The 3 P.M. Problem: A Day in the Life of a Working Parent
Working parents are losing two full workdays each week to stress, anxiety, and caregiving. Even during non-pandemic times, 70% of working caregivers suffer work difficulties because of their dual roles. Why?
It’s simple. The U.S. job market is not set up to support families. While most homes now have two working parents, the 8-5 p.m. structure never fully adapted. The go-to solution has been to offer “flexible” or remote work. But this isn’t a real solution because it often means you’re expected to be more available, both to your family and your employer.
I’ve spent my career working in demanding tech jobs and stressful startup culture. So when I became a parent, the awakening was jolting. I realized I had no idea what I was supposed to do with my kid during the holidays. Or daycare and school closings. Or every day after school, not to mention the entire summer.
I call this the “3 p.m. problem.” The truth is, there isn’t an easy answer because work and school schedules rarely align. So caregivers “make it work” by losing sleep and peace of mind, while dealing with the added stress.
It’s a tension so many of us experience, yet we’re afraid to admit it or talk about it. And for a good reason. 54% of employees of a manager level and above have felt discriminated against due to their caregiving status.
Research shows that women are more likely to quit, reduce hours, miss work, and experience burnout because they carry more childcare and household load. And the situation is even more difficult for parents of color, especially women of color.
They’re already underserved and have ongoing biases to combat, so it’s no surprise working parents of color are more likely to experience burnout. Or that Black and Latinx & Hispanic women are more likely to leave the workforce. For example, of today’s C-suite leaders, only 21% are women, and a mere 1% are Black women.
So why aren’t these issues taken more seriously? One reason is employees aren’t likely to speak up, push back, or ask for help.
When you’re already less likely to be taken seriously, be paid what you’re owed, and be promoted, why would you give your employer another incentive to discriminate?
The bottom line is that employers need to better support working parents. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also a good strategy for increasing profitability. Studies show companies that invest in employees and families “see 5.5 times more revenue growth thanks to greater innovation, higher talent retention, and increased productivity.”
But the first step is to understand the challenges your employees are facing. Here’s what a day in the life of a working parent might look like and how employers can offer more focused and effective support.
A Day in the Life of a Working Parent
There is no typical day since each family is different. Several factors come into play, including the number of caregivers involved, socioeconomic status, amount of outside support, health concerns, etc. And of course, how many children are in the family, their ages, and personalities.
But even in an “ideal” scenario where there are two caregivers, a comfortable income, and no stressful life events (moving, pandemic, divorce, ill/aging family, etc.), the day-to-day grind is still a challenge. For example, your Tuesday might look something like this:
- 5:36 a.m., your early-bird child wakes you. You didn’t get to bed until 11:30 p.m. because you were prepping for today’s presentation. You stumble to the coffee maker.
- 6:03 a.m., you argue with your partner about which of you is more tired and whose turn it is to do the daycare and school drop-offs.
- 6:37 a.m. you hunt for your toddler’s boots. You finally find them behind the couch.
- 7:04 a.m. remember your oldest is supposed to wear a “superhero outfit” for heroes week at school. You can’t find their cape, so you fashion one out of a bath towel.
- 7:33 a.m. drop off both kids, breathe a sigh of relief, and drink a second cup of coffee.
- 8:02 a.m. begin work and realize you didn’t get breakfast. Eat a smushed protein bar.
- 10:05 a.m. get a call from daycare – your youngest has a fever. Your partner is in the middle of an important meeting, so you send a quick team update and pick up your little one.
- 10:47 a.m. give grumpy child tonic water since you’re out of Pedialyte, and make a doctor’s appointment for the following morning.
- 11:19 bribe child into watching a Pixar movie so you can do your Zoom presentation.
- 11: 45 a.m., they complain the movie is boring and demand a snack.
- 12:08 p.m. thankfully your child falls asleep on the couch.
- 1:29 p.m., you get one work thing done. The fridge is empty, so you eat a PB&J.
- 2:04 p.m. You give your daughter a sandwich and tell her to play Minecraft.
- 2:20 p.m. colleague asks for help. It will “only take a second.” It takes an hour.
- 3:31 p.m., your mother brings your oldest home from school and asks what you “plan to do for grandpa’s 70th birthday?”
- 4:02 p.m. You get back to work.
- 5:07 p.m., your toddler complains the frozen pizza she’s having for dinner is “too spicy.” You scrounge up some cheese & crackers.
- 5:33 p.m. help oldest with homework. Why so much homework in elementary school?
- 6:10 p.m. mechanic calls. Since your car is all-wheel-drive, they have to replace all the tires, not just the one with the slow leak, so that the tread will match.
- 6:19 p.m. delayed wife returns with groceries and takes over. You catch up on Slack.
- 7:08 p.m. do a load of laundry – take rocks out of toddler’s pockets, and unload dishes.
- 7:45 p.m. bathe the kids so your spouse can eat dinner.
- 8:33 p.m. give each kid a cup of water and pray they stay in bed this time.
- 9:00 p.m. finally get to focus on work.
- 11:30 p.m. realize you’re a year overdue for the dentist. Make a mental note to get better at planning.
- 11:57 p.m. decide that though you’re still hours behind on work, you need some sleep.
