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.

In the world of feminist blogs (I won’t use the word “blogosphere” and you can’t make me), the childfree are far better represented than in almost any other type of community. Persephone has been sort of an outlier in this regard, in that we have a far larger and more vocal group of parents than we do childfree women. I’d like to make clear that the issues I’m discussing come from my own personal experiences, and that we cannot generalize behaviors, attitudes, or actions to apply to any one group, whether it’s parents or the childfree.

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.


(Author’s note: I know that these types of posts often spark some fairly heated debates, and that parenting and Mommy War posts are notorious elsewhere for getting out of hand in the comments, but I’ll ask that everyone remain respectful of one another, and keep our commenting guidelines in mind. I know that our community is better than petty squabbles and cheap shots in the comments.)

22 replies on “Childfree in the Workplace: the Forgotten Front of the Mommy Wars”

I agree with GwenBear. People need to expand their view of “family”. I am a child-free person in the workplace. I am working towards (and applying for) supervisor positions. Currently I have on my staff a man with two daughters whose wife is severely ill, and a woman whose former father-in-law is deathly ill. How do you say “no, you can’t go“to be with these loved ones? As a child-free person I think I could be the most democratic about it, for sure.
Mona Se Queda, however, had a great view point from the child’s point of view, which can make this a very hard argument. How, exactly, do you enforce the argument that equal time is needed for all employees when you hear from the children of some of those employees? ANSWER: you have to make the non-verbal arguments just as valid. These people chose to have children, just like you chose to go back to school or chose to have pets. A responsibility is a responsibility, and no responsibility is more important than the rest.
I hope that my future employees say I’m fair and balanced. I want to be just as supportive of those who lost a cat as those who have a sick child. In the mean time, I want everyone to know that they are accountable for their own time.

I’m actually de-lurking to comment on this, because this is something that I’ve just started thinking about (but will be dealing with for the rest of my life, as I don’t plan on having kids.) I don’t work in an area that requires coverage, so I don’t have any insight into that, beyond that I agree with the idea of “owed time” being used for all absences, including child-related ones, and the need some commenters have brought up for better childcare options for working parents. Because I certainly have nothing against parents, and I understand that children bring a whole different level of needs/emergencies/sicknesses etc.

But what really irks me about this issue is that children are seen as a “real” excuse and a “real” family, but somehow my parents/brothers/dog (that I don’t yet have, but will someday!) are not a legitimate family. My parents and brothers mean the WORLD to me, and it really bugs me that if I were to ask for time off to go to something important to them, it would be treated with less respect than if I were asking time off to go see my child in a school play or soccer game. Family is so much broader than just children/nuclear family.

The thing that makes it tricky though isn’t soccer games and school activities, but if your kid is sick and can’t go to school or daycare you really don’t have any choice but to stay home. Public school also tends to take a lot of days off, and again, if you don’t have reliable child care, a working parent is kind of hooped. Most parents aren’t taking time off just to hang out with their kids (I hope), but to actually prevent them from being left at home all alone (which is a life and death situation if your kid is small).

Which, of course, doesn’t make it fair to childfree coworkers. But the whole issue of taking time off work is incredibly stressful to working parents and I think most of them feel incredibly guilty about it.

Thanks for this honest and fair examination of the issue, POM.

I worked for nearly 10 yrs as a childfree teacher, and then worked for 4 yrs full time with children. Either way, balancing family commitments is hard.

In the places I’ve worked (schools/tutoring centers), coverage is key. In the schools, the admins were flexible for everyone. The rule of thumb was you could take almost an hour here or there w/out penalty, for whatever reason.

In the tutoring center, we were all hourly and responsible for our own subs. I forget the exact policy, but it was the same for everyone, regardless of the reason. The motivator in helping others out in a pinch was knowing that they’d do the same for you.

One of the reasons we’ve always had our kids at “commerical” daycare is because without family around, we can’t afford not to have reliable childcare. The cost is ridiculous, but it’s cheaper than one of us losing our jobs.

I think that you hit the issue on the head when you say its an employer problem. The fact that you/(your contemporary workers)is getting the shaft over another set of workers is the issue, not that the other set of workers are parents. Full stop.

This other group could be getting the time off for any number of reasons that boils down to a favoritism — over the course of my career frequently the ‘favored’ workers are relatives of the employer, and my increased work load was simply because I was not a relative. At my current job, I pulled 60 hour weeks to cover for one of our engineers who got Lyme disease and then did it again a couple of months later when her mother had a stroke and she needed to care for her. I resented it, sure, and I do have a family, but I did it 1. because there was no other choice and 2. because I hope that someone would do it for me if I needed help.

Plenty of other workers have similar stories where the specifics are changed.

When we try to divide the actual workers into two parties, we lose our allies in negotiating with the employer. Because everyone will need help at some point and the only support network we have in the workplace are those people who we work with. So viewing them as the enemy doesn’t get us very far.

