Paid Leave Should Be About Work-Life Balance, Not Just Work-Parenting Balance


Watching this morning’s city council discussion on gender pay equity–a goal to which the council has agreed to dedicate all of $25,000–I was struck again by how many obstacles stand in the way of closing the wage gap, including the pervasive lack of paid parental leave. Women who take time off from work to recover from childbirth and nurture a newborn are often punished for doing so. This punishment can be as apparently innocent as reduced hours (“we can’t give you a flexible schedule, but we can keep you on part-time”), as direct as outright discrimination (no safe place to nurse, no accommodations for child-related appointments), or as insidious as a subtle reduction in status (“we gave that part of your job to Gina, since she can work longer hours.”)

I’ve been arguing for a while that both parents and nonparents should have paid time off from work, because people’s life choices outside work have value even if they don’t involve parenting. Paid time off, I’ve argued, is equally important if I’m having six kids or building houses for Habitat for Humanity or taking care of my ailing grandma–or sitting on the beach and restoring my mental health. It shouldn’t be up to my employer, or my government, to judge one life choice as more or less valid than another. Currently, our system rewards the life choice of having children. But what if I’m a shitty parent? What if I have kids I can’t afford? What if I spend my paid parental leave on a cruise and leave the children with a nanny? My employer shouldn’t be allowed to monitor those life choices any more than he or she monitors whether I squander my paid vacation time.

When I posted my thoughts about paid time off, and my frustration at the myriad ways we privilege parenting over every other lifestyle choice (which, just like parenting, may or may not benefit society), many readers responded by arguing that there is nothing in the world more difficult or valuable than being a parent. Others added that paid leave is actually about the kids, not the parents–that the only reason to provide paid leave is to allow parents to do the selfless work of protecting and raising the most vulnerable among us.

I call bullshit, on two counts. First,  parenting isn’t selfless. Not according to the parents I know who say they really didn’t know what life was about until they had children, and not according to the US government, which rewards its citizens financially, in the form of tax breaks, for reproducing. And second, paid leave isn’t just about the children, nor should it be. Benefits to workers exist because workers have successfully argued, with lawsuits and pickets and walkouts and lockouts and shutdowns, that workers deserve a life outside of work; if the weekend was just about spending time with our kids, the  childless among us should really be working seven days a week.

We’ve come to view “work-life balance” as synonymous with “work-parenting balance,” and that’s a problem. From leave reserved for parents (usually mothers) only, to parental leave policies that are more generous for non-adoptive parents, to flex time policies that apply primarily to parents, our country privileges parenting over every other non-work activity. This leads not just to imbalanced leave policies, but to the expectation that non-parents will work longer hours and cover for parents who need time off to care for their kids, for no extra pay–because what could they possibly be doing outside work that’s as important as getting little Johnny to  his annual checkup? This system is bad for moms and dads as well, because it gives those who do work extra hours to pick up the slack for parents more credibility when asking for raises and promotions. They were dependable worker bees, while the parents were choosing other priorities.

If we’re ever going to level the workplace playing field between men and women, paid time off needs to become a guaranteed benefit for all workers, regardless of gender or how or whether one chooses to become a parent. Non-parents shouldn’t be expected to work harder than parents all year for their two weeks of vacation, any more than parents should expect to accept demotions or pay cuts for taking time off to be with their kids. The pervasive idea that childless people live lives of leisure outside work (recently, one parent instructed me to “enjoy my freedom” and said she couldn’t “wait to be single and childless!”),  is insulting to those who have chosen other pursuits, not to mention those who wanted kids and couldn’t have them, or who couldn’t afford to have as many as they wanted.

I’ll be following the council’s work on gender pay equity, but I firmly believe we won’t achieve that equity until we have a consensus that parenting isn’t primarily a job for women, nor that people who aren’t parents should be expected to sacrifice their own work-life balance to support their peers’ socially-endorsed life choices.

Some background:

Sally Bagshaw proposes 16 weeks of paid parental leave. 

New council member Lorena Gonzalez, former house Republican majority leader Bill Finkbeiner, and I discuss paid leave (as well as what to say to relatives you disagree with politically at the holiday table) on KUOW’s The Record.

Forbes: “The Brutal Truth About Being Childless at Work”

Footnote: I realize that in discussing paid parental leave, a benefit that’s utterly out of reach for most low-income workers, I’m writing primarily about professional women. I believe paid time off should be a benefit afforded to all workers, not just middle- and upper-income white-collar ones, but unfortunately discussions about benefits beyond a living wage for the lowest-income tend to come from the professional class, who enjoy the privilege of bickering over issues like who deserves paid leave and how much.

