Is parenting an unpaid internship?

A NY Times article on the potentially illegal growth of unpaid internships caught my parenting eye.

The criteria for an acceptable unpaid internship include, “that the internship should be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution, that the intern does not displace regular paid workers and that the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities — in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.”

Let’s look at this again, substituting “parent” for intern and “child” for employer (after all, we do essentially work for our kids, don’t we?); thus we parents should get compensated for our work unless… the parenting work experience is similar to the learning we parents have experienced in school, that the parent does not displace regular paid workers and that the child “derives no immediate advantage” from the parent’s activities—in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution from the kid to the parent.”

Heeeeello!  In college I was supposedly getting ready to do “higher level” tasks than driving, cooking, laundry and shopping (wasn’t that the economic rational behind all those loans?), so how does parenting track with that?  I don’t know about you, but my parenting gig pretty much boils down to janitor, tutor, driver, maid and nanny (not that those aren’t respectable and important jobs, but if we were to offer a nanny job as an “internship” we would be excoriated… or at least we should be, as I’m aware this has occurred in some circumstances, such as slavery).

If one becomes a stay-at-home dad or mom to very young children, one absolutely does displace the nanny.  One of the most painful junctures in our parenting journey was when Andy had to go back to work, six weeks after Nate was born, because I was in school (even though working part time as well), and we simply could not afford to lose the health benefits she got through her job (the money made vs. the money spent on the nanny was at times nearly a wash).  This was heartbreaking and went against every instinct Andy had, and remains a lasting regret—not to mention something I would wish we, as a culture, could spare any mother moving forward.

As far as parenting being primarily of benefit to the parent as a criterion for non-paying internship, while I might be first to argue that parenting is a path to potential happiness, like yoga, this is not the common take on things in our culture.  Think about paying bankers and oil executives with “spiritual wealth,” and promises of good karma—good luck retaining talent with that pitch.  Thus not paying parents may, according to the terms applicable to internships, just might turn out to be illegal.

But since we can’t reasonably expect kids to come up with the cash to pay us parents, maybe this is our cue that our collective society would be well-served to recognize this very important work and shave a little off the defense budget or other inflated programs and re-direct it to pay parents.

Is this pure fantasy?  In more social-democratic countries it is not unheard of for moms to be supported by the government to stay home and parent.  The cultivation of the group in this way builds greater bonds amongst people, and strengthens community.  It probably lowers stress, alienation, depression and anxiety (which costs all sorts of money in terms of lost productivity and health care costs) and contributes to children not getting what they need (which costs all sorts of money—in social services and, eventually, in the criminal justice system).

While I’m not really calling for social reform here (after all, what’s the point of calling for social reform?  Do we lack voices calling for all manner of social reform?  And what has been the effect of that?  Talk begets more talk and nothing really changes.)  No, my point is to validate you the parent who stumbles across these words to know that if you (or other parents that you love) feel unsupported, stressed about money, depleted and your are still trying to do your best despite it all… perhaps you are being sold short and ripped off by our culture.

Before we can have a slave revolt it helps to realize that we are slaves of a sort, not to our children but to our capitalist culture.  In this representative so-called democracy do you feel represented?  I personally feel more represented by, mirrored by and kindred with my friends, colleagues and clients—in “reality” and in the blogosphere than I do in mainstream media, Wall Street, big business or Washington.  To me, these huge pillars of our culture are fast becoming increasingly irrelevant.  Yes, I appreciate the electric grid, the fireman and the fact that the streets are paved… but after that my gratitude starts to grow a little thin for the reigning order.

What can we do?  Think before you buy.  Before you buy things that you don’t really need and will later just as soon have never bought.  Think before you “buy into” the system we have going.  Just as we bloggers seem to have a natural and authentic concern and compassion for each other, this could eventually ripple into a different way to think about living.  There are a lot of us and it’s growing.  None of us need to be “stars” of a new marketing opportunity, but rather we can build layers of interconnections that become more about an attitude than any one voice expounding on what we should think or do.

The people who currently hold power in our culture work avidly to keep their power and their money, but the whole thing rests on the “masses” buying stuff (and living in fear of “bad people” attacking us).  There are good economic reasons why WalMart attacks any sign of labor organization in its infancy.  There are reasons that China doesn’t want its citizens having unfiltered access to each other and the rest of the world.

Don’t overlook the phenomenon that we are creating as parent bloggers—wouldn’t you personally be thrilled if the government (which is supposed to represent us) spent less supporting banks, oil companies and wars and instead took our tax money and spent it on schools, actual health care and supporting parents to be able to do their best with their kids without fear of ruin?  Not “welfare,” but developmental support for a critical juncture in the human life cycle.

We don’t need to go shouting for revolution.  The more time we humans spend here in the relatively free (and at least not yet fully commercialized) space of the blogosphere, talking and listening to each other, supporting each other to slow down, keep it real, think about what really matters, and to love not just our own kids but each others kids… the more things, however subtly or glacial, truly change because that’s what the zeitgeist is ready for… if a kinder and more connected culture is what the people truly want, than the so-called leaders will come to reflect that or be left behind by the spirit of the time.

So, let’s dedicate today to doing our unpaid parenting internships with grace and love—and to supporting each other through our potentially increasingly real, earthy and rich lives (that do not need to be branded, expanded, monetized or validated by the media to be good lives)—in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce


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10 Responses to “Is parenting an unpaid internship?”

