Who deals with childcare disruptions?

photo-137The question of what, exactly, holds women back professionally is a complicated one. It tends to involve a lot of impressions, rather than data, which is frustrating for trying to have a rational conversation.

So I’m thrilled to see a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine (hat tip to Vicki!) that attempts to address this question. Looking at hundreds of young researchers who’d received K08 or K23 awards from the NIH (selective, early career awards), the study authors tried to understand these researchers’ duties outside of work. The idea is that by understanding these differences, people might see if extra-work duties might affect people’s careers.

The study has some problems. The researchers attempted to figure out hours devoted to paid work and domestic duties. No surprise, women claimed to spend less time at work and more time on housework and childcare. However, to get at that, the researchers asked people to estimate hours spent on a typical day for domestic duties, and a typical workweek for working. If you’ve read my books, you know there are big problems with this. We are clueless (I don’t know exactly how many hours I devote to things without measuring) and we lie (we give socially acceptable answers — sure I read to my kids for 6 hours a day! And I work 60 hours a week. Trust me!)

But there are some other discoveries that are more interesting. First, the women in this set were not much less likely to be married/partnered than men (88.8 vs 92.5 percent) or to have kids (79.2 vs. 83.2 percent). You can be on the research fast track as a woman and have a family. Indeed, your odds aren’t that much off the hot-shot young male researchers. Good to know.

Second, the majority of these promising young male researchers had wives who work. Only 26.1 percent of the male researchers said their spouse/partner was not working or unemployed. Of those whose wives worked, the majority had spouses who worked full-time. You can be a promising young male researcher and have a spouse with a career. Also good to know

Of course, the numbers here are much different for women. Only 7.2 percent of the female researchers had partners who were not working. And the breakdown of spouses working full-time vs. part-time is also different for men and women. For men, 44.9 percent of spouses worked full-time, and 28.1 percent of spouses worked part-time. For women, these figures were 85.6 and 7.0 percent, respectively.

Because these numbers are so different, the breakdown in who stays home with a sick kid, or if there is a disruption in normal childcare routines, is much different too. For women, 37.5 percent said it was them, 12.9 percent said it was their spouse, and 34.2 percent said they alternated (15.4 percent said “other” — presumably back-up care, relatives, friends, etc.) For men, only 7.3 percent said it was them. Some 46 percent said it was their spouses, and 37.6 percent alternated. Only 4 percent chose other. These differences are driven almost entirely by the employment status of the spouse. Since the vast majority of women had spouses who worked full-time, very few could say automatically that the spouse would cover. Whereas quite a few men could say that. When spouses were employed part-time, 50 percent of both men and women said their partner would cover. When spouses were not employed, the vast majority of both men and women said their partners would cover.

But this situation applies to very few women.

There are several ways to look at this. I’m encouraged to see that relatively high percentages of both men and women alternate with their partners. We certainly hear a lot that men like to be involved in child raising, and as more women pursue “big” careers, these numbers start to bear this out. Of course, given the proportion of men vs. women who can assume that they will never have to cover a disruption, you can see why it might be easier for men to advance than women. When it comes time to jump through the next hoop in a research career, will some promising female researcher have a childcare emergency the week before a major grant proposal is due, and not do as good of a job on it as she could?

Maybe. That’s one reason I like to plan multiple steps ahead when the stakes matter. It’s also a reminder of why back-up care, work-from-home arrangements and the like are good if organizations want to keep women on the fast track. They help everyone, but women may be more likely to be in situations where it really matters. Of course the real benefit probably comes from having friends and family who can help out, as I’m not sure how many families will ever bring a sick kid to a back-up care facility, and knowing an aunt can help out might make you more willing to take stuff on — knowing it will definitely get done no matter what. There’s not much organizations can do in that case. They can’t give you an unemployed cousin who’s bored and doesn’t mind covering at a moment’s notice.

Who deals with childcare disruptions in your house?

Photo: Snow, an occasional disruptor, as snapped by 6-year-old, also an occasional disruptor…



40 Responses to Who deals with childcare disruptions?


  1. Jamie says:

    I deal with at least 80% of childcare disruptions. I am not happy with this arrangement. I am really glad I spent time at home when my kids were small, but I didn’t realize how much I was shaping our mutual expectations about which one of us would cover which tasks in the future. In some ways it was easier when I was working on my PhD and doing a postdoc in another city– if I was an hour away and a kid needed to be picked up, then my husband would make it work. Not so much these days.

