Monday, August 17, 2015

When Mothers Are On Call

Many mothers do not have the choice. Some single mothers must work to support their families. Others need to supplement the family income. Still others enjoy working outside of the home.

Whatever the reason, studies are discovering that when mothers have erratic work schedules, their children suffer. Children need consistency and routines. When mothers can be called in to a job on short notice, the disruption hurts their children.

This phenomenon has led some government officials to request or require employers to stop using the “on call” scheduling model. The studies suggest that retail stores are particularly at fault on this score. 

And yet, the New York Times article does not mention that physicians, especially residents, routinely have “on call” schedules. Does this mean that female physicians must wait until after residency to have children? Does it suggest that women who want a medical career ought to gravitate toward specialties, like dermatology, that do not have “on call” schedules? 

Perhaps emergency medicine is not the best career choice for a mother. Perhaps, women who choose to work while bringing up small children should choose their career paths with this information in mind.

The Times reports the story:

A growing body of research suggests that children’s language and problem-solving skills may suffer as a result of their parents’ problematic schedules, and that they may be more likely than other children to smoke and drink when they are older.

“Young children and adolescents of parents working unpredictable schedules or outside standard daytime working hours are more likely to have inferior cognitive and behavioral outcomes,” the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal advocacy group, said last week in a report.

One is not surprised to see that the Times and the Economic Policy Institute place the onus on employers. And yet, the message is cautionary for women who work outside of the home and who do not have the resources to hire nannies to nurture their children.

Obviously, one would prefer that all parents can find good child care. But, why do these studies seem to ignore the possibility that mothers care for their children, or, at the least, that they find work that allows them a more regular schedule? If they demonstrate anything, the studies show that a mother’s routine presence at home is vitally important for childhood development. One understands that a nanny or a governess can serve as a substitute mother, but is the same true of outside child care services?

Looking at the research into child development we can only conclude that if women work outside the home, they must, at the least have very regular schedules:

In one of the most respected studies, published in 2005 in the journal Child Development, Prof. Wen-Jui Han of New York University looked at children during their first three years of life, controlling for such demographic variables as their mothers’ income, education, and race and ethnicity.

Professor Han, who was then at Columbia University, found that children of mothers who worked nonstandard schedules performed lower on problem-solving, verbal comprehension and spoken language tests than children of mothers who worked traditional schedules. Part of the explanation, she concluded, was increased stress on the part of the parents.

“Parents try their best to attend to their children in a sensitive and warm manner, but the physical and emotional exhaustion from nonstandard schedules makes it difficult,” Professor Han said in an interview. “With young children, if they’re crying, asking for food, asking for something, it’s all about how you interact with them.”

But this also precludes mothers having very demanding work schedules. A corporate lawyer or an executive vice president does not own her own time. Such high powered, high profile jobs preclude a woman’s being a real presence at home. Didn’t Anne-Marie Slaughter famously quit her job as director of policy planning at the State Department because her children could not handle her irregular and sustained absences?

Her experience serves to demonstrate the truth of the research results.Even for older children, the predictable presence of mothers, their participation in routines, their availability has an important impact on their children:

As for adolescents, Professor Han and two colleagues published a second paper, in the journal Developmental Psychology in 2010, which said that the longer mothers worked odd hours, the more likely their children were to smoke, drink, act out and engage in sexual activity.

How do most women deal with these problems? Quite simple, the Times reports, they avoid occupations that have “on call” schedules. Considering the importance of their presence it makes sense that they ought at the least to consider that their parenting responsibilities preclude certain types of work and make other types preferable.

Women who choose to work outside of the home, even women who do not have the choice understand full well, and probably understood it before the studies came out, that they cannot, if they want to be good mothers, have careers that are precisely the same as those of men.


Larry Sheldon said...

See also systems programmer, cable splicer, data center manager, and the list goes on. Every job I have had since high school (I was never a splicer, but I have been a bunch of things not listed here) has had an "on-call characteristic.

To avoid any "on-calls" every job would have to be staffed three or four people deep.

$150 "Big Mac" anybody?

Sam L. said...

Those on-call jobs may well be paying higher wages, leading to the dreaded "Income Inequality". Part of a piece of it, at least.

KCFleming said...

Lots od female MDs work part-time and avoid subspecialties that have call.

Damned patriarchy.

Dennis said...

I have to admit there are times when I wonder what women would do if they didn't have men to blame for everything. I have begun to see a lot of this as a complement and an acknowledgement of power and importance I never knew I had.

JK Brown said...

So women, once they have children, have to leave police work, paramedic work, fire department work, the military, any command position, any senior executive position, can't be a plumber, a power line worker, any emergency employee, etc?

So basically, we go back to where women leave the workforce once they get married and have children? Nice, way to roll back feminism.