December’s jobs report is yet another reminder of how the coronavirus pandemic has devastated women’s ability to work. Our society simply fails to factor in child care, and it’s women who are tasked with resolving this issue for their families.
Like many parents, my husband and I had been circling the decision all summer: virtual school or in-person school? We read the data, we heard the recommendations, and we understood the risks, but the factor no one had weighed in on was how this choice would affect my career.
I suppose no one had weighed in because in the face of the global pandemic, who cares? I’m a stay-at-home mom whose husband keeps her life financially secure.
At least, that’s the logic that led me to open the webpage for our school district on my computer, select the distance learning option, and hurry to the bathroom for a long cry.
I wasn’t locked in the bathroom muffling my sobs in a hand towel because I disagreed with our family’s decision to distance learn. In fact, with my husband’s support, I made the decision. It simply feels like another personal career setback in what is beginning to seem like a career made up of setbacks.
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On Friday, the Labor Department reported the United States cut 140,000 jobs last month—the first time since April. The news is yet another reminder of how the coronavirus pandemic has devastated the economy, and with it, women’s ability to work. Last fall, there were 1.6 million fewer mothers in the labor force due primarily to school closures, with the impact hitting Black and Latinx women the hardest.
My own story is as old as American gender roles. I’ve wanted to write for a living since I was a little girl. But as a young, lovesick English major, I got engaged and dropped out of school to save money. I made this choice partly because I was already drowning in student debt and only halfway done, and partly because I was eager to save for an apartment so my fiancé and I could start our lives together.
I planned to return to college when my husband graduated, but then I got pregnant. We were too poor for child care, and because my husband stayed in school, he had more earning potential, so I stayed home. Two more babies later and I squeezed in the rest of my degree, albeit late in a field that rewards the early.
I graduated at 30 years old and began a tentative career as a freelance writer, only getting in the part-time work that my full-time job as a childcare provider, personal chef, and housekeeper allowed. I was OK with making these sacrifices because I knew that in under two years it would be 2020 and my kids would all be school-aged. Finally, I’d pursue writing like I meant it.
Except I couldn’t.
Christian F. Nunes, president of the National Organization for Women, told COURIER the pandemic has derailed the careers and livelihoods of women across the country. “Whether it’s health care or restaurants, women have been our frontline workers,” she said. Not only do working women experience a physical impact from ongoing exposure to the virus, but they have experienced a significant financial toll as well.
“With restaurants closing down and hours being cut, many women are losing half or even the whole of their income,” Nunes explained. Under these circumstances, mothers can’t provide for their families or afford the healthcare costs that come with a virus that requires frequent testing and the threat of long hospital stays.
As far as attaining and maintaining emotionally and financially rewarding careers, women are disproportionately facing huge setbacks. “We see men returning from lockdown to work, but we don’t see women returning to work because of the childcare situation,” Nunes said. Without the aid of the public school system, our society simply fails to factor in child care, and it’s women who are tasked with resolving this issue for their families.
Women have historically been the default childcare option for their families so much more often than men, because, as Nunes explained, “we still live in a patriarchal society, and the wage gap is very real.” Even if children have returned to school, many jobs don’t provide paid sick leave or teleworking options in the case of a child testing positive for COVID. According to Nunes, these are the challenges that have led to women between the ages of 25-54 dropping from the workforce at a staggering rate. This loss for women and for society at large cannot be overstated.
In the case of my family, during the same 12-year timeframe my career has sat on the backburner, my husband graduated from college and began a career in Human Resources, where he has enjoyed a steady, uninterrupted climb from the base of the corporate ladder to somewhere near the middle, exactly where he should be at 32 years old. He wouldn’t have this career without the free child care I provide.
To be clear, I’m not alone: Research shows that women—and particularly Black mothers—spend more time a day on housework and child care than men.
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Like all people, my family’s story has been written by our choices, but it would be disingenuous to pretend those choices weren’t largely informed by the social conditioning given to us by the same society that now punishes us for those choices.
The same society that tells us that because COVID is dangerous, we should protect ourselves and our community by keeping our children home from school if we are able, will also punish me for being another year behind my career goals. A government that won’t help us survive the financial loss of my husband’s career or my role as a childcare provider, makes my career as a writer the financially sound choice to sacrifice.
So this year, instead of spending my time applying for entry-level editorial positions, attending networking lunches, and using my mornings to hone my craft as I had planned, I now sit in the basement we converted to a schoolroom listening to my seven-year-old read Harold and the Purple Crayon one excruciating syllable at a time.
At this point, I still write a couple of articles a month and hope this counts as “staying in the game,” even though the income I’m making from it is negligible at best, and a waste of time and resources at worst.
The way the pandemic has exacerbated what has always been a tough cycle for mothers to overcome leads Nunes to predict increasing individual economic insecurity and a collective setback to the gender equality we’ve spent years building. I want to believe that I will be an exception to this cycle: My kids will be attending school this September, I can almost guarantee it.
But as I look ahead, I find myself unable to shake Nunes’ prediction. After all, how long does it take to build a career? And how long can mothers prioritize our families before we’ve torched our hopes and dreams entirely?