“Only the wealthy get to survive the pandemic unscathed”

Deb Perelman has written an interesting piece in the New York Times about working parents in the time of COVID-19.

Why am I, a food blogger best known for such hits as the All-Butter Really Flaky Pie Dough and The ‘I Want Chocolate Cake’ Cake, sounding the alarm on this? I think it’s because when you’re home schooling all day, and not performing the work you were hired to do until the wee hours of the morning, and do it on repeat for 106 days (not that anyone is counting), you might be a bit too fried to funnel your rage effectively.

…The consensus is that everyone agrees this is a catastrophe, but we are too bone-tired to raise our voices above a groan, let alone scream through a megaphone. Every single person confesses burnout, despair, feeling like they are losing their minds, knowing in their guts that this is untenable.

Of course there is an element of privilege here: there are many people who, long before COVID, were forced to work very long hours and sometimes multiple jobs just to scratch a living (and in America, get healthcare). They didn’t get to write about it in the NYT.

But that doesn’t mean Perelman doesn’t have a point. The response to COVID-19 means that in many parts of the world, many workers are now expected to do their jobs in the same hours from home. In addition to their full-time job they’re also expected to look after and teach their children, which is also a full-time job. And when politicians talk about re-opening the economy, those parents clearly aren’t being taken into consideration.

I’ve heard from parents who have the luck of a grandparent who can swoop in, or the deep pockets for a full-time nanny or a private tutor for their child when schools are closed. That all sounds enviable, but it would be absurd to let policy be guided by people with cushioning. If you have the privilege to opt out of the work force and wish to, enjoy it. But don’t wield it as a stick to poke others with because far more people are being forced to “opt out” this year and will never professionally or financially recover.

I resent articles that view the struggle of working parents this year as an emotional concern. We are not burned out because life is hard this year. We are burned out because we are being rolled over by the wheels of an economy that has bafflingly declared working parents inessential.

I’m one of the privileged ones (although I’m ineligible for the financial support the government ensures furloughed workers and some self-employed people get to keep the wolf from the door, so I’m not that privileged). I was already a home worker, I don’t have to work specific hours and because I co-parent I still have a few days when I can work in silence without also having to amuse or educate my children. But the effect on my productivity and availability has still been catastrophic: while I cannot be available for half of the usual working week, the people who employ me expect me to be. Trust me, it’s hard to write an accurate piece about something complicated, let alone broadcast live to the nation, when your six-year-old is bored senseless and loudly demanding entertainment.

Muddling through is doable for a short time. I’ve done it for four months, albeit four months that have wiped out all my savings. But what if the new normal is nothing like the old normal? What happens if your employer expects you to be back full-time but your kids’ school is only taking them part time? Given the horrendous cost of commercial childcare, the only solution for some couples will be for one of them to go part-time, assuming the employer allows it, or to quit. Most of the people expected to go part-time or quit will be women.

And of course, things are even more difficult for single parents.

Even those who found a short-term solution because they had the luxury to hit the pause button on their projects and careers this spring to manage the effects of the pandemic — predicated on the assumption that the fall would bring a return to school and child care — may now have no choice but to leave the work force. A friend just applied for a job and tells me she cannot even imagine how she would be able to take it if her children aren’t truly back in school. There’s an idea that people can walk away from careers and just pick them up where they left off, even though we know that women who drop out of the work force to take care of children often have trouble getting back in.

This isn’t really about COVID. It’s about a sudden economic shock making existing fault lines deeper, amplifying the existing inequalities so that they affect a wider group of people. It’s about the hypocrisy of a largely male political class who have the resources to pay for high quality childcare, education and healthcare for their own families but deny it to everybody else. Childcare, education and health are not costs to be avoided; they’re investments in – and insurance for – the future.