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December 16, 2021 10:23 AM EST

In their new book Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births, co-authors Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick explore the histories of nearly 100 designs for caregiving, from the fight for federal paid family leave to breast pumping pods. Designing Motherhood is an encyclopedia of how innovators—often women in precarious circumstances, driven by necessity—have tackled public health challenges through social, mechanical, medical, and political interventions.

But as the authors themselves acknowledge, the book’s title is incomplete.

We often think of design in terms of material culture, but that’s only a partial understanding—and limiting our concept of design to things robs it of much of its power to create change.

It’s especially important in this moment, when the ways we think about designing motherhood are intertwined more than ever with the ways we think about designing the modern workplace. As of this writing, a proposed federal 12-week paid family and medical leave program was whittled down to four weeks; with its fate currently uncertain, the US remains the only industrialized nation without federally mandated paid family leave. In this precarious moment—one in which people are regularly pushed back to work when their families badly need them, and millions of women have already dropped out of the workforce—design can be a critical tool.

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“We have been told endlessly that design is something that we buy and put in our home, or design as something that we buy and wear,” Millar Fisher says, but “it’s really about systemic changes that come from people.” The way we approach our work as collaborators, colleagues, and leaders is also design, even if our contributions don’t take the form of materials and dimensions. In its most stripped-down definition, design is carefully observing and understanding constraints (economic, technical, political, social, racial) in pursuit of solutions to a problem.

Particularly when it comes to caregiving, Covid has revealed new depths of those constraints. While some organizations offered flexible work schedules and additional paid time off at the beginning of the pandemic, for many people, deliverables and deadlines didn’t meaningfully change. Working caregivers only gained additional responsibilities, running schools and in-home diners amid daycare and school shutdowns, all while being evaluated on their work contributions as if nothing had changed. (As Jessica Grose wrote in The New York Times in February, “Despite…alarm bells clanging, signaling a financial and emotional disaster among America’s mothers, who are doing most of the increased amount of child care and domestic work during this pandemic, the cultural and policy response enacted at this point has been nearly nonexistent.”)

Given all the ways that parenthood has been punished over these past almost-two years, a solutions-based lens is timely and necessary. The publication of Designing Motherhood (which currently has a corresponding museum exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum) demonstrates how we as a culture might acknowledge and lean into parenthood rather than away from it.

Back to that pesky title: The issues highlighted in Designing Motherhood aren’t mothers’ issues, or women’s issues, or even limited to topics of women’s work or labor rights. The project offers highly visual reminders that caregiving topics affect all of us: parents and non-parents, managers and reports.

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“We’re looking holistically here,” says Winick, a design historian and writer. “Care can be of a child. It can be of an elder. It can be caring for oneself in the form of sleep.” Or, as Millar Fisher, a museum curator, puts it: “I don’t have kids, but I also want to eat my dinner at home,” rather than scarfing something down by the light of an open work laptop.

In your own work, you may not be a designer, but through the decisions you make and examples you set, you—like all of us—are designing a workplace that affects how all people can participate.

Here’s how you might apply a design mindset to some of the constraints of modern work:

  • Be conscious of scheduling blocks of meetings in a row with no breaks. Booking hours of back-to-back Zoom calls makes an assumption that someone else can be in the background doing household labor, like preparing meals or providing care for dependents.
  • Look at the breakdown of how you and your reports spend your days and weeks. Knowing how Zoom culture can overload our expectations of productivity, are there ways to limit meeting time so team members can focus, recharge, and be generative in other ways? Consider introducing two to three no-meeting blocks throughout the week to offer much-needed headspace.
  • For many employees, employee resource and parent affinity groups were a lifeline during the pandemic. You might sponsor such an ERG at your organization. At a minimum, communicate to your reports that their participation in these groups is a valuable use of their time that you support.
  • In the US, we too often pass one person’s workload onto their colleagues in the case of temporary absences. Especially in cases with months of advance notice, like an impending parental leave, you can hire and pay designated leave backups. If that isn’t possible, pause the person’s projects until a person with bandwidth becomes available.
  • Normalize job sharing. Just as Millar Fisher and Winick co-authored their book, allowing space for their other considerable labor and commitments, there may be responsibilities that can be split in your workplace. In some European countries, there is a regular pattern of pairing work partners who split the projects, pay, and work time of what would otherwise be a single full-time role. Sometimes the duo work on the same days for ease of communication, and in other instances they split the week between them for consistent coverage. The results of this more collaborative, flexible approach may not just be happier, less burned-out employees, but better work.

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I went into my conversation with Millar Fisher and Winick expecting to talk about optimizing physical workspaces to be more caregiver-friendly. (Alexandra Lange, who wrote the foreword for the book, has compiled strategies for how to do so for Bloomberg.) But Millar Fisher stresses that rearranging shared space isn’t much of a sustainable solution: “It’s not actually about physical designs,” she says. “Most of the time, it is about changing people’s minds and mindsets, or being able to make space in a much more literal and metaphorical way in terms of people’s expectations.”

In your workplace, what constraints can you identify? How do your policies alleviate or perhaps amplify those constraints? What meaningful modifications can you introduce? While there’s no substitute for federal policy to support caregivers, we all can apply design approaches to improve experiences for all who are born and for all who work. When we care about care, we can find solutions for working parents that can make work more humane for everyone.

Emily Goligoski leads the audience research practice at The Atlantic. She previously directed research for the Membership Puzzle Project at New York University after working as a user experience researcher at The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter as @emgollie.

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