Returning to the Office Isn't Worth the Cost for Many Parents

Long commutes and school shootings are the tip of the iceberg for parents who are already overwhelmed by the idea of returning to the office.

Businesswoman Mother Walking Daughter To School On Way To Work
Photo: Getty Images

"Her backpack is not bulletproof?

That's how the conversation with my husband started after we dropped our daughter off at school. We've been doing drop-off and pick-up as a family. Now, getting our child ready for school entails more than merely packing her lunch. It involves ensuring she has her phone watch with her to contact us in case of emergencies and reminding her not to take it off so we can always find her location. And, for me, it involves a fair amount of anxiety.

Every morning when we drop her off at 7:40 a.m., it feels like we're delivering her into the lion's den that is the American school system, a place where I fear that she is more likely to be shot than to be valedictorian.

In the United States, firearms are the leading cause of death for children. The 2021-22 academic year saw 193 incidents of gunfire on school campuses, more than doubling the number from the previous year. Sadly, these horrors are becoming far less isolated in schools. As a child, I dreaded a boring school day. As a parent, I hope her day is as uneventful as possible. These concerns and the psychological toll they cause represent the tip of the iceberg for many parents who are already overwhelmed by the idea of returning to the office (RTO) for work.

The sacrifices required to RTO are too great of a burden, particularly for caregivers, and no one is saying it loud enough. As the world continues to reopen its doors, more working parents are navigating what it looks like to RTO. But our efforts to get back to "normal" ignores that the world has seismically shifted in the last two and a half years. We've adapted to life in an ongoing pandemic. Those adaptations have been varying and vast as we scrambled to survive. In some cases, we've evolved and restructured, so our lives worked on our terms.

For many, that meant adjusting household roles and reimagining how childcare, or even eldercare, worked. For some, it meant having to uproot—changing jobs or moving to places that made more sense for the cost of living. The virtual office became the new norm, and proximity to a physical office was no longer required. The shifts impacted working mothers the most. And the transition back to work brings distinct challenges as well. Amidst these seismic life shifts and harms, even with a reduced in-office week, how can we make this make equitable sense?

In a country where it costs $300,000 to raise a child, working parents are forced to choose between savings, reducing hours and income, or settling for lower-quality care. How will we manage the cost and time commitment that a commute entails when a 45-minute drive to work can easily become a two to three-hour journey? I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has some of the most expensive commutes in the U.S. Traveling to work costs roughly $50 a day before I even factor in gas, which averages $5.40 per gallon.

Beyond the dollars and cents, there have been other benefits to having the ability to work from home. For one, it's the reclamation of time. Now, I can make it to swim lessons, piano recitals, and the dinner table. It is approximately five minutes from my house to school, door to door. I can be there if an emergency arises or she gets sick when I work from home. Knowing how close I am to the school gives me peace of mind, especially without the commute to work.

The office was once the central focal point of all workplace functions. Of course, there are instances where meeting in person is advantageous. But these last couple of years proves we're capable of answering emails and taking calls at home.

I am particularly incensed by the glib dismissal from the "we commuted pre-pandemic, so get over it" crew. These people lack empathy and recognition of what it means to care for a small human in this world. They also fail to recognize part of that care entails knowingly leaving them for hours in school when mass shootings are increasingly common. Employers should be empathetic and consider working parents' sacrifices to return to the office to support each employee's needs. We need equitable policies, not arbitrary universal mandates that treat work as one size fits all. We saw this throughout the pandemic and tested alternatives. Working parents want something reasonable—a choice. Employers unwilling to grasp this will undoubtedly face a lost workforce, as people will look to organizations that empower personal agency.

From a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) perspective, and experience as a Black woman in corporate America, working from home provided a brief reprieve from biases and has provided a safe haven for workers who experience microaggressions, allowing a mental escape from the white gaze. Further, as a practitioner, I must point out that COVID-19, like most of what ails us as a country, has impacted historically excluded communities the hardest. Returning to office will impose a greater structural impact on those same communities.

I must acknowledge essential workers and others across vocations that do not have the option and couldn't take part in this conversation if they wanted to. I know there is an immense privilege in being available to take my daughter to school each day and even holding a role that allows a work-from-home scenario. Our current workplace culture steals working parent's ability to choose how we work and how we show up for our families for far too long. The gravity of the choices we must make is not worth bodies in seats or incomplete beliefs that productivity and connection wane. We all deserve the option to have a say in our own adventure. I will keep fighting until we do. I will keep fighting for you.

My fight as a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant is for something more than in-office work, hybrid work, or even remote work. My fight is for policies and practices that allow each of us to choose our own adventure and have the choice to return, to return sometimes, or not to return at all for whatever reason we each deem befitting. That would look more like equity than what we have today.

Yes, we used to do this all the time. But the collective experience we once knew is gone. We need to accept it and move forward accordingly—and equitably.

Amira Barger is a San Francisco Bay Area resident, parent, a DEI consultant, and adjunct professor of marketing & communications at Cal State East Bay.

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