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Where do we draw the line?
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Where do we draw the line?

It’s no secret the pandemic has been incredibly hard on working parents.

There’s also no shortage of dispatches from parents writing about those bleary, early days, trying to figure out how to navigate home school and working from home — or, if you are an essential worker, trying to patch together childcare — and feeling like they were failing both as a parent and an employee.

In fact, in early 2021, the New York Times established a Primal Scream line for parents — overwhelmingly mothers — to vent their frustrations and exhaustion or, well, scream.

Now, 26 months on, the world’s focus has turned to the great Return to Work, but many parents — again, overwhelmingly mothers — aren’t going back. Maybe ever.

To that end, this good BuzzFeed feature by writer Venessa Wong caught my eye (come for the grabby headline, stay for the analysis). It explores how working parents are feeling at this stage in the pandemic, and the short answer is, left behind, owing to entrenched, gendered beliefs about care work — i.e. it’s mom who stays home — coupled with entrenched, capitalist beliefs about work as identity.

As Wong writes, “If we’re honest about whether the American workplace has evolved to meaningfully improve the lives of most employees, especially those who are parents, the answer is still no. The future of work still sucks, and we’re all trapped in it in some way.”

Swap Canadian for American and the story is largely the same: burned-out working moms are trying to return to work, only to find many workplaces are still as unwelcoming to parents as they were before the pandemic. You can maybe work from home some days now, but without both systemic changes (such as affordable child care) and cultural changes (such as throwing out the persistent idea that parents are less committed and dedicated than their child-free counterparts), that flexibility is a band-aid on a gaping wound.

(It’s also worth noting that many remote workers actually put in more hours, because the line between work and home has been obliterated.)

I personally believe some of the cultural issues related to work — regardless of colour of collar — stem from the idea that everyone is a replaceable cog in the machinery of a company. Employees are supposed to view their workplaces as teams or, in some cases, families — that is, until they’re just a worker that can be unceremoniously replaced with another worker.

I’ve argued in this space before that the future of work is flexibility, but I also think it’s in talent retention, which is a thing that not nearly enough companies focus on — especially when it comes to employees of colour. If companies want to keep their best and brightest, they can’t see those people as disposable. They need to see them as full human beings — some of whom may be caring for children or elders. That’s what builds loyalty and, I’d argue, productivity. The future of work doesn’t have to suck, if we want it.

If a years-long global pandemic can’t force our workplaces to become more compassionate, it’s hard to imagine what will. But the problem with viewing everyone as replaceable is that, eventually, you will run out of replacements.

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti, Columnist

Jen Zoratti

READING/WATCHING/LISTENING

Speaking of work, I just finished Best Young Woman Job Book by Toronto poet Emma Healey. It’s a lyrical memoir about making a living — sometimes working until her wrists sounded like bubble wrap during the night shift at a closed-captioning place, other times composing software manuals for a porn company — while also making art. As a memoir, it can be frustratingly vague (the people and places are never named outright, intentionally), but it’s a gorgeous read about work and worth with a poet’s heart.

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