In a workplace like this, you only have a couple of recourses:

* You speak to the manager, backed up with proof of scheduling, and explain that you think you’ve been taking up a lot of slack for X occasions and would like to make sure you get an equable amount of time off

* You speak to your coworkers who you’ve covered for and ask for them to cover you when you need it

* You and your coworkers speak to the management about how to best treat all the employees fairly

I had to quit a retail job after speaking to the manager repeatedly, over months, about how I was not available for 1 specific shift that she repeatedly scheduled me for. Her reasoning was ‘it is easier for you to ask your coworkers to switch than it is for me to remember you can’t work that day’. Which is a load of bullshit, of course, and is the sign of a poor manager. And after the Xth time it happened, when I had sworn that if it happened again I needed to leave, I left. When I went in to pick up my last paycheck, there was a sign over the weekly schedule:

“It has come to management’s attention that the staff would like a set work schedule. Please least availability and shift requests below and we will schedule accordingly.”

People don’t make changes if they feel you’re not serious about it, and if you keep making yourself available to be taken advantage of. At some point, you need to decide what your own line is.

Also childless…But my mom was a single working mother. Which I feel like gets left out of the equation a lot when it comes to these “Mommy Wars.” And in order to not a.) lose her job or b.) not be seen as a slacker by the childless, she very rarely went to any of my plays, stayed with me when I was sick, or even picked me up from school. She had a strong network of friends, family, and even a nanny to kind of pick up the slack on the kid end. I don’t resent my mom for doing that at all, hell, there were some times when we didn’t even have lights. But I wish more people would take the well-being of the actual children into account…you really have no idea what people are going through, or how much they’re sacrificing in order to NOT go to work…

That was really long…but yeah…all of the mommy wars seem to try to normalize the nuclear family set-up, when in fact, that’s becoming less and less of the case…which makes the consequences of both going, or not going, to work a little greater…

Just to throw this out there: my husband works with all men in a blue collar profession. We have no children (maybe in the future, maybe) and he finds himself getting stuck with all the odd shifts and having to work 12+ hours a day. Granted, he doesn’t turn down the hours because we can use the money, but he gets very upset because when it comes down to asking for days off or asking to get off work early, preference is always given to the fathers- because they need to get home to their families.
I have no idea if this happens in any other male dominated work places, but I did want to say that in my experience it does exist for both genders. He doesn’t resent the fathers, but does resent the fact that his boss views his free time as less valuable.

This is probably getting slightly off-topic, but your comment made me think about it – a friend of mine works at a call center and they basically told him that he was going to get all of the holiday shifts and shifts that people with “real families” didn’t want because he “doesn’t have any family.” He came out as trans while at this job, and I think his bosses are totally baffled by that and also can’t wrap their heads around the fact that his partner is his family. They definitely regard his time as less valuable.

It’s still perfectly legal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity in most states here in the US. Hell, you can legally discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in thirty of them! As sad as it is to say, this is not uncommon, and dude is lucky that he’s not gotten fired outright (which is probably why he isn’t able to do anything about the unfair treatment). It sucks. That’s why we desperately need laws like ENDA, or its state level equivalents. :(

The problem is that taking care of children really is a full-time job. But women are expected to be the ones to make it work. And I fully agree in that women are penalized for having a life, though that does affect men as well — the difference is that it’s societally acceptable for men to leave the kids to Mom while they try to maintain that same untenable balance. It always spins back to the societal expectation that women should put their own well-being and needs to the backburner for the sake of their jobs — whether you’re single and have personal needs, or a mother who needs to take care of kids, or just a woman who needs to take care of herself!

Exactly! Even in two-parent households, it’s always the mother who is expected to leave work or make the sacrifice for matters involving childcare. You so rarely hear of these problems in male-dominated fields. And, conversely, unmarried or childfree women (and college students; I feel so badly for poor college students in the workplace) always, always are expected to pick up the slack. It’s just assumed that the job is their first and only priority.

I am one of two women in a male dominated industry and recently someone in our office became a single father. The company has been extremely flexible with his schedule. He complains often about his situation and I can’t help but think “single mothers have been dealing with this for decades”. His counterpart is a woman who has one child and another on the way and she is constantly picking up his slack.

It definitely cuts both ways — in my industry I used to see woman after woman being given smaller accounts and projects to manage after they became mothers. Conversely, the women without children were given the bigger clients, but were expected to have no life.

Now that I think of it, in my industry, women were really being penalized for setting boundaries and having a life. I think we would all do a lot better if we started demanding that our real lives be treated with respect, regardless of whether we have children or not.

As a mama, I thank you for looking at the underlying problem of inequity instead of just ranting about how easy working mothers have it. It can be a really sucky situation for everyone involved. On the flip-side of the coin, we get the guilt-trips from being reminded that other people are covering our asses and the loss of income because we couldn’t work when we needed to. Clear policies can make life so much easier for everyone.

