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can I take care of my baby during the workday if my job is undemanding? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I WORK FOR A LARGE COMPANY WITH STRONG UNION PROTECTIONS. BECAUSE OF OUR UNION PROTECTIONS, IT’S VERY HARD TO GET FIRED OR EVEN TO GET A LOW PERFORMANCE RATING, BUT IT’S ALSO VERY HARD TO GET MERIT RAISES OR PROMOTIONS. COMPENSATION IS EXPLICITLY TIED TO HOW LONG YOU’VE BEEN WITH THE COMPANY.

I’VE BEEN AT THIS COMPANY TWO YEARS AND BECAUSE OF MY LOW TENURE I MAKE ABOUT 60% OF WHAT MY PEERS MAKE. I’M ALSO TOTALLY UNDEREMPLOYED. I GET EXCELLENT PERFORMANCE RATINGS, AND EVEN THOUGH I’M FULL-TIME I CAN FINISH MY WORK IN ABOUT 10 HOURS A WEEK. MY JOB RARELY REQUIRES MEETINGS EXCEPT FOR A MONTHLY 1:1 WITH MY BOSS.

I’M EXPECTING MY FIRST CHILD IN A FEW MONTHS. OUR COMPANY POLICY EXPLICITLY SAYS THAT EMPLOYEES MUST HAVE CHILD CARE WHILE THEY ARE WORKING. BUT I HAVE SO LITTLE WORK TO DO DURING THE DAY, AND MOST OF IT CAN BE DONE ASYNCHRONOUSLY. CAN I JUST … IGNORE THE POLICY AND PROVIDE FULL-TIME CARE FOR MY BABY DURING THE DAY AS LONG AS MY WORK DOESN’T SLIP? I WOULD MAKE ARRANGEMENTS FOR THOSE DAYS WHEN I HAVE MEETINGS. I REALLY DON’T THINK MY BOSS WOULD NOTICE ONE WAY OR THE OTHER.

Aggggh, I hate this question and I also kind of love this question.

I hate it because there are conflicting principles in play and I’m not fully comfortable with any of the answers I could land on.

I love it because it’s more complicated than it seems on its surface.

Here are the conflicting principles, both of which are true:

* It’s completely reasonable for your employer to require you to have childcare while you’re working, when your kids are little. Those policies were commonplace pre-Covid, got relaxed by necessity the first couple of years of the pandemic, and are now commonplace again.

* When you can finish your work in 10 hours a week while still getting excellent performance reviews and you’re making 60% of what your peers make, there’s really no ethical issue with doing other things with your time as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work. Want to do laundry or scrub your baseboards or binge-watch reality shows? As long as you’re available when your job needs you, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t. (I am going to make sure that you’ve told your boss you’re available for more work, and also that you’ve considered whether there are long-term professional disadvantages to remaining in a job like that. But after that, do what you will.)

However, it’s more complicated when the other thing you’re doing with your time is child care. You’ve got to factor in:

* Babies and little kids demand attention on their schedule, not yours. You can stop your baseboard-scrubbing or pause your show if a work need comes up that you need to handle. You can’t pause a baby. What are you going to do if they each demand your attention at the same time? A lot of the time, your baby will need to win out — what does that mean for your work?

* What if you have a last-minute meeting with little notice and don’t have time to line up child care? In theory you could tell your boss that your child care fell through that day and it’s not your norm, but then you’re lying and you’re also likely to raise some questions in your boss’s head. If it happens a second time, your set-up is really likely to become a question for her.

* What if something changes and your job suddenly gets more busy than it is now (like a new boss, a new project, or a busier coworker leaves and their work falls to you)? Finding full-time child care isn’t usually something you can do overnight — in some areas it can take months. Will you be able to change things on the fly if you need to?

* What about those 10 hours a week you do need to focus on work? Is it flexible enough that you can fit it in around nap times, or is it likely to conflict with times when your baby is awake and wants your attention? Will you want to fit it around nap times, or will having to do that make things more stressful than they’d be if you had clear, uninterrupted work hours?

* Is it healthy to split your attention that way? Some parents find great relief in having a clearly delineated part of their day when they’re not on kid duty and can just focus on adult things. You might end up feeling like you’re short-changing yourself and the baby and your job.

* Speaking of shortchanging yourself, will doing this cause you to limit yourself professionally in ways you wouldn’t otherwise? For example, if an opportunity comes up for a project that would be great for your career, will you avoid taking it on because it would complicate your child care availability? If so, you risk harming your career long-term in ways you can’t necessarily see right now.

All of which is to say … I’d rather you not do it. (I’d also rather you live in a society that supports working parents and has affordable child care and doesn’t make people make decisions like this, but here we are.)

But I can see why you’d think about it! I just think it has more obstacles than you might be considering.

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