Working-class parents have long known that our childcare system, if one can even call it a system, is untenable. Even the cost of “affordable” childcare pushes hundreds of thousands of families into poverty each year. Barring paid care, many are forced to stitch together unwieldy arrangements, depending on grandparents and neighbors; for some, the inability to obtain care means taking a part-time job, or leaving the workforce altogether, which brings its own set of financial struggles. School is a sort of de facto childcare, but even the school year is designed for parents with resources, those who can, once summer hits, shoo their children off to camp.
Now, with the covid-19 pandemic, even the fairly well-off are realizing that the childcare system is impossible. Working parents have essentially been told since the beginning of the pandemic by all levels of our government to suck it up and figure out how to balance childcare, schooling, and work on their own. (That’s a charitable description—parents are really being told, “Eat shit and drop dead.”)
Lately, I’ve been talking to my oldest sister, who (along with her husband) is raising three school-age children while juggling two part-time jobs, and is quickly sinking into a pit of despair. After months of trying to navigate remote learning and childcare and work and everything else that makes up one’s life in the midst of a pandemic, she’s exhausted and frustrated. When she thinks about the upcoming school year, which will likely be a blend of in-person and at-home distance learning, she just loses whatever shred of optimism she has left.
“It’s a complete effing nightmare,” she texted me the other day. “I think we’re all just broken and defeated.”
And my sister is one of the “lucky ones”—she and her husband are able to work from home, and they have steady jobs with good pay. For single parents or working-class parents—who even in the best of times were already cobbling together a barely-workable patchwork of childcare, the situation is already familiar, and even more dire.
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The needs of working parents were already dismissed since long-before the covid-19 pandemic. But if wealthier families could offshore a portion of their home lives to working-class women, it’s become increasingly difficult to pretend that the needs of families can be addressed solely on one’s own.
Now the need for childcare has become a full-blown crisis—but one that has been painted as a sort of scheduling problem, something that can be fixed by individual households through better planning, fun activities, and lowered expectations, not as the political crisis it has always been.
There’s no better sign of how backward our government’s priorities are when our ineffective leaders are pushing for businesses and workplaces to reopen without making sure there are plans in place for schools—de facto childcare for most parents—to reopen safely, or plans for expanded and widely available childcare. The food writer Deb Perelman put it succinctly in the New York Times: “Let me say the quiet part loud: In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.” Working parents, she wrote, “are burned out because we are being rolled over by the wheels of an economy that has bafflingly declared working parents inessential.”
That this is unsustainable is a reality that many parents were already well aware of before covid-19. It’s just more obvious now that it is affecting a wider—and richer—swathe of people. The pandemic has not created a crisis, but only magnified it. Middle-class families are now getting a taste of what it’s like to have one’s needs ignored by those in power.
And it is women, and in particular women of color, who are being hurt the most; they are disproportionately employed as essential workers while taking on an outsized amount of work at home. Women, the New York Times noted recently, are “more likely to lose a job and more likely to shoulder the load of closed schools and day care” during the pandemic. And the push to reopen, the Times continued, “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.” Even in the early days of the pandemic, one out of every seven women surveyed by Syndio considered quitting their jobs due to the added burden of childcare. It’s hard not to imagine that the pandemic will push a generation of women out of the workplace and back home, not out of desire, but out of necessity—and with none of the financial support that would make that feasible for most.
And some employers seem anxious to speed up this process. In one particularly galling example, Florida State University recently announced in an email to its employees that beginning August, staff who work from home will no longer be allowed to spend even part of their workday caring for their children, reversing what they called a “temporary exception to policy.” As one FSU professor, Jenny Root, told the Lily, “My initial thought was, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do with [my kids]?” FSU officials, Root added, were “acting like they gave us this privilege to watch our children while we worked—when that’s literally what I had to do.” (On Thursday, after a severe backlash, university officials “clarified” that they “are only requesting that employees coordinate with their supervisors on a schedule that allows them to meet their parental responsibilities in addition to work obligations.”)
The home has for too long been seen as a private domain, an island sealed off from the rest of the world. But if nothing else, the covid-19 pandemic has laid bare how false that division is. Working parents and families have always deserved, and needed more. But no one seems willing to give it to them, even now.