All These COVID-19 Economic Relief Packages Leave Out Childcare And Are Sexist As Hell

COVID-19 has destroyed the basic social compact working parents signed up for when we decided to have children. Now, we’re forced to do it all. At once. This is impossible. The other option is to lose our jobs like tens of millions of other Americans.

This is a childcare emergency.

There are no personal solutions to fix it.

Color-coded ‘schedule charts’ for the kids or sweet website recommendations for how to view the Louvre collection virtually, from a pogo stick, while the kids learn how to meditate following prompts in ancestral languages aren’t going to solve it.

Re-opening the tattoo parlors, barber shops, bowling alleys, and movie theaters? Also worthless.

We need to just say it out loud:

The federal government’s economic relief packages for COVID-19 are sexist as hell. In leaving the childcare crisis unaddressed, the whole response is sexist as hell.

Parenting and childcare are economic activities that are not being compensated. Guess why? This has always been considered women’s work, even when men and non-binary folks do it, and that’s why it’s been under-appreciated and underpaid.

I’m seeing lots of government aid packages and promises for businesses that promise not to lay off their workers. Where are the government aid packages and promises for businesses that:

  • Reduce hours for caregivers on staff without reducing their pay
  • Give caregivers on staff PAID LEAVES OF ABSENCE even if they theoretically can ‘work from home’ at 3 a.m. while the baby sleeps for 20 minutes
  • Provide incentives for social-service organizations that are currently closed to innovate on safe provision of childcare for essential workers and also workers, period

Why are our legislators not talking about the childcare crisis facing working families in communities around the country? 

Our schools, summer camps, and childcare providers are closed. It is critical that the *actual government* address this issue. Legislators, cabinet secretaries. All the schools have closed and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is doing what, having a manicure in Georgia? Have you heard anything from her since the coronavirus crisis began? How about Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia? Has he opened his mouth once about the extreme challenges faced by working parents ever (duh, childcare affordability has always been a crisis), much less now when we’re all tearing our hair out and struggling to breathe?

Where are the think tanks with papers about ways to climb out of this childcare crisis in a way that also offers protections for public health during a global pandemic?

The time for innovation is now. If ‘relief’ and ‘reopening’ ideas don’t prominently feature the needs of working families, they are not worth printing on paper.

 

Parenting In A Pandemic

March 13, 2020. That is the day our family entered lockdown in support of public health due to the coronavirus pandemic. Frustrated with the inaction of our school district, I woke up that morning and sent an email to my daughter’s teacher explaining that I was pulling her out of school. Later that day the district agreed, ending classes the following Monday.

Homeschooling and working full-time is not a joke. I have been known to work hard my whole life, and I have never been so exhausted. This is a beautiful, impossible situation.

The beauty is that love for each other, our neighbors, our community, our country, and our world is what keeps us home, doing these hard things. My daughter, who is six, and I have never been so close. In this room where I try to work and she works through tears and disappointments and joys and boredom we are seeing sides of one another that had been muted for the other by the school day or the workday, unseen and unknown.

What we are doing is much less hard than others: Neither her father nor I have lost our jobs. No one in our family has been sick with COVID-19. We do not work in medicine, we do not have to face the terrifying situations of first responders — and let’s be clear, that includes not just medical professionals but also people working in grocery stores, funeral parlors, and other essential services — who are exposed to large groups of people, many of them infected, and seeing the hardest times of people’s lives. We are not part of the Black community that is dying at alarming, disproportionate rates, a reflection of the racism that is always there and always making the worst things worse.

For us it is less dramatic but also hard, just as it’s hard for everyone else. Social distancing is exaggerating the pain points of our idiosyncrasies, creating deeply personal and widely divergent horrors. While I get up at 4 a.m. trying to make it all happen and end many days feeling exhausted, defeated, and depressed by the impossible expectations to work and homeschool a delightful and small only child of many urgent needs and feelings (it is cyclical, and I’ve learned to plan for it, accept and honor the feelings, and rise to try again), I recognize that what I am locked in is the exact opposite of others locked in by themselves, haunting to pass the time.

Of course we are inexorably changed, but no, perhaps this is who we are and always were. A mother and a daughter throwing socks at each other for an indoor snowball fight on Spring Break rather than going to Disneyland, frozen in the moment created by leaders who failed us and a horrible disease continuing to rob people of their ability to breathe and stealing jobs people depend on to put food on table. Parenting my daughter is the hardest and most unrealistic and absolutely best part of this pandemic. Because of her, there is no time for fear. Because of her, time that might be spent in sorrow is instead consumed with going off the never-attainable script provided by the school district and teaching her lessons about Chernobyl, because why not. I love her and now we, too, are living through the aftermath of self-absorbed, autocratic leaders who attempted to dismiss an invisible enemy as no big deal until insufficiently impeded scientific inevitabilities took over and showed everyone.

Holding A Baby And An iPhone

I live-tweeted labor. The first night of my daughter’s life I realized I was going to be nursing for long stretches overnight; I began using my phone to stay awake. Every night I spent hours nursing her quietly, listening to her sweet little swallows, and surfing the Internet like it was the best Gidget movie in the world. I developed eye strain, and my carpal tunnel flared up again.

Eventually maternity leave was over. I held a different job then, one I loved, but I was also a rare part-time employee on a staff of full-timers. That meant checking in on email all the time anyway, so I wouldn’t fall behind.

Work-life balance is this elusive thing. It’s a psychic pair of skinny jeans, designed to punish. Work-life balance is not a gender-neutral phrase. Work-life balance may as well be Morse code for throwing women to the wolves. We are expected to take care of our families, make nice food that looks like it belongs on Instagram, and shatter glass ceilings through perseverance and sheer will. (Friendly reminder: There are no personal solutions to societal problems.)

