” and the childfree will always resent being the ones to pick up the slack when their coworkers are out for the sixth time this winter because the schools have yet another snow day. And employers are stuck between a rock and a hard place, too, because that parent is calling out, and now there’s no coverage, so, really, who is there left to ask? The manager? Sure, sometimes, but often those shifts overlap, so the manager is already working, and very few places can be run with only one employee at a time.

As a childfree employee, I guess the best I can ask for is to be afforded the same lenience that parents are. I want to have the option to come in two hours late because 9 a.m. on a Tuesday was the only time my doctor could see me, and I don’t want to be penalized for it if my coworker wasn’t penalized for showing up two hours late because there was a delayed opening at school. Or, conversely, I want parents to have to use their owed time (like vacation, sick time, and personal days, if such things exist in a particular workplace) for all of those various little forty-five minute, two hour, or full-shift spots, and if I don’t have an hour or two at a time deducted for kid-related reasons, well, then, I still get to use all of my paltry vacation time on a vacation, and maybe my coworker who’s a parent can’t, because they’ve used that time in other ways. I don’t know what the answer is, or if there’s any way to make employers realize that all employees have lives, and that extending special treatment to some employees and not to others creates conflict and resentment where none should exist.

(This post originally appeared in Persephone Magazine.)

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6 responses to “Childfree in the workplace: the forgotten front of the Mommy Wars

  1. I love this post, it’s true. Luckily I work with two guys so it’s not really an issue and whenever I have an appointment, my Manager is really good about it. He doesn’t care too much when or how I do my work, so long as shit gets done.

  2. Great post — totally agree.

  3. grrr. it makes me so angry! whenever someone tries to pull something like this and make me cover for them, i like to tell them i’d love to help them out but that my houseplants have already been home alone far too long today, or that my pet rock really needs me. i don’t have trouble putting my foot down. i will never work on christmas (or my birthday, for that matter) and will never work overtime because someone else couldn’t keep their pants on. sheesh. and if they don’t like it, they can try to fire me. i dare them ;)

  4. Speaking as a mom, I totally agree with and endorse this post!

    On the other hand bootsyboots seems to miss the point. Having pet rocks and house plants doesn’t constitute having a life and it’s insulting to compare them to children. NGDS’s point wasn’t that kids are trivial or insubstantial, but that the childfree have real, complicated lives too. Having a pet rock doesn’t qualify. And suggesting that all kids were accidents resulting from people not being able to keep their pants on doesn’t really help the tenor of the discourse, does it?

    I wish that parenting could be neither fetishized NOR vilified. Bravo to the original post for that!

  5. I think we must be twins separated at birth! I have been ranting about this from the day I realized I was being discriminated against for not having children! I deal with working every Halloween (you don’t have kids for trick or treating) and Christmas (no kids to open gifts). It is downright irritating!

  6. Cageymanchester

    I am with you! myself and my husband are childfree by choice. I’ve worked in an office with one of the worse examples you could have of a single mother of two children who on top of all her paid vacation had on average around 6 weeks additional time off (unpaid) a year because her children were ill and needed her. In a small office of 5 it was universally accepted that this woman, lets call her ‘Liz’ totally and utterly got away with murder. I have to say that on one hand I admired her balls for sticking up for her right to take care of her children, on the other hand I have never seen anyone else in any other firm get away with this like that.

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