    I have been feeling grumpy about orthodontia. They don’t tell you when you sign up that you are going to burn a week’s worth of work hours getting your kid to follow-up appointments over the course of his treatment (in addition to the $4K or more in direct expenses). I suppose I could be more creative– planning and packing up work that I can squeeze into the wait time, or hiring a sitter to cover the appointment so I don’t even have to leave my office. But at this particular moment, I am mostly wishing my husband’s expectations were a little different, so that neither the ferrying nor the creativity were entirely my responsibility.

    • Jenni Levy says:

      Negotiations and love songs/are often mistaken for one and the same (Paul Simon).

      I found myself in a very similar situation about six years ago, and finally said something to my husband when I heard him going on for the umpty-umpth time about how much he appreciated the flexibility in his job. I said “Really? If your job is so flexible, how come you always say no when I ask you to take the kid somewhere?” It took a fair amount of negotiating, and about six months of constant pressure from me, and he started changing his responses. Now he does almost all the weekday kid wrangling, and he did 99% of the orthodontist appointments.

      I am the primary earner and he does have the more flexible job – we fell into that pattern when I worked part-time even though I earned twice what he did even when I was working part-time. It’s the default position. We have to push back if we want it to change. Not fair, but realistic.

      • Laura says:

        @Jenni- yes, these are patterns and assumptions, likely based on stories that we learn to tell ourselves: a man’s job is to work, and anything that might unsettle that is a problem. As I study the Mosaic logs I do get frustrated about some where mom is clearly doing 80-90% of child-related things. There are sometimes good reasons for it (in one case, for example, mom and dad were trading off busy seasons — he packed in travel so he could be home once her job went nuts in another month, and I happened to catch them during the time he was gone). And sometimes there are less good reasons.

  2. Katherine says:

    I cover all childcare disruptions but it makes sense in our situation. My husband works full-time, I work part-time, so childcare falls in my arena.
    That being said, I despise dealing with childcare issues. We live in a college town, which probably makes it that much easier to find a sitter (I can call one house of 12 girls and see if one is available, for example). But it is still horrendous, every time. This is one task I would gladly trade out for another.

    • Laura says:

      @Katherine – It is often just one more mental load thing to take care of. Over time, that can feel oppressive.

  3. Chelsea says:

    We split taking time off to care for DS when he is sick. Since I only work (at work) 3 days a week, we feel like it’s really important for me to not take any more time off than is absolutely necessary. Usually that means DH takes the morning childcare shift and I come home at lunch time and he goes in to work until the late evening. Nap time happens in the afternoon, so I can do some work from home during that if I need to.

    • Laura says:

      @Chelsea- I love the way your family frames this. You’re in the office 3x week, so those days are precious. I can imagine other families deciding that part-time schedule meant your job was less serious and ergo you should handle all childcare interruptions. It really is about how people frame it.

  4. Connie C. says:

    My boys are teens now, but when they were little I had three under three years old, all in daycare. Dh worked 70+ hours per week, I worked 40. He had NO flexibility to take time off, so all daycare disruptions came my way. Luckily I had a boss at the time who had been a single parent to his then college-age daughter so he cut me a lot of slack. Our oldest had chronic ear infections, oy. I remember doing work at home, coming in late, working late after Dh got home, etc.

    Then, when our boys were 3 and 6 (we have twins, they were the 3 yo’s), Dh changed jobs. He had more flexibility. It was a God send.

    Now they are old enough to stay home alone if need be. If they need supervision for some reason, Dh now works from home a lot and can provide it if necessary.

  5. We split.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    We split disruptions but the split involves about 80% me and 20% husband. I am actually one of the women this study would have vbeen looking at. A young female scientist without a K award. I handle most of the childcare disruptions because my job is much more flexible (which is often true of academic science positions). On the other hand, if my DH needs to leave work he must take a vacation day. So, every time he would have to leave for childcare pruposes means there is one less vacation day he can take for vacation purposes. With all of the snow this winter and daycare closings he did have to take somet ime off so we could alternate when necessary so we have had to cancel plans to travel for a long weekend this summer because he no longer has enough vacation time. We also live 500+ miles away from all family. There is no one else to fill in for us when the weather goes bad or a child is sick. We have daycare and we have us. That is it. Occasional sitters are gnerally not available on immediate notice (like when daycare calls and says a child needs to go home sick) or do not want to care for a sick child. Weather related closures generally means you can’t find a sitter who wants to drive to your house. In general, it is a lot harder when both spouses do not have flexible jobs. Often the person with the flexibility bears the brunt of unexpected childcare issues.

