I’ve been promising my editor something about childcare during the coronavirus for at least a month. In normal circumstances, after years of blogging, a mid-length opinion piece requires a couple of days, maybe three for something particularly thorny. The difference, of course, is that until March, my toddler went to daycare, and now I’m trying to write to the sound of Dora the Explorer and I just got hit in the shoulder with an errant milk cup and had to stop writing and firmly remind my child not to throw things in the house, especially not toward the ceiling fan where it could rebound and land god knows where, breaking god knows what. This constitutes a very good day for a mother trying to hold down a job during the coronavirus pandemic, which has made it impossible for even the most privileged to ignore America’s complete failure to achieve even a minimally functional childcare system. And with the ravages of the virus threatening to jeopardize the broken patchwork we do have, it’s a make-or-break moment for the future of American women.
After several months of covid-19, parents are getting by with some combination of bribery, increasingly baroque entertainments (this is the year of the at-home caterpillar grow kit), immense amounts of screentime, and just letting their kids run wild, and most people aren’t lucky enough to work at a supposedly feminist website with a boss who is committed to working parents. But the simple fact is that kids are a lot of work, and even taking this as an opportunity to develop some independent play skills still requires keeping one ear out for trouble, all the time, the radar constantly scanning for disaster, any little blips disrupting hard-won concentration. I started the year with lots of big ideas and plans; now every workday is an exercise in triage, and, despite the proliferation of trend pieces, I have not been making any sourdough. I have begun to hate the Paw Patrol theme song, which never fails to make my shoulders tense as I start tallying the screen time total for the day, the week, the year, wondering just bad it is that we’ve overrun the recommended screentime every day since the pandemic began months ago.
The situation is getting worse as the novelty of the coronavirus wears off, even as cases continue to climb across the country and hospitals are flooded with patients, demonstrating that this virus is far from done with us. A recent guide to “Zoom etiquette” from the Wall Street Journal typifies the attitude that is beginning to take hold, urging everyone to turn on their cameras even as they discourage “lurkers,” i.e., children: “At many places, pets and children are no longer the cute intrusions they were in the early days of the pandemic.” A woman in San Diego has already filed suit against her former employer, alleging she was fired because her employers were unhappy at her juggling work and childcare. The drive toward reopening, even as many schools plan to go online-only, will only intensify the crunch, as many parents are expected to return to offices. And, of course, many parents never worked from home in the first place. Parents who work at grocery stores, in slaughterhouses, and at delivery companies have been there all along, doing the best they could for their kids.
There’s nothing new about the unavailability of safe, high-quality, easily accessible childcare for those parents. With hardly any state support, even well before the advent of covid-19, costs were already ruinous. In many states, daycare is on average more expensive than college tuition. And with the weakening of organized labor, working-class jobs in the service sector are often plagued by unstable schedules that barely cover the rent and make it difficult to plan for childcare, much less pay for it. In 2013, the New Republic published an investigation into the sorts of poorly regulated, patchwork solutions parents are consequently forced into, and it’s the sort of story that will give you nightmares, opening as it does with the description of a fire at a home daycare where several children died.
“In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job,” Deb Perelman wrote in a lauded but woefully short-sighted piece for the New York Times. But what she identifies isn’t a new state of affairs—it’s just that the coronavirus has intensified the crisis such that it has spread to upper-middle-class women. The entire American framework for the care of children assumes the presence of a nuclear family living on a single wage with a mother staying home. (And the family is, invariably, assumed to be white.) It’s a default that people have fought to defend: In the 1970s, Richard Nixon vetoed a bill for universal childcare at the urging of his advisor Pat Buchanan, saying that it would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.”
This plays out in ways big and small. Long summer vacations, events and meetings in the middle of the workday, and sign-up sheets for volunteering are built into schools, assuming that mom is still at home. Anybody who doesn’t fit the framework—single mothers, parents who don’t work 9-5 office jobs, families where both parents work, especially out of economic necessity—is punished. Black mothers, who are already surveilled by the state, are jailed for letting their kids play at the park alone while they work. The process of seeking any sort of material assistance in America is punitive by design. Welfare was essentially reformed out of existence with laws that required mothers to find poorly paying jobs that demanded whatever childcare they could get, and even now, the Trump administration is trying to make it harder and harder to get food stamps, even as more and more Americans need them.
The problem is liable to get worse, in ways that a vaccine won’t fix even when one arrives. Despite their high costs, childcare centers are run on razor-thin margins, without much cushion to survive an unprecedented disruption like this one. A recent survey estimated that 40 percent of childcare centers could close as the result of the pandemic if they don’t get additional public assistance. Childcare providers that serve low-income families and children with special needs, often reliant on already paltry state and federal subsidies, are particularly at risk for closing, according to a recent report. Those closures would leave even more families without affordable options or without any options at all, for that matter.
And just like a catastrophic highway accident, triage looks different depending on whether it’s minutes from a well-funded level one trauma center or a resource-starved rural hospital. The richest families can afford nannies and private tutors, of course, cloistered in expansive homes. Another solution is emerging for parents who may not have over-the-top wealth but do have plentiful resources: pandemic homeschooling pods, where a small group of families band together and either teach themselves or hire somebody to take on the job.
Meanwhile, other women will slip out of the workforce to do a job vital to society’s continued functioning; some of those women will be wealthy, sure, but others will be those in a two-parent household simply don’t make enough to “justify” the astronomical cost of childcare. They’ll accumulate a big gap on their resume that hiring managers down the line will dismiss as a blank space, time wasted as far as corporate America is concerned, and find themselves with much-reduced earning potential and not enough to fall back on in their later years, particularly if they get divorced. The lack of childcare is already keeping more women on the unemployment rolls, according to a report in Politico.
And women who don’t have any choice—for whom it’s not about justifying the expense of childcare, but about finding whatever childcare they can in order to continue putting food on the table—will be forced to choose increasingly precarious options for their children, whether that’s unlicensed daycares, leaving the kids home alone before they’re ready, or creating a personal patchwork through family and friends.
Coronavirus, too, demonstrates the importance of not just universal childcare, but a version that is equitable and just. Already, too many childcare workers are minimum wage, unable to afford the costs of caring for their own children. Forcing teachers and childcare workers into classrooms with too many kids and too little protective equipment with no regard for their health just means sacrificing one group of women for the careers of another. We need a national commitment to caring for kids in a way that is well-funded, evenly distributed, and cognizant of different needs and circumstances, not simply because it’s economically productive, but because it’s the right thing to do.