One of my all-time favorite comedy clips is a bit called “People Without Children Have NO IDEA What It’s Like!” by comedian Michael McIntyre. It’s cathartic for parents, and it should be mandatory education for adults who don’t have children. “You think you know what you’re talking about,” he painfully winces. “YOU HAVE NO IDEA.”
You have no idea how difficult things will become in your life. Things that you don’t even consider to be things will become nearly impossible when you have children. I’m talking about things like leaving the house, for example. This is how people without children leave the house: “Shall we leave the house?” “Yes.”
He then painfully itemizes the countless battles that must go on with children every. single. time. you attempt to leave the house. It’s real.
Sleeping . . . hahahahaha. Sleeping at night! This is how [it goes for] people without children, most nights: “Goodnight, darling.” “Goodnight.” Sometimes you go: “Sleep well.” “I will.” That’s how cocky and arrogant you are . . . It’s been a long time since my wife and I said goodnight to each other. Now we just go: “Good luck.”
I hope Michael considers a pandemic-era update. It could include the half-hour battles I have with my four-year-old child every day, sometimes several times a day, to wash his hands. In a best-case scenario, we reach a ridiculous “compromise” wherein I have to deliver a bowl of water and soap to whatever perch he has climbed up to escape me. Alternatively, I resort to physical force and carry him screaming to the bathroom, then push his unwilling, fisted hands into the sink; prying open each finger individually, I scrub them myself. This is usually plan B, because just from a time-management perspective, it also involves an additional half hour of understandably having to hear from him about the injustice of what I’ve done. We have to go through the routine all over again when he rubs his hands on the bottom of his sneakers out of spite. This is daily life.
The emotional toll of the pandemic on our children now also requires, in my household at least, that my husband and I have to pretend to be all five of the members of the band the Go-Go’s, plus all of their pets (mostly hyenas and Siamese cats, apparently) at every meal time. The Go-Go’s moved in around springtime, once real-life friends were no longer able to visit. And while, a year ago, I felt like I was getting the hang of talking to my son about the state of the world, now I have to fumble to answer questions like (literally): “Is the world going to end?”
The most glaring problem is the impossibility of parenting your child(ren) when school is either closed or unsafely open, while simultaneously “working.” In the best-case scenario, if, like me, you have a job that allows you to work from home, and you have the ability to keep your child out of the COVID-19 petri dishes of the public school system, then congratulations: you have signed up for an impossible task.
As Purva Gopal, with children aged one and three, told the New York Times, she does her remote work early in the morning and late at night, or in stolen minutes “during which one or both girls are hugging my legs or asking to be picked up.” Indeed. I am currently writing this article at 1:00 a.m.
For those parents that aren’t so lucky, they have to work around school timetables, many of which now entail staggered attendance schedules with part-remote and part-in-person learning, assembling a complex childcare puzzle around that schedule: drop-offs, pick-ups, and time at home. All the while, you’re expected to show up at work daily, and you have to worry about the possibility that school, or work, or both are exposing your family to a life-threatening virus. In the places where school and childcare are not available, the only option is to lose your job.
The most impossible of situations falls to single parents, most of whom are single moms. A quarter of US families are single-parent households (and four out of five of those households are headed by single mothers). A single mom must somehow manage to parent all day and all night, while also working and being the sole provider of income. In the cases where schools and daycare centers are closed, single parents are not able to work.
Without a job, they are left with little to no unemployment benefits to feed and shelter their children, and with no other parent in the house to take over while they apply for jobs or run basic errands to get groceries. During the pandemic, the lack of social supports for single parents is heightened, because social-distancing measures make it nearly impossible to get outside help.
There is, as one economist bluntly put it, “no escape.”
A Job With No Breaks, No Pay, and No Supports
The pandemic has revealed something that parents have understood for a long time. Parenting is a job — more specifically, an extremely strenuous, unpaid, 24-7 job with no breaks, little supports, and no benefits.
Anyone who knows me knows that the level of adoration I feel for my kid is rather unhinged. But all the love and joy in the world doesn’t negate the fact that parenting is a job. It’s a hard job. And during the pandemic, it’s a nearly impossible job.
The exact details of each parent’s job description has to do with the age of your child or children, whether they have special needs, and other factors. For parents of newborns, the first few months require almost constant physical contact, which is necessary for their health and well-being. But even out of newbornhood, parenting is an around-the-clock, hands-on responsibility.
