I was bone tired. The first week of sheltering in place had been a blur of logging into school Zoom meetings, slapping together turkey sandwiches, unloading the dishwasher, taking my kids on long walks so we didn’t all turn on each other, and cooking dinner — sometimes (it felt) all at the same time. That’s when my husband came down from his makeshift office, looking as exhausted as I felt. “I really need a break,” he told me.
Before coronavirus, we’d divvied up the child care and chores in a way we both found fair. But the shutdown triggered a series of ruthless prioritizations that, at first, we lacked the language or space to address. Our jobs worked when we had child care. They didn’t without it. And because his pays the bills while mine is in freelance journalism — and is flexible, that magic word — it was mine that took the hit.
Within 48 hours in March, parents across the Bay Area lost schools, child care, sitters and help from grandparents. The idea of work-life balance became laughable, for those lucky enough to keep their jobs. In many dual-income households, the parent with the more “flexible” career often — and without fanfare or comment — picked up most of the child care. In heterosexual couples, that parent was usually the mother.
The phrase “instant regression” ricocheted around in my text chains with other moms. Was the lockdown a vacuum into which the past decades’ progress around gender and child care disappeared?
Seven weeks in, it’s clear that “regression” is too pat an explanation. Just having another parent to complain about is a privilege — the load on single parents right now is infinitely harder to bear. Still, the crisis has revealed how deeply entrenched our notions around gender, work and care go. Perhaps most of all, it demonstrates that feminism doesn’t work without child care.
Even when both parents are feminists.
“All of us, when we’re under stress, revert to the familiar,” says Myra Strober, a professor emerita of economics at Stanford who is working on a book called “Love and Money.” “Parents today may be in relationships that are more equal than in the past. But if they didn’t grow up in that situation, it’s so easy to revert.”
From a distance it may be easy to blame men. But we need to take a hard look at why so many dads, even when a pandemic has upended every facet of American life, feel like they can’t ask for time during business hours to help with child care.
Work-life balance isn’t really modeled for guys, says Andrew Ulmer, a San Francisco dad who left his startup job a few weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak. He is now watching his 4-year-old daughter full time while his wife works as head of content at a tech firm. “No one is saying, ‘Hey guys, if you want to spend more time with your families, do what you need to do,’” Ulmer says.
“His colleagues schedule calls all day long, and he feels obligated to be on them,” says Maury Argento of her husband, an engineer in San Francisco. The couple have a 1-year-old daughter who, before the pandemic, went to day care part time. “I wish he would stand up and say, ‘I have a family and a wife and I need more flexibility.’ But he doesn’t feel like he can ask for that right now.”
In fact, says Argento, her husband is working longer hours than before. “We finally had a conversation where we agreed that I would get 30 minutes a day to exercise, and that I should be able to take a shower by myself,” she says.
For parents who are usually committed to supporting both careers, the shutdown has created a brutal calculus around protecting the breadwinner. Before the pandemic, Argento worked part time as a sports massage therapist, ran an online marketplace and managed the family’s downstairs rental unit. Though she can no longer see clients or rent their unit, she could theoretically run the online business. But without child care, there simply isn’t time. “Because my husband makes a full-time paycheck and our daughter is on his health care, we don’t want to mess with that,” she says.
But economist Strober argues that we need to challenge the assumption that the person who makes less money or is in a less-senior position has more flexibility. “People who are higher up in an organization usually have more flexibility,” she says. “Part-time flexibility is not the whole story.”
Another challenge: With everyone stuck at home, experts say, pandemic parenting puts more pressure on the default parent — the one who handles most of the school and child care logistics, not to mention the one the kids are more likely to run screaming to. In most, though certainly not all, cases, this is the mother.
“The COVID-19 crisis has amplified the assumption that mothers bear the brunt of child care responsibilities,” says Gina Fromer, CEO of Children’s Council of San Francisco, a nonprofit that helps families find and afford child care (disclosure: I serve on the board). Children’s Council has seen the number of calls to its Family Services Team double since shelter in place. “Even during ‘normal times,’ most if not all of the inquiries we receive are from moms,” Fromer says.
This default parenting dynamic in heterosexual relationships starts early (research shows that same-sex couples share care more equally). In the U.S., mothers are much more likely to take parental leave, and reduce their working hours, than fathers, even if they continue to work full time. (The U.S. is the only developed country in the world without federal paid leave for parents.) The birth of a child barely makes a dent in the number of hours men work, says Joseph Altonji, a professor of economics at Yale, but “women respond a great deal.” Greater reliance on child care has narrowed that gap, but “there is still an asymmetry in response, and you’ll see that between men and women who both work full time.”
For many moms right now, it’s not just loss of work hours. It’s also the quality of those hours. The moms I spoke to all regularly juggled responsibilities during work calls — shoving dinner in the oven, helping kids with a homework problem — while their husbands had more privacy, a door to shut against the chaos. One mother was on a video conference call when her daughter appeared behind her, proudly holding a bloody lost tooth.
Alameda mom Soni Khatri has shifted much of her work (full time, in digital publishing) to nights and weekends. That enables her husband, an attorney, to work during the day while she takes on domestic and homeschooling responsibilities for their two kids. “My job is a bit more understanding that I need flexibility,” she says. “With my husband, there’s more pressure for ‘business as normal.’”
While child care is divided up more equally between parents who both have demanding jobs, remote learning is still mostly shouldered by the mother. Ann Pellegrini and her husband, who live in Menlo Park and both work at large tech companies, take turns watching their two young daughters, but Pellegrini oversees the majority of the remote learning for their first-grader and is “more of the enforcer.”
To be sure, the shelter-in-place orders have sparked some positive changes. Almost everyone I spoke to said they hoped that the crisis would normalize working from home for more parents. Dads have also had the opportunity to spend more time with their kids. “I feel like we split things even more equitably now,” says Allison Landa, who works part time as a freelance writer and editor while her husband works full time at Bayer Corp. in Berkeley. While her husband has always been hands-on (“he was raised by Amazons,” she says), he’s stepped up more now.
When we emerge from this crisis, perhaps we can put pressure on some of the assumptions the pandemic has laid bare. While there is clearly more cultural pressure on mothers to be the default parent, there is also intense cultural pressure on men to carry on with business as usual — no matter what is happening with their families.
As for our household, after those brutal early weeks, my husband and I have rallied around each other. He cheered when I got my first pandemic assignment, even though it meant an even crazier week for both of us (and less homeschooling and more “Trolls: The Experience” for our kids). We share a lot of gallows humor.
We also share the hope that we can emerge from this crisis with more appreciation — and pay — for child care providers, early educators and teachers. Parents, especially single parents, need more support. Perhaps after slogging along in quarantine for months, the country will finally wake up to the need for universal child care.
That might sound like a wild pandemic fever dream. It need not be.
Anna Nordberg is a freelance journalist in San Francisco who focuses on parenting and culture.