The other day, while I was trying to listen on a work call, my two-year-old daughter fell and busted her lip. There was a mouthful of blood and a lot of tears, but she’s fine. I, on the other hand, am not.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I told my husband.
A day after the busted lip, I dropped a glass while distracted on another work call. A shard got in my eye and, judging by the pain, it might still be there. I haven’t been to an eye doctor because when would I have time for that?
The day after the shard, I was on another work call (are you noticing a theme?) when my daughter tugged on my arm and I accidentally hung up. When I dialed back in, I forgot to mute myself and then 30-something people on the call heard my daughter singing “Rain rain, go away, come again another day.”
Like I said, I can’t do this anymore.
I went back to work full-time when my daughter was five months old—a generous maternity leave by American standards. Even with her in daycare during my work hours, I was overwhelmed with all that was required of me in a normal day. I couldn’t just be an employee during work hours; I had so many other roles—paying bills on my lunch break (household CFO), responding to texts about playdates (event coordinator), ordering diapers online (inventory manager), and bookmarking recipes for dinner (head chef), to name a few.
According to Google, dreaming of a two-headed snake means you’re feeling pulled in two different directions. When I became a working mom, I started having dreams of a four-headed snake. During this pandemic, when my daughter’s preschool closed and I was forced to work from home while also caring for her, I started having the snake dream again. Except, in this one, the snake has more heads than I can count. It’s no wonder I’ve had insomnia.
There are two options. One: Resign from my full-time job (I’m a writer at an advertising agency) and rely on unpredictable freelance work for income. Two: Send my daughter back to preschool.
Neither of these options is great.
In southern California (where I live), the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb. For a while, we averaged about 100 new cases per day in my county; recently, we neared 300 in one day. According to the CDC, children appear to be lower risk for COVID-19, so that is some comfort. And my daughter’s school assures us they have safety protocols in place—temperature checks at the door, sanitizing throughout the day, teachers wearing masks full time. But, how do you keep toddlers from putting their hands all over each other and coughing in each other’s faces? You don’t. You can’t. My daughter will get the virus at some point. While she is likely to have mild symptoms (or no symptoms at all), the concern is her spreading the virus to others—not just in our immediate family, but in the world.
Recently, The New York Times asked 511 epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists when they expect to resume 20 activities of daily life, and only 30% of them said they would send their children back to school, camp, or day care this summer. The majority (55%) said they would do so in the next 3 to 12 months.
I want to ask a follow-up question to those 55%: How do you plan to work and make money for your families in the next 3 to 12 months while your children are home with you? (I’d also like to talk to the 1% of respondents who said they would not send their child on a playdate ever again).
Perhaps those 55% have family members who are offering childcare. Perhaps those 55% have one-income households so a parent is available for full-time childcare. I don’t know the specifics, but I do know this: Someone has to care for the children.
In my case, it is tempting to resign from my job and assume that responsibility. After all, it is easier for my psyche to label my job as the main stressor than it is to label my daughter. I just can’t see my daughter as “a stressor.” She is not getting in the way of my work; my work is getting in the way of her.
But resigning from my job has a number of cons. The most obvious: Loss of income. Many of us need to work to pay our bills. My husband and I could get by without my income if we moved to another area with a lower cost of living, but is that the answer? Upending our entire lives so I can quit my job and take care of my daughter until there is a vaccine available for this nebulous virus?
Then there is this: I want to work. I have worked full-time for nearly twenty years. Work gives me a sense of purpose and competence and esteem. I’m good at my job. It feels good to be good at something on a consistent basis. It feels good to be respected and validated. Any mother knows that taking care of a small child does not come with many pats on the back (and it certainly doesn’t come with a lunch break…or any break for that matter).
I am also resistant to step out of the workforce because I know so many women are needing to make that decision and it feels like a crushing blow to feminism. I hear Freddie Mercury in my head: “Another one bites the dust.”
This pandemic has been incredibly hard on women. As stated in a New York Times article: “…women have carried an outsized share of the burden, more likely to lose a job and more likely to shoulder the load of closed schools and day care. For many working mothers, the gradual reopening won’t solve their problems, but compound them—forcing them out of the labor force or into part-time jobs while increasing their responsibilities at home.”
In the same article, Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and public policy, is quoted as saying, “We could have an entire generation of women who are hurt…They may spend a significant amount of time out of the work force, or their careers could just peter out in terms of promotions.” This is a big deal, recognized as such by the United Nations who stated, “Even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.”
The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s is largely remembered as being about reproductive rights. While that was part of it, it was also about expanding access to childcare so women would have more freedom to work and contribute outside the home if they wanted to do so.
In What I Told My Daughter: Lessons from Leaders on Raising the Next Generation of Empowered Women, Nancy Pelosi writes in her essay, “Today, women have endless opportunities, but there is still a missing link in our evolution in society and in the economy.” That missing link? Childcare. She goes on: “Change is coming. It is inevitable that women will take their rightful place, because it’s right for us, it’s right for our families, and it’s right for the country. We cannot succeed as a country unless we recognize this and make sure that every family has access to quality, affordable childcare.”
Childcare was a problematic issue before the pandemic, in that the United States does not offer it as a universal benefit (unlike many other advanced industrial countries). As stated by the Gender Policy Report, “Given that women are still often primarily responsible for home and childcare obligations, full participation in the public spheres of work, education, and politics has long hinged on solid social support and assistance in the relatively ‘private’ realms of households and families.”
Childcare in the midst of this pandemic has become exponentially more complicated. Now, families (like mine) may have access to childcare, but valid concerns about using it. Meanwhile, companies are continuing to expect their employees to work as if they do not have children playing at their feet (or sitting on their laps, or screaming in their faces).
What are working mothers supposed to do?
I do not have the answer to that question, but my husband and I did make a decision for our family. My daughter went back to preschool yesterday. She was so excited to be there that I basically had to restrain her for the temperature check. I had my first quiet work day in three months, a day in which I not only had time to make a to-do list, but time to check things off of it too. I also took a shower and shaved my legs.
I do not know if we made the right decision. My husband thinks we’ll be sick in less than a month. I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, at least we have health insurance—from my job.