The Parent Trap

Covid-19 has exacerbated capitalism’s impossible demands on mothers.

Having children is one of the great mysteries of life. Like having sex, or falling in love, or developing faith in a higher power, it’s an experience that falls short of any description.

Also like sex, love and religion, having children sucks about half the time, and it particularly sucks now, thanks to the coronavirus.

I’m in a best-case situation—two employed work-from-home parents, taking care of one relatively well-behaved 2-year-old—and still, parenting under lockdown is a gauntlet, a months-long Kobayashi Maru test in which the only way to win is to realize the game is unwinnable. School is out, and may or may not reopen in the fall. Many summer camps and day cares are shut down. Playgrounds are cordoned off. The only safe place is the house, and while you’re in that house, you’re expected to do your job. It is impossible to be both continually available to one’s boss and continually available to one’s child. The things that seem “cute” at first, like tiny toddler voices announcing their need to potty during a call, quickly become irritants. Emails go unanswered; basic tasks are forgotten; Screen Time, the parent’s nemesis, comes to dominate your child’s waking hours. I woke up a few weekends ago to hear my neighbor, whose toddler is the same age as mine, standing on his porch and screaming “I NEVER SHOULD HAVE HAD A KID.”

I have little sympathy for my neighbor, mostly because his wife was indoors, caring for the child he did have. Talking about “parenting” under COVID is a bit of a dodge. What we’re talking about, most of the time, is mothering. The amount of mothering being asked of women under coronavirus is triggering a generational reset in gender roles, one which reveals that much of our 20th-century “progress” was an illusion.

Women are the ones hit hardest by this pandemic in nearly every respect – more likely to lose their jobs during the shutdown, more likely to be deemed “essential” workers and put on the frontlines, more likely to be single parents, and more likely to be poor. In particular, Latinas, who are overrepresented in sectors like childcare and domestic work, are the most unemployed demographic in the country (19% were unemployed as of June, an all-time high). And 74% of Black moms are the primary wage-earners for their households, meaning that they are hurt first and worst by job losses and the unavailability of childcare. Since stay at home orders began, the average Black mom has done 12 more hours of childcare per week than the average white mother. 

With no safety net in place, the virus can set off devastating chain reactions. Consider the Ohio family where both parents–a nanny and a construction worker–lost their jobs for taking time off work while one of them was hospitalized, or the single mom and tattoo shop owner interviewed by CNN whose shop was shut down indefinitely, leaving her to care for a small child on her life savings of $2,000.

This would be hard enough without the dread hand of Gender Roles descending, but Gender stops for no virus: When women are partnered with men, they are expected to keep doing the majority of the childcare. That division of labor appears immune to class differences: A joint study from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich found that women did more childcare than men at every income level, though the type varied—in the lowest income brackets, women did nearly twice as much routine childcare as men, whereas in higher-income households, men and women split childcare more equally, but women did over twice as much homeschooling.

The typical excuse for this is that women “choose” to take low-paying employment; their incomes are expendable, hence they can step back from work more easily. Yet the division of labor persists even when it’s comically inappropriate, as in the case of Aimee, a former tech company CEO recently profiled by The Lily, who resigned from her job mid-pandemic simply because her unemployed husband found childcare too tiring. Though Aimee claims she “chose” unemployment, the Lily profile clearly details the coercion her husband employed: When she tried to keep working, he relentlessly badgered her to “get off the computer,” and eventually instructed their son to stop calling her “Mom.” She’s unsure if or when she will find a new job.

It stands out that Aimee’s family has enough savings to live on during a period of long-term unemployment. But 28% of Americans have no savings at all. And while #NotAllMen are as hideously oppressive as Aimee’s husband, everyone, in capitalism, needs a wife. The demands of a full-time job are incompatible with parenting, and this is by design; it’s assumed that every full-time worker will have a shadow partner who does their domestic work for them. Historically, white-collar families have outsourced the labor of wifing to lower-paid women—housekeepers, nannies, day care workers—which gives middle- and upper-class women some measure of autonomy and upward mobility. Yet, with the coronavirus stripping away access to outside support, that mobility has been revealed to be an illusion. When outside support isn’t available, white-collar wives are coerced, guilted or bullied out of the workforce and into doing wife-work once again. It’s such an ingrained pattern that men don’t even realize they’re doing it: In one survey by the New York Times, 45% of fathers said they were doing the majority of the home-schooling in their households. Only 3% of their wives agreed.

Meanwhile, working-class women, who were already less able to access outside support, are forced into situations that are untenable, draining or dangerous. White-collar women are, to say the least, not helping: Consider the case of the nanny, interviewed by The Cut, who was commanded to pack up and move into her employer’s country house during lockdown. When she had to bring her grandchild, her pay was cut by over 50%, supposedly to cover the cost of his meals.

The coronavirus isn’t creating new problems so much as revealing the ones that were already there. Without the feminization of poverty, women would not be so vulnerable to economic catastrophe. If “progressive” middle- and upper-class marriages were founded on genuine egalitarianism, rather than outsourcing the women’s work to less privileged women, then Aimee might have been able to keep her job. The impossible schedules designed to edge parents out of the workforce, the lack of universal basic income for parents who need or want to stop working, the absence of universal childcare that would provide real support to single mothers and even the domestic playing field for women with male partners—those were all present before the virus. We were living in a house of cards, and our present situation is just what it looks like when that house falls down.

Universal basic income–which would allow parents more time for child care, and benefit non-parents as well–has started to seem a lot more feasible in recent months, and a wave of op-eds has called for more and better childcare. Yet these problems are too entrenched to be fixable with quick solutions. No matter what we tell ourselves about progress, our economic system still operate on the assumption that some woman, somewhere, will pick up the domestic slack. The solution is not to get back to “normal,” especially not if “normal” means endangering and exploiting more working-class women. It’s to look at this impossible, maddening Kobayashi Maru of a situation and decide that no one deserves it, and use that insight to create a better world.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 13, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.