    • My husband negotiated for more vacation/sick time with his new job because we were so used to having the flexibility of his professor job allowing us to take turns with daycare closures, weather, and sickness. And he’s used it for emergency childcare. One of those things we wouldn’t have thought about prior to having kids.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Although it is tough to be the one who always has to take the time I am glad that at least one of us has flexibility. If both of us had the inflexibility of my husband’s job I have no idea what we would do. We would probably never be able to go on a vacation again.

        DH’s company has structed PTO based on your level. No one is allwed to have more PTO than their level dictates.

        • Laura says:

          @Elizabeth – can you take unpaid time off?

          • Elizabeth says:

            Fortunately, I do not need to take unpaid time off. I have enough PTO days and enough flexibility that I can use what I have to cover illnesses and weather. That’s why I cover about 80% of childcare related issues. When I absolutely have to be at work that is when we use one of my DH’s PTO days. We know that by using his time off we are subtracting vacation days from a “real” vacation.

            My DH cannot take unpaid time off. Exceeding your PTO at his company is grounds for dismissal (should they choose to pursue it). I think it comes from having a job where you must be physically present. He is an engineer and a lot of his work invloves presentations to people looking to hire his company to do their engineering work or being physically present as the engineer on site to see work going into place. His job duties make flexibility difficult.

          • Laura says:

            @Elizabeth – I agree that needing to be on site can be an issue. However, sometimes jobs are structured in certain ways because the assumption is that everyone has someone else dealing with the home stuff. I’ve written about this before with the shift in OB/GYNs as this went from 90% male to 90% female in, like, a generation. It used to be that the doctor needed a wife at home dealing with everything because a baby can come at any time! Now OBs work in teams, and you’ll get one of any 5-6 doctors when you go into labor. So on-call is 1-2 nights a week and it’s a more family friendly schedule. There are trade-offs, but when women dominate a field, those trade offs get built into the structure of the field. Engineers could also work in teams with a floater designated to pinch hit at one of 3 projects if any team fell below the desired staffing. If clients had to deal with it, they’d deal with it.

      • Laura says:

        @nicoleandmaggie – it’s a smart thing to negotiate on. Particularly in a situation where the salary can’t go up as much as one might like, vacation doesn’t necessarily appear as the same sort of line item for a company. So they can give it out more freely than cash.

  7. Arden says:

    When our son was a baby, we would split the day where I would go into work at 6am and relieve my husband around 11am so he could go in. Now we figure out who has the bigger day (face to face meetings usually) and we alternate. I’m currently unemployed so it all falls to me but it was actually nice with this crazy winter not to constantly scramble.

    We discussed the childcare disruption scenario before getting pregnant so it was pretty clear it would be close to 50:50.

  8. Shelly says:

    We split as well. I teach usually four hours of classes everyday at the college I work at. It is hard for me to be away. My husband is great about pitching in but the downside is he has zero paid sick days so we miss out on pay if he takes the time.

  9. Ana says:

    We split it, based on who has the more pressing schedule (patients scheduled for me, face to face meetings that are hard to reschedule for either of us).
    While the K stuff is interesting, its the next level up that’s I would really define as “success”—not that its easy to get a K, but a K indicates “promise” in a young just-starting-out faculty member. Who actually moves beyond “promise” to real “success” (R01 funding) and promotion…what do their responsibilities look like? I bet its different. A K covers 75-80% of your salary to focus on your research and training for 3-6 years—its the most flexible situation you will ever be in! From what I’ve seen, its the classic example of the leaky pipeline and the K is pretty close to the beginning of that journey.

    • Laura says:

      @Ana – interesting thought. I think the reason to look at K is the whole leaky pipeline idea you raise. Women get a lot of Ks. So what is it in these promising young researchers’ lives that then keeps many of them from getting R01 later on? This study is trying to identify one or two of those factors. Looking at early career is also interesting because these people have young kids so many of the childcare disasters are more relevant (than with, say, a 15-year-old who can be left by herself).

