For years, whenever anyone asked me for advice on starting a freelance writing career, I said “invest every dime you can in childcare so you can protect your work time.” When I wrote the acknowledgements to The Eating Instinct, I made sure to thank all of the babysitters and daycare teachers who had helped raise my daughters during the years I worked on the book. I also noted that this is the kind of thing female writers often do—because we are always asked who’s watching the kids—while male writers almost never need to explain how they can have a job and children simultaneously.
Well. Here we are on day whatever of the coronavirus pandemic. My six-year-old hasn’t been in school since March 12. We lost our other childcare on March 20 when New York ordered all non-essential workers to stay home. (Some states are defining all childcare as “essential,” but we felt strongly that since neither my husband or I are essential workers, we should not subject our nanny or our kids to the added risk. She’s home with full pay for as long we can swing it, because domestic workers are some of the hardest hit by the crisis.) It has taken me two hours to write this far into this essay because I keep stopping to help my first grader tearfully try to navigate a math app on her new laptop, which she’s so excited to use except for how she doesn’t know how to type. The two-year-old is watching her 5th millionth hour of Peppa Pig. Dan and I ostensibly have a schedule that enables us each to work 4-6 hours a day (about half our usual time) and trade off on kids, but we’re losing frequent chunks of that time to be our homeschooler’s IT department, to change diapers, to refill snack cups.
I want to be very clear that we are insanely grateful that so far, coronavirus is only impacting us with inconvenience and logistical challenges (and you know, the chronic sense of impending doom that we all walk around with now). Our family is healthy, safe, and we live in a woodsy neighborhood with a lot of hidden trails where we can safely social distance and still be outside. And we’ve both experienced truly wonderful moments of bonding with our kids that we probably wouldn’t have had in the rush of normal life.
But I’m seeing so many families struggle with these logistical challenges right now. The guy who owns the landscaping company I hire most years to mulch my flower beds came by to give an estimate (from six feet away!) with his four month old son in the truck. His wife is a nurse and working long shifts, so he has to bring his baby along to job sites, as long as he’s able to work. Our friends who own our beloved local independent bookstore had to send their staff home and close their storefront, but they’re trading off caring for their baby while working frantically to fill the online orders that will hopefully keep their business alive during this crisis. Another friend whose husband is still working as an attorney in one corner of their NYC apartment, is stuck on the other side of the apartment with two boys under the age of five who now need to learn to keep quiet during video conferences. Or maybe they don’t—I love this essay by Chloe Schama about how parents of all genders should be making our kids more visible to our colleagues right now, so at least coronavirus can once and for all make the case that we need federal paid family leave and workplaces that support families. (And, I would add, that we need to pay and value teachers and childcare workers like the essential and all-powerful sorcerers they are.)
So this struggle is very real and it’s going to be one of the most important non-health consequences of the pandemic. Right now I’m too deep in it to have any big ideas or solutions, but I think we’ve long known what it would take to support working families. The question is will we now, actually, be angry enough to demand these changes of our government and employers? Or are we all so exhausted from waking up at 5am to work before the kids get up (not to mention terrified of financial ruin) that when this is all over, we’ll just gratefully slide back into our old imbalanced lives?