I’m about to become a working mother and while I feel your pain (I’ve been a childless worker for 14 years and have picked up the slack for the working parents around me too) I feel like we get screwed either way. I think my boss will soon stop looking at me as promotable, because I’ll have a family. And it seems like the mothers take on the burden because the father’s place isn’t the caretaker – which is bullshit. I’ve worked for plenty of men who don’t get the call when little Johnny is sick – their wives do. So it’s doubly hard and I don’t know what the solution is.

I do hope, however, that your employer would afford you the same courtesy that they afford the parents. Why the hell can’t you go to the doctor if you need to? It’s unfair and the employees with kids should cover for you on such occasions, especially if you’ve covered for them.

I’d just like to add this to the mix – I have always been a childless worker, and have been fortunate enough to work in smallish places that can’t afford to treat their workers unequally, but three years ago I became very ill with breast cancer. I am fortunate that my husband’s workplace treats employees with ill spouses as generously as it treats its employees with children. Now, he is the kind of person who is well known for picking up the extras for many other people, so no one minds doing it for him, but we are also lucky that he has the kind of employer who treats absence as it should – equally for all and liberally and without suspicion.

I’ve noticed that it seems to be that problems arise between the childless and parents, and employees just in general, when the employer treats absence with suspicion. Employees become paranoid and no one wants to “look bad.” I’m not blind to the needs of management, I have been a manager (of a chain business) responsible for scheduling in a job that needs butts in the seats, but I noticed a marked difference between my office, which took the attitude of life happens, we all have a life so lets do this together, and offices that were real shrews when it came to scheduling. It is not that we NEVER had problems (Sundays were awful to schedule) but we had far fewer, and my employees were more likely to settle it amongst each other, because who wants to go running to their manager for every little thing? But I was lucky to have a group of workers that meshed with my management style.

Sorry for the rambling, but you are right with your conclusion – it starts and stops with those in charge of the policy.

I really appreciate that you put in a disclaimer that you have nothing against the community of parents here — but in my case at least, it’s not necessary. I think the double standard for parents and non-parents in the workplace is ridiculous. Being a working mother is hard. But you’re getting paid the same as the parents in your company and what goes on outside the workplace shouldn’t be your concern.

Working parents need extra time off and often come to work sick because they’ve used their sick days when their kids have been sick, thus making their co-workers sick. This isn’t fair to anyone. This is why parents and the childfree should be advocating for childcare reform. If childcare was affordable, reliable and safe, working parents wouldn’t be in such a pinch, which wouldn’t put you in such a pinch.

Of course, this socialist utopia of cheap and daycare isn’t going to happen, at least in the United States. But I think your post goes to prove that issues surrounding schooling, childcare and children’s healthcare affects us all, parents and childfree alike.

I’m childfree and work under a rather different set of circumstances than many, perhaps, but maybe they’ll provide food for thought. I’m in a male-dominated industry, but we’re union: we work on an hourly basis through contracts with multiple employers. No paid vacation, no sick time, no wage gap: I make exactly what men doing my job make, when I take the job; if we’re sick, we don’t take the job and don’t get paid. If we GET sick while on the job, we work through, get paid, get our co-workers sick–or we go home, get replaced, don’t get paid, give our co-workers a fighting chance to stay healthy.

Whether you’re a parent of either gender, or supporting a parent or other family member–you leave work, pay stops. It is kind of harsh but fair, and I find that the lack of pay during non-working time encourages sympathy for the hard choices we all have to make. Or, perhaps it’s just that removing cash takes away the sense of ripoff.

In my experience, unionization has been a primitive but effective leveling tool that forces employers to treat us all the same–but it also puts us all in the same boat and reminds us of what we have in common. There are many, many downsides to being a member of a collective–but there are times when a certain inflexibility and loss of individuality is actually helpful. I am often frustrated by lack of individual bargaining, but it cuts both ways.

@Sissy, I think you’ve really hit on one of the most important factors in this whole discussion: childcare. It’s one thing if you have a network of family or the disposable income to afford good, reliable childcare, but I hear from my coworkers what childcare costs, and it’s appalling. I’d be interested to look at statistics for companies that provide on-site childcare or areas that have high-quality, accessible before- and after-school programs.

@Anne: That’s a little of what I was getting at with my wish that every employee would have to use “owed time,” regardless of the reasoning. I think that if I knew my coworkers were using up their vacation time or whatnot for all of those little coming in lates and leaving earlies, it would go a long way to alleviating some of the resentment. Which fundamentally boils down to: You don’t do the work, you don’t get paid for it, which is your union experience.

One of the reasons that I’m not a working mom is that childcare in my area (and I’m talking daycare, not unlicensed dayhomes) was running about $1300 a month per child. If I were to stay home with my two kids I’d have to be pulling in almost $3000 a month after taxes just to break even. I work in the publishing industry, so no dice. So I’m not a stay-at-home mom because we’re fabulously well off, I’m a stay-at-home mom because we’re not. This will change once they’re in school, but with days off and school breaks and sick kids I’ll be putting my co-workers in the same crappy situation that you’re describing in your post.

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