  10. Cara Marcano says:

    Most women whose work is on the revenue line of the family will in fact take a sick child to a backup — or any caregiver — regardless of illness and this is actually probably better for immunity of all children in that facility than say, breastfeeding. Statistics do also bear this out. Remarkably society still looks down on this and most state-certified childcare centers require a child to be out for 24 hours or more if any illness is detected.. tummy ache on a monday afternoon… in a formal childcare setting your child is out until Wed a.m. and you do not get your money back. Also researchers until they are tenured or in the private sector are not well paid and do not even hit median income figures in most zip codes and in academia so their partners work b/c they have to. backup care is essential and should be supported and women say who provide it from their homes should get tax credits and props from the gov and childcare should be a higher line deduction on taxes period. more men should also probably take on backup care. women do it more. neighborhood referrals to the woman downt he street who has been watching sick, unsick, any kids in her home for 20 years are what saved us this winter and those referrals require strong social networks etc. few folks have family who for free are local and going to do this in us society. hispanics and some other groups such as asians are better equipped to deal with this b/c the role of grandparents and extended families is more respected and integral to the family structure and should frankly be rewarded and extolled within the us culture. and say grandparents who provide free childcare should get social security for this or other benefits from the gov. having more men in power with wives who work outside the domestic sector and more women in roles where they can make policy and corporate decisions would help if they are committed to these issues.

  11. Meghan says:

    What I’m seeing in a lot of these responses is women have the more flexible jobs, therefore take on more childcare; what I wonder is which came first? Does this play into the classic story of employers being less willing to hire women because they’re expected to need more flexibility/more women seeking flexible work than men because they feel they’re the ones responsible for childcare/fewer men getting flexibility because it’s not socially expected of them? I handle all the childcare emergencies because I work from home, and I work part-ish time (30 hpw, spread out over 7 days). While my MWF childcare days are sacred, they do not escape sick children or snow days. My husband is wonderful about stepping in to help me get those hours back in evenings and on weekends … but that’s evenings and weekends, and not when I’d like to be working, and it doesn’t work out when his job — the one that pays our bills, rent, and health insurance, so therefore takes precedence — has him on deadlines.

    The flexibility issue is complicated, as is the part-time vs. full-time employment. Complex motivations, expectations, and opportunities are all at play.

    • Laura says:

      @Meghan – it is definitely chicken vs. egg. If you have the more flexible job, you’ll deal with childcare issues. And this may be why women seek more flexible jobs. But then they’re always the one handling them. I get frustrated with this, too, as my job is “flexible” but I didn’t choose flexibility because we have kids. I worked like this when I was 23 and single. My husband’s job is perfectly flexible too, he just often chooses not to use it. Because of me. This, as you may guess, is occasionally a bit of an issue in our relationship.

      • Based on your previous post on a similar topic (telecommuting), I’ve wondered if my husband was more easily able to negotiate for more vacation is because he’s male. I wonder what the numbers really are on flexibility and how much it’s how we treat our jobs when we’re partnered. Do women really have more flexible jobs or are they less likely to treat their jobs as inflexible?

        • Laura says:

          Ding ding ding! We have a winner in our last sentence here. Someone might immediately cancel one client meeting because another client (who pays more or is dangling a big project in front of you) wants to see you in some distant city. But this same person will not cancel a client meeting to deal with a childcare interruption. Someone will not take a conference call because he’s on an airplane. But suggest skipping a conference call to get home at 5:30 and… that’s crazy talk!

          • Meghan says:

            YES. And, for us, add in a huge difference in our cognitive styles and there’s definite friction. My husband is in school this year, and insists on reading *every, single, darn page of every, single, darn assignment* when no one in his class does so. I admire him, I truly do, but sometimes, good enough has to be good enough. I try to balance who gets my “good enough” — sometimes it’s my job, sometimes it’s my family. I feel so often that it’s more heavily weighted in favor of my husband’s job, and I think this is truly something that’s socialized and taught, not biologically intrinsic. I want to raise my sons to recognize and fight male privilege; they’re only 3 and 1, so right now that involves being vocal with others about letting them choose pink and princesses when they want, by way of not denigrating what our society calls feminine … oh, jeez, this is turning into something entirely different. Sorry — carry on :)

          • Cara Marcano says:

            I agree with this. My husband’s job is not more inflexible than mine, barring say maybe one day a week. But I am more likely to make my job flexible to suit my parenting needs, which pleases me. I do wish my husband would do it more as I do it.

  12. Karen says:

    My whole week has been spent with child care disruptions. For the first time (my oldest is 8), my husband took the day off work so I could go in while my son was sick. But what isn’t mentioned is that even if I can go in when my kid is sick, can I still get as much done knowing that they’re at home and sick? And does my kid really want to be with a sitter when they’re sick? I mean, sometimes tough luck, kiddo, but usually if they’re home sick, they’re really sick and I need someone who can actually do something to keep an eye on them and take them to the dr. if they get worse. Nanny-of-the-day isn’t going to cut it.

