During every conference call or video meeting, my anxiety goes up. What if my son starts crying? What if he wants to be fed? What if he needs a diaper change? Am I being a bad mother if I’m not giving my son full attention? A bad employee? Both?
The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that millions of parents are newly working from home across the United States, facing the same struggles and asking themselves the same questions. Suddenly, there has been a revolution in remote work. Gallup polling in April found that the percentage of people working remotely doubled in less than a month. And in what Gallup Senior Editor Lydia Saad observed is a possible sign of changes to come in the post-Covid-19 era, the majority of these workers say they want to continue working from home as much as they can once their workplaces reopen.
With the sudden surge of workers at home, a number of already existing crises have come to a new head. And with families across the nation struggling to make ends meet, parents lucky enough to have jobs they can safely perform from home are scrambling to manage child care, too. As Melissa Gira Grant wrote here last week, much of this labor has fallen to mothers, who are putting in 8 to 12 hours with their employers and then taking on the “collapsed first and second shift” of “caring for everything (and everyone) else under your own roof.” With the disease rate soaring, the public health crisis has magnified our country’s crisis of care.
Myra, who asked that I not use her real name, has a baby girl and had been working from home as a software developer for a bank before the pandemic hit. When the pandemic hit, she approached her manager to talk about shifting her schedule outside the hours of 9 to 5. It’s been a huge relief, she said.
It “allowed me to spend more time with my newborn daughter, to recover properly from my c-section, and to truly be there, granted virtually, for all the important meetings.”
But the seamlessness of that transition is an outlier: Without having a uniform policy of allowing for flexible time across workplaces, most employees are at their bosses’ mercy to make room for family or other personal matters. In normal times, this has broad implications for working parents across the country: many working parents feel it is harder for them to advance in their job or career. During a pandemic, as many companies are turning to different modes of surveillance to enforce productivity even in highly unusual and distracting circumstances, it can make job stability feel tenuous as unemployment currently edges towards 35 million and a recession looms.
“There is no way moms can do this without external support,” Sarah, a project manager for an accounting company who also asked that I not use her real name, told me. She recently decided to take a three-month unpaid leave from her job as she experienced what she described as childcare burnout. “I didn’t want my career to be jeopardized,” she added. But now that she is preparing to transition back to work, “I am constantly feeling inadequate and mentally preparing myself to receive a notice of termination since I don’t always have the bandwidth to care for my children while simultaneously working,” she said. Her boss’ general response to conversations about child care, she said, has been to shrug her off.
Even as the present crisis feels virtually impossible to navigate, many working parents are just as uneasy about returning to “normal.” Child care workers will still need greater protection, better pay, and more respect. And working parents will once again return to a situation where childcare costs often surpass the costs of housing, tuition, transportation, and food. In 30 states and the District of Columbia childcare costs exceed the average cost of college tuition. Given all that, it’s no surprise, but no less unacceptable, that 83 percent of parents with children under the age of five struggle to access affordable, high-quality early learning programs for their children. In fact, the annual cost of infant care takes up more than half of a millennial’s median salary. And because many families are currently burning through savings, the tightrope walk of affordability will only become that much more complicated.
Abdullah, a new father who started to work from home as a support specialist at the onset of the pandemic, has felt reluctant to talk to his manager about his childcare responsibilities at home. “I can’t just delay a meeting because my son is crying,” he told me.“There is no culture of that at our workplace. It’s seen as a sign of weakness that is unspoken.” When asked if he would broach the topic with his employer, he hesitated. “The culture of change needs to be fixed when it comes to child care. Regardless of mom or dad taking care of kids, it cannot be ignored.” He said his bosses sometimes complain how employees’ children are hampering productivity. All of it has left him feeling vulnerable. He only started his job in early March and there have already been many layoffs. He’s concerned speaking up will put a target on his back.
When I first started working from home, I was terrified that I was doing horrible at both parenting and working. But then, as the reality of the situation set in, I began to embrace it as I realized I needed to be comfortable with my son present with me during work hours—then hopefully others would follow.
“I’m happy to do that call if you don’t mind my son in the background,” I now tell colleagues. More often than not, it was widely welcomed. I’m grateful for that, but realize it’s not the norm. Embracing the situation you’re in can only get you so far if your job doesn’t make real accommodations around child care, school, and other parenting responsibilities. This was the situation before our once-in-a-generation global pandemic, and it will be the situation after. Something has to give.