Working Parenthood Is A Terrible Deal Right Now

Thanks to COVID, that fleeting dread most working parents experience now and then about being an utter failure is the new status quo.

An illustration of a family on an unstable column

“I don’t want you to die,” my 3-year-old son recently told me, in the most casual way, while we were on the sofa. He wasn’t talking specifically about the coronavirus, a word he uses with heartbreaking fluency, but he also wasn’t not talking about the coronavirus, as is the case with all comments these days.

It’s always illuminating to hear the things my kid says, but his expressions have been especially telling since the pandemic. “First, wash hands.” “Where is your mask?!” “Hey! Why are you coughing?” The faint sound of a siren in a cartoon led him to ask, “Does someone have coronavirus?” When, one day at the playground, a boy picked up his soccer ball, he panicked; when the boy coughed, my son cried, “No! No!” as he buried his mouth into his elbow — the defensive gesture we had taught him when COVID-19 first arrived in New York last winter. His words opened a window into his young and achingly vulnerable mind.

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t new anymore, even if it remains novel. We’ve lived with it all through the spring and the summer. But as fall approaches, it’s obvious that our strategies for hunkering down and muscling through aren’t going to work anymore. This is true for everyone, of course. But for working parents, and their children, it’s especially acute.

An estimated 23.5 million working parents relied on school and childcare programs while they went to work in 2018, according to Brookings Institution, and millions of us are now working from home with our kids. My husband and I joined this wave of stay-at-home working parents in March.

My husband and I were thankful to be safe, healthy, and employed, but also were enduring monotonous days, defined mainly by the struggle to both work and care for our two children.

As July dragged on, my household approached our 130th day of being mostly stuck in our Brooklyn apartment. This is, clearly, not the worst-case scenario. About 4.5 million people have contracted COVID-19 in the US, and more than 150,000 people have died. About 17 million people are jobless. Being able to work remotely allowed us to take shelter as essential workers scrambled to find care for their kids so they could continue going in — in some cases even leaving children home alone. My husband and I were thankful to be safe, healthy, and employed, but also were enduring monotonous days, defined mainly by the struggle to both work and care for our two children.

In the beginning, I had more energy to try to do it all. I made a loose schedule and a list of activities; I found kids shows that taught Chinese and yoga; some days, we took afternoon walks around the block. We had hope that things would get better soon. But my husband and I are both worn thin now. The schedule is at the bottom of a pile of paper; the Chinese and yoga kids shows are off the queue; we go days without a walk. Every day is the same. Tomorrow is always some version of today. We’ll try to be better tomorrow.

Society didn’t prepare parents for all the things we must do now, which — for me, a member of the work-from-home class — means caring for the base needs of my children during the day, trying to at least keep the older one mentally stimulated and the baby entertained, while also doing well enough at my full-time job that I can (at most) be proud of myself professionally and (at least) continue to provide financially. I was prepared for hard, but this feels impossible.

I recently read the Cat in the Hat to my son and found myself on the verge of maniacal laughter when the delusional cat tries to balance the cup, the milk, the cake, some books, a fish on a rake, a toy ship, and a little toy man, and also fan with the fan, as he hopped on the ball. He drops everything, of course; we saw that coming a mile away. This is the inevitable result when you’re juggling too much. We’ve known this since we were kids ourselves. And yet here we are.

That fleeting dread most parents experience now and then about being an utter failure is the new status quo. Being a working parent was always a precarious proposition: Have kids; keep working; arrange for someone else to take care of your kids so you can work. We desperately chased elusive “work-life balance.”

But pre-COVID standards of success for working parents are impossible now. What’s also clear is that standards need to shift, and we can’t think of parenting and work and education like we used to. The burdens of parenthood have become too much to shoulder on our own; families need so much more support.

We need our employers, including those whose employees can’t work remotely, to normalize parenting and the split priorities that come with raising children. Parents need infinitely flexible schedules. It’s obvious now they need paid sick leave to care for both themselves and their families; add to that the need for paid leave to take care of all the other unexpected things that will come up if they must be more involved in their children’s schooling. And here’s the other, rather important, part of the equation: Parents should not be penalized by their managers for taking care of these responsibilities. Ultimately, employers need to empower parents to put their families first, a radical shift in workplaces where people have been expected to set aside personal matters for off hours. There are no “off hours” anymore.

