A few days ago, someone sent me a photo series of Licia Ronzulli, an Italian member of the European Parliament. The series begins with Ronzulli raising her hand to vote, with her infant daughter wrapped in a sling on her chest. As the photos progress, the baby grows. In the final photo, the toddler raises her hand to vote with her mother.
The photos are remarkable in an age where the “mommy wars” dictate that you can’t really have it all: You can be a loving mother or a career woman. I love the photos because they remind me of how beneficial it is to have a parent-friendly work environment, and how lucky I am to enjoy a similar childcare situation.
Like Ronzulli, I bring my daughter to work. She attends the on-site daycare where I teach, and I’ve been bringing her to work with me since she was 5 months old. When she was still breastfeeding, I’d eat lunch in the daycare nursery while she nursed. Now, when my students are taking a test, I walk by my window and try to spot toddler Clara playing outside on the playground. (Once I saw her take a scooter away from a much bigger kid and was simultaneously proud and horrified. I made a mental note to start talking about sharing.)
Most of my friends are working parents, and when I tell them about our daycare situation, they are surprised and sometimes envious. Many of them are mothers looking to enter the workforce for the first time since leaving to have children, and finding affordable and quality childcare is hard. And while I love looking at photos of Ronzulli, I wish her photos were not so remarkable. It depresses me that while many men and women would like to be parents and professionals, our society still relies on the mommy wars “you can’t have it all” narrative.
In the interest of honesty, I don’t have “it all.” My house is a disaster. Sometimes I am so tired after work that instead of playing with wooden toys I carved using my own hands, or teaching Clara baby calculus (or whatever it is perfect mommies do), we watch Sesame Street on the couch. Or we play a super-fun game called “let Clara destroy things” while I unwrap a Papa Murphy’s pizza. And sometimes, my students have to wait a few extra days for papers because instead of grading at night, I hung out at the playground or in the kid’s section at the library. But we survive, and most of the time, all of us—even my teenage students—are pretty happy. But I also know that I am extremely lucky.
A few of my acquaintances like to blame feminism for the difficulty in achieving sustainable work/life balance, but that’s stupid. Instead, I’ll reveal my socialist pinko agenda and suggest that both employees and employers still think that providing things like extended maternity leave and affordable childcare is unprofitable. As long as the well-being of corporations outweighs the well-being of citizens, Ronzulli and I will remain lucky exceptions in the working-parent struggle.
But what many fail to realize is that I am a significantly better (and if I weren’t working in public education with a fixed salary, I’d say more profitable) employee because of my work/life balance, not in spite of it. I work harder because I know my employer takes care of not only me, but also my child. I am incredibly loyal to my school. As a result, I work harder to collaborate with my co-workers, instead of giving up and considering working at another school. I’m more invested in finding solutions to long-term problems in education because I know I can sustain both my work and family life.
An article in Harvard Business Review claims that 90 percent of working mothers who leave the workforce do so because of “workplace” problems like long hours, and the discovery that part-time work often means 40-hour weeks for 20 hours of pay (a problem I definitely ran into when I taught part time). A similar article from BBC.com claims that countries like Sweden, which taxes no more than 3 percent of an employee’s salary for public preschool, see higher rates of retentions among working mothers.
The choice to work outside the home is personal and complicated. There are many great mothers and fathers who make the choice to stay home with their children. However, when I look at the photos of Ronzulli, and when I see Clara outside my classroom window, I remember how important it is to truly have a choice. To choose to stay home because it’s the best choice for your family, not because you can’t afford childcare or the long hours that, so often, are not conducive to family life. Likewise, the choice to work shouldn’t mandate an end to afternoons of Sesame Street and playgrounds. I’m lucky to have any semblance of work/life balance, but I shouldn’t be lucky. Ronzulli and I should be the norm.