  1. Randy Says:

    I just wanted to add a word of support to your thesis. As parents, we shape the world to come by what we impart to our children. More important than what we say is what we do. The revolution begins at home.

    Above my desk is a sign that lists “Ten Things Science Says Will Make You Happy.” They are: Smile, Make Friends, Avoid Comparisons, Say Thank You, Devalue Money, Have Goals, Take Initiative, Savor the Everyday, Give Away, and Exercise. None of these things take capital. Not only will they make you happy, they will make the world a better place.

    We may never be recognized for our unpaid interships of parenting by society-at-large. We can support each other as we work to give our children lives of authenticity based on recognizing the value of our relationship to one another rather than what can be purchased at the mall.

    Thank you for creating this blog. I know it will continue to be a place of refuge for parents seeking more thoughtful ways of parenting and sharing our ideas as a community.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Thanks for this, Randy. I hope readers will follow your lead in living this list. As for me… :), thanks for the friendship of your comment, nothing to compare, but thanks again for taking the time to share your list; so far today’s been a money-free day, and I join with you in the goal of a kinder world in the service of all of us and all our kids. Since my book didn’t readily get published I’ve taken initiative with this blog, and hope others will follow my lead and not let discouragement or seeming disinterest stop you from trusting that there truly are others out there who care (and just because it’s money free doesn’t mean you won’t find happiness in it).

      I savored the beauty of the budding trees this morning on my jog (exercise) and then I found your comment which inspired me to go the extra distance and make hot cocoa with whip cream for my sleeping teen before posting this reply and heading off to work.

      The net of your comment was to help me realize that, at least today, right now, I am happy—and sincerely wish this for you, Randy, and everyone else who does and doesn’t read these words.

      I must also add, that I am forever working with my Shadow, so it’s not all peace and sunshine by any stretch of the imagination… still, when I feel connected with others while staying true to my heart, everything is a lot more fun and interesting.

  2. Lindsey M Nelson Says:

    While doing the taxes, I wondered about how families that spend money on child care can deduct those costs (or at least a portion… I’m not expert) and I thought about how staying at home with my kids is “costing” my family my entire income that I made previous to becoming a mom. I guess I think it would be nice if we could at least get some kind of similar deduction, especially when I think of how many of our tax dollars are being spent on war and destruction.

    Stay-at-home parenting has, in my view, come to be viewed as a “luxury”. I don’t see my life as “luxurious” (except that I am a white American woman which is pretty luxurious by global standards), we consciously decided not to indulge in many things that a lot of people consider standard (cable TV, iPods and Phones, eating out on a regular basis, renting a 700 sq. ft. apartment for our family of 4). We aren’t indulging in a luxury, we just have a different set of priorities. I feel so deeply for my fellow parents who cut out these indulgences and still can’t afford to stay home and raise their children. I envision a culture in which raising your own child is an option regardless of socio-economic status.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      It does seem that childcare is terribly devalued in our culture. I would point out that as our country becomes more integrated, it is not being “white” that is luxurious but being anywhere near middle class compared to the vast global poverty.

      Yet there remains serious poverty in America, and this is not a color issue (not to say that we have transcended our racism, and I realize what you mean by acknowledging the historic advantage that comes with being white in a culture just beginning to heal in this regard), however I see the big divide as economic, and the caregivers left behind as those at economic disadvantage.

      For these reasons a cultural recognition (as you suggest, perhaps a tax credit not just for dependents, but for caregivers of those dependents) and support for childcare might help level the parenting field just a bit.

      Let’s hope that enough of us talking to each other about this will eventually lead to a virtual demand from our representative government to represent these parents.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    You already know where I stand on this one. Parenting is grueling, round-the-clock work – which doesn’t mean we don’t think it’s our responsibility and privilege.

  4. Linda Pressman Says:

    I’m with you, Bruce and love Lindsey’s comment about the tax deductibility of child care expenses. While I sat here today scheduling the unschedulable and filling out eighteen-page new patient forms for my son (who exactly would do THAT?), I wondered about this too.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      I think the devaluing of childcare as legitimate work comes from the same thinking that suggested that bottled formula was superior to breast milk. More widely recognizing the absurdity of the suggestion that childcare doesn’t “count” as labor is an important first step in bringing about a change (after all, who changed the diapers and fed all the big strong corporate leaders and politicians if it weren’t their mommies and their nannies?).

  5. Katrina Kenison Says:

    As always, Bruce, I learn as much from your thoughtful readers as I do from your very on-target post. At the moment, my 20-year-old son is applying for various unpaid internships, which means that we will support him while he has an experience that, we all hope, will help prepare him to go forth and live on his own. I have no worries about that, really. Nor am I under any illusion: this time is our gift to him, and we are very lucky to be able to offer it, lucky that our own hard work enables him to work for nothing, for a couple of months anyway. Fortunately, he is grown up enough to appreciate that. In that sense, we are all privileged.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Yes, he’s fortunate (as are you to be able to provide this), but it underscores how a kid without a lot of economic and emotional support behind her or him is at a serious disadvantage… needing to be able to not need the money in order to later have a chance to earn bigger money. The privileged kids get exploited, but the less privileged get barred from entry.

      I’ve also been thinking a lot about the notion of “independence,” and why it’s such a vaunted trait in our culture when we’re social creatures and probably function better in close-knit groups than alone (not to mention feeling less lonely).

      All the more reason that it serves parents to support each other and collectively value the work that is parenting.

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