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Parents want work-life balance, but they don’t agree on what it looks like

The pandemic let families test-drive flexibility and now they want employers to pay attention

While working parents have found much to dislike during the pandemic, many of them have been able to try a lifestyle they’ve yearned for and have learned they’d like to keep.

The exodus of millions of adults from offices to work from home created a laboratory to test whether working remotely with more flexible hours helps parents both do their jobs and raise their families.

In the research brief “Homeward Bound,” published by the Institute for Family Studies, director of research Wendy R. Wang and institute fellow Jenet Erickson found most parents with minor children said COVID-19 increased their preference for work flexibility that lets them work from home either most (33%) or half (20%) of the time.

The survey was conducted by YouGov in late May and early June for the institute and the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University. Respondents were 2,500 adults between ages 18-55 who have minor children.

The authors wrote that as parents were forced to adjust to changes created by COVID-19, “parents now see more options for possible ways to arrange child care.”

“Parents with young kids have always called for work-life flexibility, but it didn’t happen until the pandemic,” said Wang. “Ironically, a lot of bad things happened during the pandemic, but this is a silver lining that allowed parents to actually try this. They love this. I hope that more employers will actually understand that this is probably good for both work and family for their employees.”

Desire vs. reality

Remote work — and its staying power and desirability — has been a hot topic for the past year. Pew Research Center reported in December that of those employed adults who demonstrated during COVID-19 that they could manage their work responsibilities from home, just 20% had already been doing so. More than half said that they’d like to do most or all of their work from home when the pandemic ends.

Moms and dads both felt that way in the new report, though the largest surge in those wanting to work from home came from fathers.

Among parents who say they prefer to work, fewer than 4 in 10 said what they’d experienced in the pandemic made them want to head back to the office most of the time. Among mothers, the number was 3 in 10.

Meanwhile, 8% of dads and 18% of moms said they’d prefer not to work for pay at all.

Those surveyed deemed flexible work that lets parents stay home and share child care duties the best working arrangement when children are very young. When all parents of minor children were asked what working arrangement would be best for those with children under age 5, 37% of mothers and 25% of fathers said it’s best to try to have flexible hours and share their child care duties, Erickson said.

But for the subgroup of parents who actually have children under age 5, the story is largely one of desire vs. reality. While 30% believe family life is best served by having parents work flexible hours and care for their children themselves, just 18% said that’s how their schedules actually go.

“As you might expect, evidence suggests a significant difference in whether people can have that level of flexibility — to work from home, for example — based on education, which is closely tied to income. It’s a reality we need to take seriously,” said Erickson, who is also a Wheatley Institution fellow.

“People’s perception of whether they want flexibility or not is constrained by the type of jobs they can get, which is constrained by education level, said Angela Rachidi, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who was not involved in this research. “If flexibility is not an option and was not during the pandemic, they would be less likely to state this as a preference.”

While much of the national discussion about enabling work for low-income families focuses on policies that would subsidize child care, “they would much rather receive a tax credit or some other form of consistent funding to provide care for their own children,” Erickson said.

“It would be worth taking that preference seriously in an effort to create more flexibility for them as well as others,” she told Deseret News by email. “Women REALLY want flexibility. It makes a tremendous difference — and I think men have a taste of it now, too, and want it just as much.”

“The full-time, center-based child care is not popular, especially when you are asking parents with young kids, especially for working moms,” Wang said. “They’re much more likely to prefer taking care of their own kids through the flexible work schedule.”

Wang said college-educated parents, which she said is also a proxy for income levels, are more likely than others to say they prefer to send their kids to full-time, center-based child care. “But still, it’s not a majority.”

Mom and dad diverge

In a twist, the survey found the share of families with very young children and a parent who stays at home to provide full-time care surpasses the share that thinks that’s the ideal arrangement. “Instead, many more have a stay-at-home-parent and would actually like to do more shared child care and flexible work hours,” said Erickson. She said 40% are in that situation, compared to 28% who see that as ideal.

The report notes that most families with a stay-at-home parent “are practicing what they believe is the best arrangement for their families.”

Just 11% of the parents favorited full-time child care provided by a day care center — an option fathers liked better than mothers did (14% vs. 8%). The report said full-time working moms were the most apt to prefer flexible work and shared child care responsibilities (42%). Just 11% of those fully-employed working mothers said center-based child care best meets a family’s needs.

There were differences based on education, too.

More college-educated mothers than those with less education said that experiences in the pandemic increased their preference for part-time work, 17% compared to 11%. But the preference was the opposite based on education for fathers: 15% of non-college-educated fathers now prefer part-time work, compared to 5% of college-educated dads.

College-educated dads are also the least likely to say they don’t want to work for pay. But they “take the lead in endorsing work from home,” the report says, with 65% of them now preferring work from home at least half the time. That’s compared to 57% of college-educated moms and 45% of less-educated dads.

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