Alas, this is the gender divide in parenting.
There would be no Wall Street Journal headline above a feature story that reads: “When The Children Crashed Mom’s BBC Interview: The Family Speaks.” But insert “Dad,” instead, and you’ve got news. More than 84 million people — and growing — have viewed the video of Robert Kelly interrupted by his children as he works.
I imagine every working mother in the universe is shaking her head and sighing: Been there, done that. The Facebook parody of a mom diffusing a bomb while caring for two children as she is interviewed by the BBC has more than 34 million views.
“Mommy, I have to go poopies,” announced my oldest son, then a toddler, after he picked up the kitchen extension on our land line.
It was 1991, and my son interrupted a conversation I was having with an editor about a magazine assignment. As a single working mother with sole custody since my boys were six, four, and one, I was used to juggling.
I was talking to the editor from my upstairs home office with the door locked. A trusted babysitter was with my two young sons downstairs as I worked. Apparently, my toddler dashed away in a millisecond before she could stop him.
I paused, and as I predicted, my son hung up immediately after making the pronouncement. I did not address his comment but decided in that fleeting instant of maternal reality confronting work reality that I would do what any working parent when interrupted by children would do: I pretended it did not happen.
The male magazine editor on the other end of the phone was stunned. “Do you need to get off the phone?”
“No, everything is fine,” I assured him loudly, professionally and deliberately. “When do you need me to file that story, and how many words?”
The editor stammered, unnerved that he had witnessed such an intimate proclamation. He could not get off the phone fast enough.
A lot has been written recently about the bias of assuming the professor’s wife, Kim Jung-A, was the nanny. She rushed into the room where her husband was on a Skype interview with the BBC to corral their two young children. Soraya Chemaly and Roxane Gay have weighed in about the bias embedded in that assumption. And it is noteworthy.
But the bigger story here is not only the challenge of balancing professional and parental lives when they intersect — or crash into each other — but the cost and burden of childcare for working mothers.
This is a true struggle for single working mothers especially those who cobble together childcare and moan every time there is a half day, snow day, institute day, late arrival or early dismissal. Or a child’s illness that prevents the child from attending daycare. Perhaps family members volunteer to pitch in. Perhaps mothers create a co-op of babysitting, swapping times and shifts, exchanging time, not money.
But mostly child care is just expensive.
Pew Research Center reported on data from the U.S. Census Bureau that 26 percent of children in this country live with only one parent as of 2014. That amounts to 10 million single mothers, two-thirds of them are working. That same year Pew reported that 31 percent of those children in single-parent households lived below the poverty line.
Child care is a pressing concern for all parents but particularly low-income parents and single parents who cannot rely on a partner to share in the duties.
Sixty-two percent of parents with infants or preschool-age children report it is difficult to find local affordable, high-quality child care. For 66 percent of families making $75,000 or higher, their children are in daycare or preschools while 57 percent of parents earning less than $30,000 report that family members provide child care, according to the Pew report.
While President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka, a working mother, talk big on child care issues, they seem out of touch with reality on childcare costs for most Americans.
According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center about the proposed Trump child care plan, “70 percent of the benefits will go to families that make $100,000 or more. And 25 percent will go to people earning $200,000 or more.”
The TPC reports, “For single parents, in particular, child care costs can consume a significant portion of their earnings. Between 2012 and 2013, single mothers with children under five paid a median out-of-pocket cost of $3,000, accounting for more than 15 percent of their median earnings.”
The report continues, “Child care costs have also grown sharply over time, rising 70 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between 1985 and 2011. High child care expenses make it more difficult for parents, especially mothers with younger children, to work.”
Most companies, organizations, institutions, schools and universities in this country do not provide on-site child care, though many do offer paid maternity leave, sick child care and flex time. Those who excel at this are listed annually in Working Mother’s 100 Best Companies List.
I estimate that I spent more than $200,000 on child care in my home over the span of 12 years for the care of three sons. When they were younger, it was close to full-time care; when they were in school, it was before and after school care. And when I traveled for work, it was $100 to $150 for an overnight stay for a sitter to be in my home.
This was from the time my oldest was born to the time my youngest could drive. Yes, I was lucky to have jobs that were flexible — first as a university professor and then as a journalist, author, and consultant — but I needed to work at least 40-50 hours per week. When they were older, they still needed to be driven back and forth to school, practice, games and more. I was not there. I was working.
In 1989, when my oldest son was one, I watched the TV movie “Taken Away,” starring Valerie Bertinelli. It haunted me then. And still does. Her character, a single mom, left her young daughter alone in their apartment with strict instructions to go to bed, while she attended a night class to better her future. Her daughter was injured in her absence, and she lost custody. She eventually regained custody but not after a long legal battle.
I can see how that could happen.
Child care was my single greatest worry for almost two decades. When the phone rang at 6 a.m. letting me know that my children’s sitter was not able to come that day, I panicked. My sisters — all working mothers — helped by letting me share in their care at times, but if it was a day off school for the boys, I sometimes had no choice but to bring them with me. And as the Kelly family demonstrated, this did not go well.
Yes, it was funny to see Kelly’s children rush in and interrupt his media moment.
And I am glad working parents are getting the attention they deserve on the difficulties of the professional and the parental — even if for most people that collision of worlds it is not on a Skype interview with the BBC.
For me, it brought back the omnipresent worry of how I could possibly get all that I needed to get done professionally if I did not have someone watching my kids.
For millions of working mothers, that just isn’t funny.
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, emerita faculty at Northwestern University, editorial director of Take The Lead and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. Her latest book, Escape Points, is a memoir of raising her sons alone.