And then there are schools. Schools must reevaluate what is really important to teach children right now when there may only be a couple of hours of class per day, and what fair standards are for judging student performance, especially as they witness the stark inequities in learning environments.

I know parents whose children are already back in daycare and in summer camps and who plan to send their children to the classrooms when they reopen. The reasoning generally goes, there are safety measures in place, it’s worth the risk, and the classroom is better for their children’s development than virtual learning, which has proven to be semi-disastrous for many households. Others say they simply need schools to reopen so they can go back to work.

And of course, being a parent doesn’t qualify anyone to be an educator. Many people feel we never really know what we’re doing as parents; it’s a lifetime of trial and error with each kid. But that feeling is far more intense now that their education is taking place at home, at best over Zoom, and entirely on us. The great experiment.

It’s understandable some parents want their kids back in school. Perhaps it will help things get back to something like normal. Our children will learn again, and get to be with their friends. Parents will be good at our jobs again, no more juggling. Everyone can prosper. School is the key part of a solution — open the gates!

In July, President Trump said 5.6 million parents will be unable to return to work if schools do not reopen this year. “It’s a tremendous problem. Schools have to open safely, but they have to open,” he said. And the American Academy of Pediatrics said in May it “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

A notable share of parents in polls (hovering somewhere between one-third and one-half) said they were at least somewhat comfortable with their children returning to school in the fall, reported Chalkbeat. Generally, white parents felt safer about it than parents of color.

Most days, he is fine. But then there was a day when my son seemed lethargic and I told him calmly that he had a fever. And he began to cry. Then I could see: He’s just trying his best too.

When I explained to him in July that we were not sure if school would reopen, his little mouth tightened up, his eyes got big and sad, and he looked everywhere but directly at me. “Why?” he whispered. “Because of coronavirus?” Yes, I said, we are not sure if it will be safe for children to be so close together at school. Maybe if the coronavirus gets better, schools will open again.

“I wish coronavirus would go away,” he said. And I’m reminded that while he has trouble with animal (aminal) or caterpillar (capitillar) or oatmeal (oatmino), he can pronounce all five syllables of coronavirus perfectly.

My son wants to start pre-K in a classroom in September, even if other children touching his soccer ball makes him uneasy. When we had a socially distanced tour of the school this summer, he remarked, “Mama, this kitchen is amazing!” as he gazed at a large dining table that, in theory, would seat many children, an idea that makes me simultaneously happy and terrified.

He misses his classmates, the activities, a routine that involves leaving the house. He hasn’t clearly articulated why — again, he’s 3 — but I imagine it’s some version of the malaise we’ve all been feeling.

The one motor skill my older son mastered in lockdown was working our many television remotes.

There was a lot we complained about with our lifestyle before COVID. At first, the break from the daily grind of commuting and drop-offs, the endless windup to get through a day, and the crushing (and possibly meaningless) rat race felt like a nice exhalation. But this life clearly ain’t it, either.

The one motor skill my older son mastered in lockdown was working our many television remotes, which he does masterfully now, toggling between Netflix, PBS Kids, and YouTube on the Roku; switching to the DVD input if he wants to pop in an old disc. We rock our baby, who had the luck of being born right before the pandemic, in an endless loop up and down the hallway in a stroller when he needs to be soothed, or sometimes I nurse him while I type with the other hand; the baby knows little of the world beyond the brick walls of our building. The one thing we could consistently look forward to was a crisp, buttery grilled cheese sandwich with a chilled pickle my husband prepares for lunch. And even that was getting old. Every evening at 7 p.m., we’d rush to the window and clap and blow on toy horns to thank essential workers — our brief, daily jubilee.

But as families await relief, we all anxiously see the news that the pandemic is trending in the wrong direction, and cases are still rising around the country. One death per minute now. And many teachers, saying reopening schools puts their lives at risk, are prepared to not return if there are not clear safety guidelines in place. Is this really what’s best for our kids? For our society?