    • Laura says:

      @Karen- this is the benefit of having a spouse to cover or extended family. Many people do trust grandma to deal with these things…

      • Meghan says:

        I would love to be able to live near my family. We’re the closest we’ve been — 2 hours from my aunt and uncle one direction, 2 hours from my cousin and his wife and son another — and it’s come in handy for things like conferences, but it’s a little far for me to feel comfortable asking (though my aunt would do it in a heartbeat, 2 hours is hard to swing at the last minute).

        I remember spending lots of time with my grandmother when I was sick, and it was wonderful. I also remember being home alone by the time I was 8 or 9, and my dad coming home at lunch to check on me and stopping by the video store to rent movies for me. He could take a slightly longer lunch, and my mom was a teacher so could be home by 4 and let him stay late, and of course my grandparents would often come by to check up, too, but they had their own jobs. My dad definitely sacrificed a lot in his career by not relocating and cutting back on travel for both my brother and me and for his parents, but at the same time, my mom is the one who still did the majority of the day-to-day care work when we were children and when his parents were in their last years.

        • Even if we did live near family, it wouldn’t help. That’s the one downside to coming from a long line of working mothers. They still have their own work! DH’s paternal grandma used to play that role for his extended family, but she’s passed on.

  13. Elizabeth says:

    In a truly ironic moment, after discussing this issue this morning, I got a call this afternoon to come pick up my sick child from daycare.

    • Laura says:

      @Elizabeth- whoops, hope we didn’t jinx you…

  14. bogart says:

    My DH is out of the paid workforce (by choice; he is retired) and thus, the go-to parent for all things involving childcare. I don’t even have a *particularly* high-stress or high-deadline job (with the occasional exception) AND we have a local grandparent who regularly provides childcare help, and this is still pretty much priceless — this winter, for sure (and we have not had a lot of snow days, by comparison to other parts of the US. Maybe 5 total + 10 early release or late start?).

    I organize participation in all sorts of kid activities and summer camps because, basically, we have realized these provide us good value — and yes, I take the lead on organizing these (and also assist with pickup and dropoff) — but, again, knowing there is a go-to parent available if needed is pretty much priceless and dramatically reduces the mental load.

  15. Zenmoo says:

    To date, I have had a much more flexible job than my husband and most (70%) has fallen to me. However, I’m increasingly protective of my work time and his job has finally gotten a bit more flexible. So, yesterday – he stayed home until his mother could come round to look after our (not particularly) sick kiddo. I think the future is likely to be a lot more like neither of us stay home & we call in grandparent help.

  16. My work has always been part-time and more flexible than my husband’s, so if kids are sick, my work is what gets cancelled.

    Honestly, I’m totally ok with that. My husband could take days off from work to stay home, but then that would cut into our vacation time, and I’m really not fond of that idea!

  17. Cloud says:

    We alternate, based primarily on who can most easily work from home or take the day off- i.e., who has the most important meetings or the most urgent deadlines. If either of us can stay home, we loosely go by whose “turn” it is and/or by whose time off balances are looking the best. We also frequently fly my (retired) mother over from Phoenix (we live in San Diego) if the illness looks likely to be more than one day. My younger daughter is fever prone and my older daughter threw up a lot in day care- having my mom help out is the reason we had any time off left for vacations. I am just going from a gut feeling, but I’d guess our division is roughly 1/3 me, 1/3 my husband, and 1/3 my mom. To me, though, the important thing is that my husband and I both assume it is an equal responsibility- so neither of us assumes it is the other person’s problem. Sometimes, the balance might skew towards me, other times towards him. That is OK with me, as long as the understanding that it is a shared responsibility is there. Actually, that’s how I feel about just about all of these marital equality questions!

  18. oldmdgirl says:

    AU PAIR

    That is all.

    • oldmdgirl says:

      And, if the au pair can’t for some reason, husband does it unless for some reason I am free.

  19. Jenni Levy says:

    He’s always done almost all the sick-kid and snow-day tending because he can write grants and reports and plan workshops at home. I can’t see patients at home (well, not at my home, anyway). Now she stays home by herself even when she’s sick, and that works out OK because she’s a remarkably mature and self-sufficient kid. She’s always wanted to left alone to sleep and watch TV when she feels rotten, anyway. As far as keeping them out of school or childcare…the rule around here is 24 hours fever-free, and I simply lied. Regularly. Without guilt.