12 thoughts on “Paid Leave Should Be About Work-Life Balance, Not Just Work-Parenting Balance”

  1. MermaidWarrior – You can certainly argue that, but I don’t think most people will accept that your travel or marine mammal volunteering is as useful to society as good parenting.

    As for making sure that parental leave is used in a ‘responsible’ way – you’re right that it isn’t monitored generally (I could certainly imagine there’s some company somewhere that checks in), but neither is sick leave or jury duty, from my experience. And most parental leave laws are specifically focused around the time when the family is expanded (either through birth or adoption), when it’s pretty darn reasonable to expect that most of the parent’s time is going to be kid-focused.

    1. As for making sure that parental leave is used in a ‘responsible’ way – you’re right that it isn’t monitored generally (I could certainly imagine there’s some company somewhere that checks in), but neither is sick leave or jury duty, from my experience.

      Yeah, Erica’s “what about fraud” argument could just as easily be used to say we shouldn’t give people sick/medical leave because they might abuse it. The notion that a particular welfare benefit shouldn’t exist because it’s theoretically possible it might occasionally be abused is pretty much an argument against welfare benefits.

    2. “I don’t think most people will accept that your travel or marine mammal volunteering is as useful to society as good parenting.”

      That’s because most people are breeder-biased. Just because society at large believes it doesn’t mean it’s accurate or ethical. We used to think black people were only 3/5 of a person.

      1. It could be that most people are “breed-biased”, but more likely, it’s that most people rationally understand the difficulty and social value of raising children well. That affects public policy in a few ways: we all pay for schools, not just parents whose children use them; we give parents additional time off to see to their duties; we give parents tax breaks. I support these things not because I’m “breeder biased” or expect to directly benefit myself (no children so far), but because I recognize that society 25 years from now will be better if we do these things now than if we don’t.

    3. @ onewhalefish: So volunteering for Marine mammal programs isn’t of *any* benefit to society? That’s literally the point of volunteering you wanker. Childfree individuals should be allowed to spend that time however they wish. Just because they spend their life pursing different interests, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the same amount of time off.

      Especially since the childfree adults have to carry the parents as they’re either abusing their PTO or using their children as an excuse to leave early.

      1. I see you’d prefer to argue against some strawman argument than against the actual words I wrote and which are still there for you to read. Nowhere did I say that volunteering for Marine mammal programs isn’t of any value.

  2. When you’re making the argument that PTO shouldn’t just be for parents because it’s not about the children, you miss the point. Of course everyone deserves and needs some PTO – that’s what vacation is (and of course, we Americans way under-index on vacation, and it should be available to lower-income workers, too.) But children do need extra care, and it is in society’s best interest to make sure that parents can provide it. That’s why parents get more PTO than non-parents. Not because they’re better, more deserving people than us, but because children require it.

    If you want to make an argument that everyone should get the same PTO regardless of parental status, I’d be curious to hear it. But when your point is just that everyone should have some PTO, that seems to be arguing against a strawman, and not a real argument.

    1. Is there somewhere where you can take leave for “Johnny’s annual checkup”? In my experience, you have to use PTO for that. And for when Susie comes home with a nasty virus she caught from Petey. And when Judy and Bill Jr. are off school for teacher conference days.

    2. What he’s actually arguing is that being a parent is not a better or more worthy way to spend time than many other things workers choose to pursue. Giving parents extra time off for their pursuit, then, is inequitable.

      1. I agree with this. And like the article says, it’s not like all people are good parents, nor is parental leave monitored to make sure the parent is doing a lot of parenting stuff. A person might not be a parent, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing anything valuable with their time. What if someone has to take care of an elderly or sick relative? I’d say that relative needs the time just as much as a kid does. What if a person is volunteering? If I decided to volunteer at a marine mammal rescue or something, well, those animals sure benefit from my time there. I always hear about how travel is super duper important to be a well-rounded person or whatever, what if someone wants to travel? What if someone wants to learn a hobby or activity?

        Parenting is a life choice and I don’t think it warrants more paid leave than what everyone else gets. I think everyone should get the same paid leave off to follow their pursuits, whether it’s having kids or volunteering or just chillin’.

    3. Parents with children don’t deserve more paid time off (PTO) than non parents, period.

      Children don’t require extra PTO. Are there more people and therefore more appointments for healthcare, etc? Yes. Do childfree professionals always get to take time off for the same healthcare and other appointments? No. As a young professional woman who has chosen to be childfree, I’ve had management dismiss my need for a dental appointment becuase of other parents demanding said time off, or needing to pick up the slack for these parents in need.

      My shoulders are heavy and I’m tired of carrying these lazy parents.

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