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5 ways to support parents right now

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An illustration of a mom looking tired, working on her laptop while her two young girls play behind her.
Illustration by Hailey Coral
I spent much of last year hiding from my children in a bus parked in the driveway next to our house. Now, before you start questioning my fitness as a mother, let me explain: I had a book deadline, and our bright orange 1975 VW bus became my only hope of meeting it. I would wake before the sun, shuffle out with my laptop and a steaming mug of strong coffee, slide the heavy metal door shut, and crank for a couple of hours.
Courtney Martin stands in front of an old Volkswagen bus holding her daughter
Courtney Martin in front of her Volkswagen bus.
Photo by John Cary, Courtney's husband
By 8:30am my husband would be off to his job on-site, my older kid would be very reluctantly logging into her school’s morning meeting on Zoom, and my four-year-old would be begging me to play wild animal rescue, barber shop, or some bizarre combination of the two.

The days went on like this: super-early mornings, chaotic days full of plan Bs, Cs, and sometimes Zs (I guess both kids will just watch eight hours of Netflix today!?), followed by cranky, beer-filled evenings. My own little pandemic Groundhog Day grind.
Women have suffered the majority (55%) of pandemic-related job losses
But I know I was far from alone, and in fact, many working parents, mothers in particular, had it much worse than I did—less flexible or predictable jobs, more acute financial worries, and health scares to boot. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women have suffered the majority (55%) of pandemic-related job losses; in December 2020 alone, women accounted for all 140,000 net jobs lost. All of them. In part, these statistics reflect the kind of labor women typically do—the service industry has taken a huge hit in the pandemic—but an even larger factor is the wage gap, as well as the fact that women are often families’ default caregivers.

When childcare pressures mount, it is mothers—who typically earn less—that are pushed to let go of their paid jobs.

READ: What taking care of each other looks like in a pandemic

Last year was a real reckoning for this country’s families, a moment when we finally had to go public with the truth: our care system—how we show up for children, elders, the ailing, and those with disabilities—is broken. When I’m not writing (in a bus), I’m honored to be the storyteller-in-residence at The Holding Co., a new lab redesigning how we care for each other in the 21st century. We collaborate with entrepreneurs as well as nonprofit, government and corporate leaders to create care solutions that address the very pain points we heard caregivers articulating so urgently and beautifully last year. My work with The Holding Co. has given me a broader vantage point on how to fix our broken approach to care.

Here are five ways that I believe parents could be supported right now with an eye toward a more caring future for all:
  1. Lawmakers need to leverage the heck out of people’s new care consciousness. Congress passed emergency paid leave protections through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act at the start of the pandemic, allowing for two weeks of paid leave. It’s time to admit that it doesn’t take covid-19 to spin a family into crisis; private pandemics pop up every single day in the lives of beautiful, breakable humans. We know that paid leave is good for everybody: it reduces the spread of illness, increases employee retention, morale, and productivity, and improves public health.

  2. Employers can, duh, give their employees paid family and medical leave. Right now. No excuses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 20% of private sector workers in the U.S. even have access to paid family leave through their employers, and low-wage and part-time workers—disproportionately women—are the least likely to have it. But employers can also start treating their workers like caregivers in more holistic ways, too—increasing flexibility so that caregivers can get creative about when and where they work, creating onsite daycares, and even partnering with organizations like Wellthy, which hooks employees up with a care coordinator that can support them through a crisis.

  3. Entrepreneurs and investors can explore the vast variety of possible solutions to re-humanize and improve our care system. In our work at The Holding Co. with bright minds at places like CareAcademy, Hatch, Papa, and Wonderschool, we’ve been blown away by the elegant solutions that these entrepreneurs saw hiding in plain sight—things like professionalizing the childcare workforce; empowering women—largely low-income women of color—to start and run their own businesses; or connecting college students with elders who crave a smile and a little assist on household tasks. Care can and should be the most exciting space in Silicon Valley and way beyond.

  4. Journalists, screenwriters, TV producers—anyone and everyone who tells the contemporary stories of our time—can do a way better job capturing the beauty and complexity of the caregiving that goes on in real lives. And I’m not talking about your typical Leave it to Beaver update, or even the kind of sitcom that was so popular for a time with the hot, brilliant mom and the shlumpy, funny dad; I’m talking about real families (read: not always “nuclear”) and real care (read: sometimes professional). When creatives do take the risk—think of feature films like Roma or Still Alice, television drama This is Us (NBC’s most watched scripted show in 13 years), and Crip Camp, the first documentary to be produced by the Obamas’ new production company—audiences flock. More please.

  5. Anyone reading this can use the power of our own consumer dollars to reinforce a care agenda. Follow the brilliant campaigning work of the team at PL+US, which consistently figures out which corporations are ripe for pressure. Sign their petitions, but even more importantly, don’t support companies that don’t support their employees. And while you’re at it, be sure you’re paying your own caregivers a living wage and affording them all the dignity and autonomy they deserve.

When our team at The Holding Co. was assembling our first-of-its kind list—the Care 100—of the 100 most innovative people working in care, we were blown away by the ingenuity and commitment of so many people across the country working in the care system. When we contacted many of them to let them know that they were being honored, they were stunned. Some even asked if the email was a hoax! I imagined them, dripping with kids or cooking dinner for their aging parents, checking their emails distractedly. Huh? Me? This must be some kind of mistake.

We loved telling them, No, this is not a mistake. You and your work are worthy of celebration. And now I’m saying that to you—across the digital ether, whether you’re hiding in your car trying to get work done, or wiping somebody’s ass, or redesigning assisted living somehow. You are worthy of celebration. Because you care. We all do.

It’s beyond time to start acting like that in public.