Paurvi Bhatt is fighting to bring "working daughters" out of the shadows.
Bhatt began identifying herself as one when she was in her late 20s, after her father, Harshad, was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the cruelly young age of 58. Bhatt and her mother became his primary caregivers, so much so that even during job interviews Bhatt would keep her cellphone in plain sight, telling potential employers that she needed to be always connected in case Dad needed her.
As the only child of immigrant parents, Bhatt clung to the working-daughter label, which she could slip into conversation to give colleagues a quick framework for understanding her family pressures. While some of her peers in the workplace were adapting to the stresses of new parenthood, Bhatt wanted those around her to know that her obligations were just as urgent.
"There are working mothers, but I'm actually a working daughter," she would say.
She discovered those two words gave her strength.
"My family responsibilities were so dear to me, and I made sure that people knew that this is a part of who I am," Bhatt told me. "My parents were always part of the package."
For the first time in her life, Bhatt — now 55 and an executive with a large medical technology firm in Minnesota — is taking family leave. This time, it's to care for her mother, Rekha, 78, who is battling her fifth recurrence of cancer and a broken femur from a recent fall.
Bhatt knows that she's lucky. She works for a company that provides paid family leave and other benefits for caregivers. As a senior leader in the corporate world, she enjoys more clout, support and flexibility than low-wage workers in this country. That's why it's so important for her to model what it looks like to care for aging parents after they spent much of their lives caring for her. Bhatt just wishes this safety net would exist for every person who had to take care of a seriously ill family member.
It might seem ironic that Bhatt is fighting to be recognized alongside working parents. Remember, this is America, the only wealthy nation in the world that does not have a national paid parental leave policy.
We came close to redressing that when President Biden proposed 12 weeks of family and medical leave, a plan that was scaled back to four weeks before it was eliminated altogether last month. Short of a fix, our country will remain an unkind outlier that relies on women to carry most of the burden of caring for the young, the old and the sick.
Women make up 61% of unpaid caregivers of adult family members in this country, according to a 2020 report from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving. COVID-19 has only widened the caregiving chasm across gender.
When our loved ones were dying and our children were shut out of classrooms and day care, millions of women left the workforce. And in the corporate world, where white-collar women were less likely to be driven out than in front-line roles, research suggests they are disproportionately burned out. One in three professional women have considered leaving the workplace or downshifting their careers, according to a national study by McKinsey & Co.
As Baby Boomers age and need care, more working daughters will find themselves stretched thin — and that trend could erode the small gains we've made to nudge toward gender equity in boardrooms and C-suites, Bhatt argues.
"The fear is that you're losing women at a different stage of life and career after all of this investment in them," she said.
In her Indian American culture, children are often expected to care for their aging parents under one roof. Even when Bhatt was growing up in Illinois and the Twin Cities, she never imagined a future that departed from that tradition. (Near the end of her father's life, as his dementia worsened, Bhatt did place Harshad in assisted living.)
More recently, as the coronavirus forced nursing homes into lockdown, Bhatt remembers seeing images of families separated by window panes as people raced to find their parents and grandparents the only way they could. Bhatt, who has lived with her mother for more than a decade, did not find herself in that heartbreaking situation.
"In that moment, it was the first time I said, 'Omigod, what a blessing. I'm not rushing to do that,' " she said.
As we come out of the pandemic, there has to be a way for more Americans who yearn to keep their elders close and in the home to do so, she says.
Bhatt, who was trained in public health, has been driven to improve social outcomes throughout her career with companies, nonprofits and the government. She wants to see policymakers help standardize in-home care, and rethink our systems to support it. She also notes that women of color are often the ones working in home health care, and they deserve fair wages.
Before she took her leave in late September, Bhatt sought the advice of working moms on how they made the most of their maternity leave. She could relate to their stories of feeling overwhelmed with work and family while not quite ready to shut off their careers.
While Bhatt has been able to take a break from work, she is still working: feeding and bathing Rekha, giving her meds, checking her vitals and taking her to the doctor. This past week she and her mother have been celebrating the holiday of Diwali together, burning candles and celebrating light over darkness.
Bhatt champions the thought of a federal safety net that would enable more working children like her to pause from their professions to provide this sacred kind of care.
"It's allowing me to step away, but not leave," she said. "We can't lose women at this point."