Attending to personal matters—for instance, a phone call about a sick child—is typically discouraged during “work” time, and a majority of people don’t have any control over when they can take a break during the workday. Thus, the workplace regime is fundamentally hostile to all forms of reproductive work and domestic labor. It is a system where work and home are seen not simply as opposites, but as antagonistic.
Let’s look at a few examples of this antagonism:
— According to a study cited by author Jody Heymann in the book The Widening Gap, nearly 60 percent of working class people, men and women, have no control over their start or end time at work, and 53 percent can’t take time off to care for sick children.
— And yet people are forced to spend even longer hours at such workplaces, away from their homes and families. This is because wages are so low for the majority that a 40-hour workweek is not enough to keep poverty at bay. According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, in 2006, American families worked an average of 11 hours more per week than they did in 1979.
— Working parents get little or no financial support, either from the government or from private companies, to help pay for child care costs. And yet, unless you’re Marissa Mayer, you can’t take your child to work. According to a recent report by Child Care Aware of America, the cost of child care for two children is more than annual average rent payments in many states, while in 35 states, the average annual cost for infant care exceeds a year’s in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public college.
— The problem of child care is reduced but does not end with the start of public schooling for children, because school ends long before parents typically get out of work. According to Joan C. Williams in the book Reshaping the Work Family Debate, the gap between “work schedules and school schedules has been estimated to average 20 to 25 hours a week” and “an estimated 39 million children between the ages of five and 14 participate in no organized system of supervised activities after school”
How can such a work regime even attempt to respond to the messy, diverse, beautiful and unique needs of human beings and their actually existing families?
But work is not an “option” for most people. Jobs cannot be avoided and their demands are as persistent as those of a hungry infant or the need to cook. Indeed, it is their mutual exclusivity and equal importance that determines that some form of accommodation must be made between the two spheres. The most common forms of this accommodation are:
(a) one person stays home to take care of the home and children, while the other goes to work;
(b) one person is forced into part-time or seasonal work, always with less pay and usually with no benefits, while the other person has a full-time job;
(c) single parent-headed families or families where both parents work full time end up constructing what one sociologist calls “crazy quilts” and “tag teams” of caregiving where the entire burden of crafting a care system for their children or an elderly family member falls on the individual families.
It goes without saying that in the scenarios above, women are disproportionately the stay-at-home parent, and this structurally forced domesticity brings with it the attendant isolation, economic vulnerability, depression and lack of self-worth.
Since 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce, the economic crisis is further compounded when the “breadwinner” leaves. As a result, two out of three of the elderly poor in America are now women.