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Take a Break

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I’ve been going back and forth a bit with Erica C Barnett on the subject of this post on facebook and twitter, so I figure I’ll gather my thoughts here. Barnett’s thinking through how, ideally, paid time off from work should be organized, to promote and provide a healthier work-life balance for all. Her view is that general paid time off and parental leave should ideally come out of the same general category:

I’ve been arguing for a while that both parents and nonparents should have paid time off from work, because people’s life choices outside work have value even if they don’t involve parenting. Paid time off, I’ve argued, is equally important if I’m having six kids or building houses for Habitat for Humanity or taking care of my ailing grandma–or sitting on the beach and restoring my mental health. It shouldn’t be up to my employer, or my government, to judge one life choice as more or less valid than another. Currently, our system rewards the life choice of having children. But what if I’m a shitty parent? What if I have kids I can’t afford? What if I spend my paid parental leave on a cruise and leave the children with a nanny? My employer shouldn’t be allowed to monitor those life choices any more than he or she monitors whether I squander my paid vacation time.

When I posted my thoughts about paid time off, and my frustration at the myriad ways we privilege parenting over every other lifestyle choice (which, just like parenting, may or may not benefit society), many readers responded by arguing that there is nothing in the world more difficult or valuable than being a parent. Others added that paid leave is actually about the kids, not the parents–that the only reason to provide paid leave is to allow parents to do the selfless work of protecting and raising the most vulnerable among us.

I call bullshit, on two counts. First, parenting isn’t selfless. Not according to the parents I know who say they really didn’t know what life was about until they had children, and not according to the US government, which rewards its citizens financially, in the form of tax breaks, for reproducing. And second, paid leave isn’t just about the children, nor should it be. Benefits to workers exist because workers have successfully argued, with lawsuits and pickets and walkouts and lockouts and shutdowns, that workers deserve a life outside of work; if the weekend was just about spending time with our kids, the childless among us should really be working seven days a week.

I think this deserves some significant pushback, for a number of reasons. The core of the argument, for me, is that parental leave is primarily a benefit society should provide as a means of discharging our obligations to our fellow citizens who happen to be children. Her rebuttal that it isn’t “just” for children is true, but I don’t understand how that observation erases the significance of that observation.

Beyond that, two further arguments against substitutability:

As a matter of practicality, if I were advocating for a leave policy, I’d be very, very comfortable advocating for pretty much the full Sweden, starting tomorrow, presuming we come up with a good way of allocating the costs. I’m an advocate of a great deal more general paid time off as well, but I think it’s pretty reasonable for the best welfare states in the world to provide considerably more paid time off for parental leave than personal leave. I’m not sure what I’d advocate for as a floor, but the kind of 12-18 months I’d happily advocate for parental leave is a fair bit more than whatever it is.

There’s a reason for this: I simply don’t see the two categories of leave as substitutable. The point of any kind of mandatory leave, it seems to me, is a basic human capabilitities/flourishing argument: people ought to be provided the space to pursue human flourishing on a range of dimensions. A career is one of them, of course, as is having children, as are the range of activities (charitable work, hobbies, relaxation, self-development, etc) that people might use personal time off for. One reason we’re insisting on paid time off in the first place is because we don’t think the pursuit of a career should cut off one’s ability to pursue the other two. When I think about the kind of value the range of activities personal time off might afford people, I can’t for the life of me think of any good reason why parents ought to be excluded from it–why would they be less valuable to parents?

As an aside, I think it’s particularly unfortunate that Barnett introduces the threat of parental leave abuse here. The world’s a big place, and I’m sure someone somewhere is going to hire a nanny and ignore their children on their parental leave. That certainly doesn’t describe any parents I know, and I’m pretty confident it will be vanishingly rare. This kind of worry is corrosive to just about any kind of social welfare benefit being offered without pervasive, costly, privacy-invading surveillance; it’s very frustrating to see a progressive such as Burnett promote this toxic line of reasoning.

I’m also fairly convinced that treating having children as ‘just another lifestyle/consumer choice’ is not going to be consistent with recognizing children as full citizens to whom we have broad shared obligations, many of which are discharged through parents and guardians.

Barnett goes on to make the case that her position is more consistent with feminist commitments:

If we’re ever going to level the workplace playing field between men and women, paid time off needs to become a guaranteed benefit for all workers, regardless of gender or how or whether one chooses to become a parent.

If we force parents to burn their personal time off on parental leave, I don’t see how this leads to any good feminist outcomes. As long as women continue to take on the bulk of childcare duties (if we could change *that* in short order with a simple policy, sign me up, but I’m not seeing it), that’ll simply mean paid time off for other purposes will be much more available to men than women. Furthermore, the countries in the world with many of the best outcomes for women in the workplace are also ones with extensive, paid parental leave of a year or more and only 5-6 weeks of annual vacation time. The people who’ve come the closest to a level playing field in the workplace are very much rejecting the time off model Barnett is suggesting. I’m not at all sure why we should expect better outcomes from her approach on that front. As much of the rest of her post indicates, the division in the workplace this seems designed to address is parents vs. non-parents, not men vs. women. In general, I think the former approach is unfortunate; it’s primarily the pathologies of the American workplace that pit worker against worker in this fashion. I don’t see any good reason to take that bet.

I’m avoiding taking the bait on her efforts to make this an argument about whether parenting is existentially more important or valuable than other pursuits we might pursue with time off, not because I don’t have views on that subject, but because I don’t think they’re relevant or necessary. I don’t think any arguments I make here imply any particular position on that question. It’s a distraction.

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