The Impossibility Of A 40-Hour Workweek

In the cultural discussions around how 40-hour workweeks were established when it was expected that the wife would be home managing the the kids and the home…many parents are sharing their stories of trying to do both. I thought I’d share mine.

After I graduated from college and entered the workforce, I had a salaried position at 40 hours a week…and I was a single Mom. Donnie and I were together, planning on getting married, but he was working in Georgia so I was still on my own in Huntsville. I learned very quickly that the standard PTO was not enough to facilitate everything that would pop up having a kid. It wasn’t just days when he was sick, it was days when I needed to meet a repairman or days when I needed to bring him something important at school that he had left at home or days for doctor’s visits or parent-teacher conferences or days when he had fallen and hit his head at a soccer game the night before and still had a headache the next morning.

For me…I learned that since I worked for a company that did contract work (meaning I still had to fill out a time card), I could just not get paid for those hours. So what ended up happening was I ended up averaging about 35 hours a week. Because at least every 2 weeks I would need a random day off.

Then Donnie moved here and we got married and for a little while I had backup. But, his job paid more than mine and so, when push came to shove…it was still often me doing the things for the home and the kid. Also? Donnie was a stepdad and while he 100% took up the Dad role in E’s life, there was still no denying that when E was sick…he wanted me. So while Donnie sometimes was able to take some of the responsibilities, it still mostly fell on me. And then…in 2002…Mom had her aneurysm and I spent a lot of time away from work going back and forth to Nashville for 5 weeks and then missed a bit after that while she lived with me to rehab.

Even when everything with Mom finally got back to normal, Donnie and I got married and started trying to have our own kids which lead to failed pregnancies and surgeries and more missed work.

I entered the workforce out of college in August of 2001 and for the next 4 years I maybe averaged 30 hours a week over those four years once you factored in the basics of life with my Mom’s sickness to my reproductive nightmare. And then in October 2005 I finally had a second child. And the dream of actually being able to work 40 hours a week started to permanently fade.

I took a different job in 2006 that didn’t really have the same hourly-reporting “flexibility” so I tried my best to stick to the 40 hours but jeezus if I didn’t constantly have problems. And there were countless days where I knew my boss was irritated because I had to miss work again. Another miscarriage. Another sick kid. Another home repair issue that needed me to wait on a repairman.

Basically…this was how my professional life looked constantly for years. Every time the kids needed something or the home needed something or my Mom’s health declined, or my Dad’s health declined, I was missing work and knowing I was upsetting an employer. And here’s the honest truth: Over the last 20 years in the workforce I have lost jobs twice because of my inability to completely commit to the responsibilities of a full-time job. I’ve also been disciplined for not being focused enough, or dependable enough. Neither of which are things that are really possible when you carry the majority of the weight of home care and childcare and also you have your own medical issues as do your parents and…and…and.

My point is? There was never a time in the last 20 years where both of us could consistently work 40 hours a week. Never. The only way we even came close was because Donnie has family here that we could call upon in desperate times but that was not something we did often.

I don’t have any regrets allowing Donnie’s career to take center stage, I’m the one who had the sick parents so he couldn’t really have helped with any of those things anyway. But also? After a few years it was obvious his career path was going to be much more lucrative than mine, and so for obvious economic reasons…I was the Go To for any need during a work day. And I feel 100% okay with that.

But the truth is, when I stopped working in 2018 to help with Mom and then didn’t work again until this year, I learned something: With one parent who doesn’t work at all? Things become 1000 times easier for everyone. Except for the days when I was actually in Knoxville, my family knew they could depend on me for just about everything. One day Donnie forgot it was pajama day at work and so he asked if I could bring him a pair. He would have NEVER done that if I was working, obviously, he would have just not participated. But having someone home made those little things easier and that’s when I realized: There were dozens of other little things my family just missed out on because they weren’t “emergency” enough to get me to leave work.

And all of this doesn’t even touch on how much easier the pandemic was because I didn’t work. And how much easier it was to move Mom here and care for her. I don’t know what would have happened if my family had depended on my salary from a full-time job.

I know there are families who manage two full-time working parents. And there is a world where I think it could have been easier if A) I didn’t have parents who had major medical issues every few years or B) I didn’t have my own medical reproductive nightmare issues. But still…overall…what families don’t have at least one family member with special medical needs? Or parents who need help? I just think the families that can sustain full-time jobs AND kids WITHOUT ANY OUTSIDE HELP should not be expected to be the norm.

My Dad was a single Dad to two kids who managed a full-time job. BUT, all of my friend’s families helped out a lot. And no one in our house was ever sick. When I did get chicken pox in third grade, I remember staying at my Mom’s house for a few days, so he even recruited help. And if we were sick, I remember at least once when he stuck me in an empty hospital room (he was a biomedical engineer) on a floor where he knew the staff and they just let me stay in bed and watch TV while he worked elsewhere in the building. So, he even had to improvise on the fly when his kids needed him.

If he had any medical problems, or if we had been sick, or if he had sick parents…any of the problems I faced…I don’t know what he would have done.

When I started looking for work this year I just point-blank said: I’m only working part time. We didn’t need my salary after years of budgeting without it. And I had learned after 3 years that things are just easier of one parent has availability during the work week and I wasn’t going to give that up just for extra spending money.

So…all of this is to say that, I agree with a lot of the new chatter coming out of the pandemic that we need to re-think how we support our workforce. Whether they’re parents, or caregivers, or have health problems…we need to understand that most people can’t commit to that strict of a schedule and reimagine what “normal” is in this era how can we support our workforce so that society isn’t left to pick up the pieces of family members who go neglected, or employees who get burned out.