Generally I suck at work/life balance, as do a good portion of the people I know, because we are expected to work all the time and we have the Internet with us almost everywhere we go.

And yet I’m not complaining: I’m fortunate that my line of work so happens to be my life passion. Still, if work/life balance means having two separate spheres of life that are both well-tended, nope, I don’t have that.

I’m the woman who is opening up Slack for conversations with a colleague while my daughter eats in a high chair next to me. You can catch me firing off work emails at the playground. And I’m ashamed by how often I look at Facebook when she is in my care.

My daughter has taught me a love of presence. We should listen to crickets and wonder what they are. An airplane overhead is worth pointing to and talking about. Silence is a lavish gift — seriously, take it when you can get it.

It is hard for me to reconcile my actual and/or perceived need to be always available online with being the attentive mother I want to be. And yet, I am terrifically proud to be a working mother, and I claim that title. I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to realize that the woman suffrage poster in her bedroom is not just wall art, and that her mom is a troublemaker.

Ultimately, I am doing both. Sometimes I hold my daughter and write emails. Sometimes I push the stroller and go on Twitter rants.  I am a parent and a working feminist at the same time.

On Motherhood And Employment

In our culture, pregnancy is viewed as something you did to yourself. Having a child comes with consequences you must be prepared to accept. This isn’t gender neutral; it’s no accident that women’s reproductive capacity is reduced to a supposedly objective decision-making matrix that sets up women as a class to fail.

On any given day, cultural and political leaders will portray children as punishments for casual sex; as luxuries for wealthy families; and at their most heinous, as ruses for public benefits or citizenship status.

The idea of pregnancy and children as consequences for which women must pay plays out in many sectors of our lives, including restrictions upon reproductive rights, and punitive attacks on the social safety net.

Here I will discuss some of the negative consequences for women in the workplace. I say women intentionally; although not all women are or will become mothers, it is often anticipated they will. So even a woman who has no intention of having children is often unfairly judged by her actual and prospective employers.

The United States does not guarantee paid parental leave. Today pregnant workers still face inadequate workplace protections, as made clear by the failure of Congress to pass a Pregnant Workers Fairness Act that would simply clarify that employers must offer minor accommodations when necessary, such as increased bathroom breaks or lighter lifting duties. A year of day care costs more than a year in public college in 31 states.

These are not just women’s issues or family issues; these are massive economic problems that constrain our economy.

But, I’d argue, our cultural attitudes suck at least as much as our institutional failures to accommodate the reality of parents who work, a reality that resoundingly ends in undervaluing women in their personal lives and on the job.

I have a toddler. It has only been a few years since I was in my early thirties, single, and facing all sorts of biological clock-type questions about whether I wanted to have kids. Bluntly, this kind of pressure can destroy a dating life (if you want one) — I have watched it happen with friends and experienced variations of it myself. But even more, I wish that some of those people who wondered about me being single would have instead asked what I was reading, or working on, or thinking about current events.

If and when women do have children, the very real work they turn around and put into caring for those children is often portrayed as heroic (“the hardest job in the world”), which may be well-intentioned but is ultimately patronizing since caregiving for one’s own family is put on a pedestal but neither compensated nor respected in the marketplace. In portraying the motherly woman as idol, this false heroism also excuses men in heterosexual child-rearing relationships from stepping up to do their fair share.

And on the job? Mark Zuckerberg once said of Facebook having younger (i.e., childless) employees:

“Young people just have simpler lives. We may not have a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”

What’s important, apparently, is to be found in those corners of the office where working moms don’t hang out late at night.

You might think, “What the fuck, Zuck?!” and write it off, but I’ve heard versions of this riff in explicitly feminist settings. In one example, I heard a non-profit executive express resentment that women with children didn’t have to work as much as she did. In another, I heard a consultant express concern that a boss who worked standard business hours because of her kids didn’t understand her younger employees needs to come in later in the day.

The first case is frankly bullshit. There’s a cliche going around that if you want something done, you should give it to a mom — and that’s often true. I know motherhood has greatly increased my time management skills. If I need to get something done, I no longer plan to get it done later — that leaves too much margin for error when a toddler depends on me. Further, it’s unfair because many employees smoke and take smoke breaks, or go on long lunches with friends, or leave early to play recreational sports.

The second case greatly concerns me, because ultimately what concern over the supposed rigidity of a working mom’s office schedule says is that a woman with children isn’t fit to make decisions, and isn’t fit to judge how her team should work, including whether they should keep the same hours. In other words, that a mom isn’t fit to be the boss.

Yes, dads get some crap in the workplace, too, but rarely if ever will you hear it suggested that he’s not pulling his weight, or he’s not fit to be the boss, because he has kids. It’s assumed a woman will step up for him when junior throws up all over the classroom on presentation day.

My college thesis examined the failure of the feminist movement (at the time, so we’re talking 2002) to tackle the problem of child care in a visionary way and as a major rallying cry — specifically, why it costs so much, why quality is so varied, and why it is inaccessible to so many. The voices calling for universal child care, or Social Security contributions for caregivers, are too few and far between.

Ultimately the conclusion I reached is that liberal feminism is too invested in theories of bootstraps individualism, and that acknowledging caregiving as gendered, much less a societal obligation (it takes a village) rather than a personal lifestyle, could be seen as threatening to undermine the “long way” you’ve come, “baby.”

I still believe, to an extent, that’s true, but to another extent I would argue today that the failure to progress also sits largely in the friendly and willing cooptation of many feminist organizations by the Democratic Party, which throws bones to the ladies as a matter of electoral convenience and sometimes deeply felt principle, but never should be confused with a movement making radical demands for social change. Although it has been.

I believe these dynamics are at play when we consider why it is not equal to be a mother, or for that matter a woman, in the workplace.