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Rosie the Riveter had childcare; why don’t we?

By Helen Mayer

First published in The Riveter

Rosie the Riveter, the namesake for the Riveter community, could only become a feminist icon because she had access to childcare. In the summer of 2020, I discovered that the United States had only invested in childcare once, during World War II. Men were at war and women were called to work in factories. As a result, there was a clear imperative to invest in childcare. And yet even though the nature of work and the circumstances have changed, childcare hasn’t been invested in at the government level since the 1940s. We believe all the ways we’ve shifted during the pandemic will finally be a catalyst for action, because we refuse to go backwards. 

Over the past two years, a generation of mothers has been pushed out of the workforce and we haven’t yet built the systems to help them go back. Since March 2020, 3.5 million women with school-age children have left the workforce. While some of these women chose to leave, many were forced out by lack of childcare, lack of flexibility, and a strain on resources. I was one of them. 

Within a single week in March 2020, my first company stalled out, my twin toddlers' daycare shut down, and I became a stay-at-home parent by default. A few weeks later, I got a dream job offer but I had to turn it down because my family didn't have access to childcare we felt was safe, reliable, and affordable in the midst of the pandemic. I was so frustrated by the lack of safe options for childcare and I ended up starting Otter, a company matching families who need care with stay-at-home parents who can provide care. In the beginning, Otter was just me sitting behind a computer. I eventually matched over 3,500 stay-at-home parents with 3,500 families who needed care within the first six months of operations, empowering stay-at-home parents to earn a collective $20 million via the platform.

As the country faces a moment of transition when it comes to how we care for our children, women like me have had to consider what moving forward looks like for us. At Otter, we’re thinking about these women and about women who’ve chosen to be stay-at-home parents. We provide economic opportunity for women that meets them where they are. Stay-at-home moms can be compensated for their often invisible labor by providing care for other people’s children, while still getting to stay home with their own kids. And for women who need reliable and affordable childcare to be able to reenter the workforce, Otter provides a new and community-based solution. 

Otter is proud of how we’re meeting this moment of change, and a lot of that has to do with who we are. All year, but especially during Women’s History Month, Otter is proud that 100 percent of our leadership is women, even our Board. This is rare for a tech start-up and impacts everything we do—decisions that most disproportionately affect women are actually being made by a team that includes women and mothers who’ve been there. It makes all the difference. 

We’re coming at the childcare problem with a solution that is both groundbreaking and breathtakingly simple: we draw from a new supply of caregivers. But they aren’t really new, just untapped. These stay-at-home parents were already doing the work of tending to children, but they’d never been compensated for their work before. As someone who became a stay-at-home mom when I wasn’t expecting it, I was in a unique position to recognize this underutilized resource. And I realized the math adds up to incredible potential: 50 percent of American families can't afford childcare, while 25 percent of stay-at-home parents and their families live in poverty. 

Otter is also better for being led by women, some of whom are moms, because of their relevant life experience. I will only stand by a program that I myself would use and feel safe trusting with my children. That alone gives Otter a leg up. If it doesn’t work for families—for working parents, for stay-at-home parents, and for kids—then we won’t do it. 

It’s important that we celebrate the accomplishments of remarkable women like Rosie the Riveter. But we shouldn’t stop there. Let’s also work together to make sure women everywhere have access to safe, affordable childcare so we can meet more Rosies.

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