Viewpoint

The dawn of Uber parenting

Uber driver Ridha Altamimi opens the door for Sam Landa, 15, who took an Uber car to ballet class.
Uber driver Ridha Altamimi opens the door for Sam Landa, 15, who took an Uber car to ballet class. WASHINGTON POST

The moment of truth hit – when I realized that the world was organized in such a way that it in no way reflected the reality of my life – the summer after my son’s kindergarten year.

All of a sudden, I had to figure out how I was to get him to a camp that started at 9 and ended at 2 p.m. I soon discovered after-school activities – T-ball practices that started at 4 p.m. across town from his school and in a different state from my office – were no better.

Over the years, I’ve jury-rigged some complex carpooling schedules, hired babysitters and drivers, and slipped out of work myself when everything fell through.

So what struck me most as I was reporting a story about stretched parents now turning to Uber and the On Demand economy, and services like Shuddle, a new San Francisco Bay company that ferries kids around solo as young as 7 – is that the world is still organized in such a way that it in no way reflects the reality of most people’s lives.

Work schedules are often demanding, rigid and inflexible, as if, like in 1950, one parent can devote body and soul to work. And many kid activities are still set up for that same 1950s world. Never mind that the majority of children, census data shows, are growing up in families where both parents work, followed by families headed by single moms. Barely one in five children are raised in traditional breadwinner-homemaker families.

Despite all the moaning about over-scheduled kids – and many are – good research shows that some level of activity is really good for kids. And that the more people are willing to try new things as kids – to be bad at something, and learn to get better – the more likely they’re willing to take on new challenges as adults. All of which rewires the brain in positive ways and adds to a sense of well-being.

So how to make the impossible logistics work? Uber or On Demand transportation services may be a temporary fix – but only for those with means. Curbing the number of kid activities, and changing the timing and transportation offerings may be another. But, to my mind, what really needs to change is the 1950s workplace culture.

Creating flexible workplaces that understand men and women have lives and caregiving responsibilities outside of work – not just for kids, but for aging parents as well – is good not only for kids and parents and family stress levels, it’s also good for business. Why? Because distracted workers – worried about whether the afternoon carpool is going to fall through, whether the kids got from points A to B to C – aren’t doing their best work. And workers with managers who understand and work with the pressures of family responsibilities, studies funded by the National Institutes of Health have shown, are healthier, less stressed out and more productive.

Which leads me to my final point: many parents are already quietly finding ways to make their impossible schedules work while keeping up with their demanding workloads. Many are just keeping it to themselves. In fact, many say they’d rather lie to their bosses than be honest about their logistical juggles.

That fact was unearthed in a survey by Bright Horizons, the child care provider. Nearly half the parents surveyed worried that their family responsibilities could get them fired. Fired! Nearly 40 percent were afraid that caregiving duties meant they wouldn’t get a raise. One in five feared that family commitments cost them key projects at work. More than half said they were too nervous to broach the subject of flexible or remote work or reduced hours to handle family duties.

So nervous, in fact, that about one in four parents admitted that lying to the boss about family obligations. One-third said they’d rather fake being sick.

This kind of work environment isn’t good for anyone. Though men are clearly doing more than in previous generations, time diary studies show it is still women who are largely expected to shoulder most of the child care work and arranging, often reducing their hours, or taking lesser roles in 1950s workplaces.

Transforming the workplace to both reflect the reality of workers’ lives – and to work more productively and efficiently – is the mission behind the Modern Family Index surveys, Bright Horizons CEO Dave Lissy told me.

“The best employers try to foster a culture where you don’t have to lie. Where being open around family responsibilities is important, and you figure out a way to make it work,” he said. “People in business know how to do this. It’s just an area that needs to be taken more seriously.”

So before you start bashing parents for putting their kids in Uber cars once in awhile instead of tearing their hair out, try aiming that vitriol where it belongs: an outdated workplace. And use that energy to help it grow up.

Schulte, a Washington Post columnist, is the author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.”

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