- 4:40 a.m., your weak-bladdered dog whines to go out. You stumble to the coffee maker.
Since daily childcare demands and school schedules don’t align with a traditional work schedule, 37 percent of working parents miss work within 90 days to care for their kids. Simply put, the status quo approach isn’t cutting it.
How Employers Can Help Fill in the Gaps
Whether it’s a last-minute school cancelation or a pediatrician’s office that’s only open during business hours, your workers constantly have to choose. Choose between taking care of their family and focusing on work. It’s especially true now as Covid variants drag on, causing school irregularities, childcare outages, and families left to cope with the added stress and uncertainty.
But chances are, your organization does not have the resources to provide big-ticket parental benefits like backup care or large stipends. However, you can still offer affordable support that helps parents fill in the gaps.
Offer Academic Support & Online Enrichment for Kids
One of the critical challenges parents are facing right now is school. Families are dealing with massive learning loss from nearly two years of remote learning. For example, 1 in 5 parents did not get what they wanted from their children’s school last year. Of course, this is all on top of the usual juggle of after-school care, keeping kids busy during the summer, and helping with homework. It’s a lot. It’s too much.
It's why innovative leaders offer academic support for their employees' children. For example, Dell Technologies provides virtual learning services, and Accenture covers 75% of remote learning costs.
Twitter started offering Outschool as an employee benefit during the height of the pandemic to help during school closings and quarantine. But they quickly found that Outschool could help employees overcome ongoing educational gaps. As Erin Leviant, a Real Estate and Workplace Event Manager at Twitter put it:
“Outschool is a useful resource to bridge the gap between what schools have been able to offer and the evolving needs of each family’s unique situation.”
Offering a benefit like Outschool to your employees means they get crucial support for their kids and some time back for themselves. For example, my colleague uses Outschool’s online enrichment classes for his own 3 p.m. problem. After school, while he finishes his workday, his daughter does fun online art classes and social clubs.
Outschool is also a great way for families to get convenient one-on-one tutoring and homework help. Likewise, employees love the one-time classes for sick days and school closings. And the camps and short courses help fill summer and holidays when structure goes out the window. It’s a great alternative to empty, ad-filled screen time.
Parents love Outschool because their kids get to learn in an engaging way, and they get their evenings back. And employers love Outschool because it’s incredibly cost-effective.
Whatever benefits you choose, offer something that provides this kind of day-to-day support. It shows employees that you care and equips them with practical resources.
Create a Culture That Honors Family
I’ll never forget the “super-family-friendly” place where I once worked. That’s how they described themselves in the interview process. They went to great lengths to tell me how they believed family should always come first. But these same people tried to cut my salary by 50% when I had my first child.
It was a couple of months before my son was due. I told the leadership team I wanted to reduce my hours by 25% following my maternity leave, and would happily take the corresponding pay hit. They countered by suggesting we slice my salary in half. When I threatened to quit, they negotiated. Ultimately, I became an hourly employee and was told I’d “never become a leader until I worked 40+ hours per week.” I felt the distinct stigma of my new position, and was frequently reminded how generous they’d been in “accommodating” me.
Not surprisingly, I quit that job soon after. Mine was not an unusual experience. I’ve heard of far worse – and that’s the problem.
Fast forward a few years. I’m interviewing with Outschool. When I told my would-be boss that I wanted a reduced schedule, they said that would be no problem. An 80% workload option was even an official part of the Outschool employee handbook. When I anxiously shared that I was pregnant with my second, no one batted an eye. Instead, they congratulated me and told me that taking a four-month fully paid parental leave a few months into the role would be no problem. Also, my kids would get to take several hundred dollars worth of Outschool classes each year for free.
At that moment, I knew this was the kind of culture I'd been looking for, not lip service or B.S., but people who truly cared. I knew I’d join Outschool over any other offer if I got the chance, and I'd work very hard for them.
Supporting your working parents can look like a lot of things, but it must be more than a website tagline.
It can mean leading by example. Recently, our CEO helped normalize parental leave, especially for men, by taking several months off when his child was born. That action signals that it really is okay to do the same.
Helping your caregivers can also be finding creative ways to offer solidarity. We love how our partner Twitter did this during Parents Week in July 2020. Their ERG group launched a special #WatchUsWingIt campaign so parents could share the not-so-perfect moments with their kids. Leviant described the premise as:
“The pressure to put on a perfect show for your coworkers, kids, spouse or family is a daily juggling act. It’s impossible to feel like you’re succeeding on all fronts. Rather than strive for an A+ report card, #WatchUsWingIt celebrates what it takes to barely make the curve.”
Championing your caregivers can also mean adjusting expectations. Last year my partner’s company offered several weeks of additional “Covid PTO” for employees with caregiving responsibilities. His company has a stellar benefits package and throws lavish annual holiday parties, but that single act of kindness meant more to us than anything else.
While the methods vary, the theme is these are company cultures that honor family. It's no coincidence that they're also places where talented people want to work.
Offering more resources doesn’t have to mean doubling your benefits budget. If you’re willing to think beyond one-size-fits-all rules and focus on helping your people, you will build a powerful culture. You'll become a place people can’t wait to join and never want to leave.