The thing people need to understand is: It’s not an easy decision, and parents flip-flop all the time. Personally, I’m desperate to get my kids out of the house, and also not ready, not yet. Maybe I’m too prudent — but it’s not a bad time for that. We haven’t eaten out in a restaurant since March; and as I drive uneasily past the restless crowds who have come out of hibernation to dine out and smoke and laugh in the sun again without masks, I don’t know how I am going to send them to school.

My son watches limitless amounts of TV during the daytime while the adults try to work and keep the baby calm. We turn on the captions so at least he can get some reading in. I don’t care about the screentime at all; it’s the fact that I ignore my child for hours at a time, day after day, week after week, month after month that bothers me. This can’t be good for him. He deserves better.

On my worst days I wonder why I had children just to neglect them for most of the day. Is this just what it means to be a working parent? I don’t want to treat “parenting” like an extracurricular activity when I am not working. But, I see now, it’s sort of what I signed up for when I decided I wanted kids. The way our society has developed, taking care of my kids requires leaving them behind all day to go to a job so I can make the money we need to support them. On weekdays, I used to spend at least eight hours in the office and two hours commuting back and forth — so 10 hours compared to the roughly three hours I’d actively spend as a parent every night before I’d pass out, fully drained. Even if I felt guilty (and a little ashamed) about this arrangement, the availability of daycares and schools made it seem normal — it takes a village, they say. Besides, isn’t that what everyone does? School closures brought these already-conflicting priorities to a head.

I consider myself among the lucky. We are all healthy. I still have a good job; my husband does too. And because we both work from home, we haven’t been faced with the necessity of pandemic childcare. On top of that, my parents live close by and recently agreed to watch my son several days a week. They are retired and can give him the attention he needs, while I do what I do to earn a living.

The way our society has developed, taking care of my kids requires leaving them behind all day to go to a job so I can make the money we need to support them.

These days, I frequently contemplate how I can give more as a parent too; in the end, it might be the one thing I do that matters most.

Mostly, what I hope my children will one day understand about this time is that I am so deeply sorry for it all. I'm sorry this is the world I have given you, that you must navigate it with little guidance, that you might suffer parts of it in isolation. I'm sorry there are people who care more about their petty liberties and thrills and their personal wealth than the well-being of the people around them. I am sorry that some of those people, for reasons beyond my comprehension, chose to go into public service, of all things, and are running the country. This was not the world I imagined you'd grow up in. I wanted so much more for you.

Long ago, your great-grandparents left behind everything in China and came to the United States because it promised to give everyone a shot. They bet all their chips for a better life for your grandparents, for me, for you. "I was sad to leave my home, but America is a great country," my grandpa used to tell me. I'm so sorry it's turned out this way.

I hope my children know that even when I have to work, I love them. That even when I am looking at my laptop and my phone, and asking them to stay quiet, and closing the door behind my desk, they are in my heart, always. I think my older son intuits this in some way. When I tell him I need to work, he slowly builds a pile of toys next to me. One by one a small mountain of his little cars, crafts, and stuffed animals ends up by my side, and he usually tops it off with the Mother's Day card he and my husband made for me. “To the greatest mama in the whole wide world,” it says. I think it's his way of asking me not to forget him while I am working, and it breaks my heart.

So many of the things I dreamed of for my children frankly don't matter anymore, not now. I don't care if they are well-traveled. I don't care if they are good at sports. I don't care if they get into Harvard. Who can concern themselves with trivial goals anymore? I just want them to be healthy, to have good friends, to be happy, to have each other and to have us, and to learn something valuable about this crazy and occasionally beautiful world they live in, and above all to feel loved beyond measure.

My son wears a mask effortlessly, like a second skin. Washing hands has become a reflex for him. He knows the new risks that surround him. They terrify him, but he is oddly at ease. My children are part of a pandemic generation, and despite all the hardships, they are adjusting to this new world better than their parents. I want to work to make it better for them. That’s what keeps me going. ●

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