The job description includes waking up early, cooking, feeding, getting groceries (a highly skilled task when your child needs nutrition but will only eat Cheerios and pasta), dressing, packing supplies (if, God forbid, you have to drag the child out of home), cleaning the child, cleaning the house (organizing the toy sprawl is a full-time hamster wheel in and of itself), doing the dishes, doing the laundry, changing diapers and/or wiping butts, heavy lifting, playing (not always as fun as it sounds!), entertaining, reading, holding, listening, understanding complex emotions, counseling, helping to navigate other relationships, negotiating, worrying, wrangling, fighting, naptime, bedtime, nighttime wake-ups, buying clothes and household necessities, trips to the doctor, and the ever-dreaded scheduling of their and your lives. Now add homeschooling.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it can’t include the myriad details that you may be subjected to. In my case, according to iTunes records, we have listened to the PJ masks theme song four hundred times over the course of four months and (more charmingly, at least) “Rockaway Beach” 250 times. Kids need to be kids. They need time and space to do kid things, and those are not the same as your things. They don’t want to spend the day doing errands with you, nor sitting quietly and reading or drawing while you work.
The double duty of doing unpaid labor at home and paid labor outside the home takes a toll. Studies have found that working moms are “more likely than women without children to show signs of emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioral stress in the workplace, including insomnia and heart problems.”
This is the work that Marxist feminists refer to as social reproduction, which reproduces the next generation of laborers at little cost to the system. Under “normal” circumstances, parents split the job of taking care of society’s young for part of the day with teachers and childcare workers, themselves overworked and underpaid. Under their care, our children learn, and hopefully thrive, for several hours a day. For those hours (and usually more), we go to our second jobs, and then we pick up our children and parent some more.
Capitalism in fact depends on a double exploitation of working parents in order for the system to function; and parents, therefore, need childcare in order to work. This is the reason that childcare workers, like many low-paid workers, were suddenly discovered to be “essential workers” during the pandemic. They are essential for the system to function.
It is also why the debate over school reopenings hit a fever pitch this summer. For all the bluster and fake concern about our children’s well-being and educational goals, the real driver of school reopenings is the need to stabilize the economy.
Buried within a New York Times story about New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s insistence on reopening schools at any cost, the Times revealed: “Nearly 70 percent of employers ranked the reopening as one of the three most important issues determining their employees’ return to the office, according to a recent survey conducted by a business group.”
The work of parenting falls on all parents, but in countries like the United States with the fewest social programs in place to provide childcare, it falls disproportionately on mothers. The New York Times recently estimated that if mothers were paid a minimum wage for the hours spent doing routine housework, household maintenance, childcare, and tending to the elderly and other household members, that invisible labor would be worth a combined $1.5 trillion a year across the United States.
The United States is one of three developed countries in the world that does not provide statutory paid parental leave. The only mandated provision on the books, as the Guardian noted earlier this year, “falls under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles new parents to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But it depends on the parent being able to afford to take unpaid leave and only 60% of the US workforce is covered.”
Shockingly, the article reported, one in four women return to work within two weeks of giving birth. At two weeks, not only is your baby completely dependent on you at all times, and not only have you not slept for long enough to recognize the difference between night and day, but most mothers have, after two weeks, not yet recovered physically from labor. In many cases, returning to work at this time risks the health of the mother, and, of course, the emotional well-being of both mom and child.
Since the pandemic began, stimulus bills signed in the spring have allowed for a handful of weeks off for parental leave. But this paltry amount is, in any case, only provided at companies that have fewer than five hundred workers, and those with fewer than fifty can qualify for exceptions. The essential workers that need these leaves most — health-care workers — are not entitled to these benefits at all, because health providers receive an exemption.
The unworkable bind that pandemic parenting has left mothers, fathers, and other caretakers in — but particularly mothers — has led to a shrinking of the workforce. Unmet childcare needs play a significant role in unemployment rates appearing to fall, because the official unemployment count does not include “discouraged” workers, or those not able to actively look for work.
Not surprisingly, given the unequal distribution of childcare duties among the genders, as well as the wage gap between men and women, the contraction of the workforce is happening unevenly. “Of the 1.1 million people ages 20 and over who left the workforce (neither working nor looking for work) between August and September,” the New York Times reported, “over 800,000 were women.”
For the Common Good
But while the work of parenting is certainly a job, and a highly exploited one, your “boss” at home is not your employer, and the staff are impossible to unionize. It is not a typical job in that sense.
The kind of benefits that parents desperately need — parental leave, universal basic income for parents, and free, public childcare — are social gains to be fought for by unions, whose ranks include working parents. Solidarity among teachers, childcare workers, and parents will be the key to making such advances. And, ultimately, they will benefit not only parents and children, but will also lessen the strain on teachers, who have been forced back to unsafe working conditions under the pretext of helping families.
Winning time and breathing space for parents through such benefits to love and nurture and play, without being strained past our limits by impossible economic compulsions, would be a win for the common good. It would ensure that a new generation reaches adulthood cared and loved for — while the current generation of parents keep our economic, physical, and emotional viability intact.