Caretaking Gets Noticed

This is an excerpt from the latest newsletter. More here. Subscribe here.

When Ian was younger, he had a hair-trigger gag reflex. Like many kids on the autistic spectrum, his sensory system was calibrated more finely than other people. Not only was he picky about what foods he ate, but he was picky about what other people ate and how their food smelled. Even the appearance of food and how it was arranged on the table was important. Done wrong, and I would soon be mopping up a glutenous mess of half digested Cheerios off the kitchen table and a food item would be permanently placed on the BAD list. 

At home, we learned what set him off and made adjustments. Steve ate his oatmeal before Ian sat down for breakfast. Ian’s breakfast had to be arranged with the orange juice in a glass to the right of his bowl. The cereal box had to be placed in front of him with the label facing forward. There couldn’t be too much on his plate. Let’s just say that meal time was a challenge.

We did this for years at home, but our complicated systems couldn’t be replicated at school. So, he would often vomit on the lunchroom table, which was grounds for a trip to the nurse and an automatic “return to sender” stamp. After getting a call, I would have to drop everything and race to his school — a magnet program for children with high-functioning autism — to take him home. Back and forth, the trip took over an hour.

I never knew when I was going to get that phone call — it might be a Monday or a Wednesday — but it happened a couple times a week during his peak-puke era. On top of the regular meetings at school during the day for IEP meetings and parent training sessions, I was at his school often. 

Because I had to always be ready for an emergency and didn’t have access to an after-school childcare program (they don’t exist for kids like him), having a typical 9-5 job was not an option for me. I had a PhD in political science and was actually pretty awesome at my job, but I knew I couldn’t handle the long haul of getting tenure or compete with the younger guys who didn’t have my responsibilities at home, so I worked some low-paying temporary college gigs until even that got to be too much. (I have written several articles about the crazy, low-paying jobs in academia.) After that, I became a freelance journalist and writer — also low paying, low security work — because I needed the flexibility to deal with crises.

This spring was a shit-show. I didn’t write much, because Ian needed extra help with the school closures. When I heard that the government was supporting other freelancers who couldn’t work this spring, I decided to apply for COVID stimulus support. I honestly didn’t think I would get it, because the government has never cared about my employment status before, but I gave it a shot.

After working through the really complicated unemployment website at NJ, I finally got to a qualification form with a list of boxes. Did I have COVID? No. Was I injured? No. Was I a freelancer, whose employment had been impacted by the COVID crisis? Uh, yeah. Was I unable to work because I had to care for a dependent whose school was shutdown? Uh, YEAH! Thankfully, I earned enough money last year, so I qualified. Wow.

For the first time, the government recognizes that some people cannot be employed, because they have intense caretaking responsibilities. Sure, this recognition is only happening because the school shutdowns impacted people with typical kids — the special ed community is still invisible — but I’ll take it. This sets an important precedence for the future. After all, what’s the difference between not being able to work because a school is closed, versus not being able to work because your kid throws up on the cafeteria table?

Because so many women have left paid employment to care for their kids, a number of commentators have maintained that school closures have setback feminism for a generation. But if we go beyond a government check and actually provide caretakers with more opportunities for flexible employment that are well-paid, respected, and supported, maybe this COVID era can be a boon for women and caregivers. 

I’ve written many times on this newsletter that we are in the midst of revolutionary times. Recognizing the unpaid work of caretakers is one more revolution. 

12 thoughts on “Caretaking Gets Noticed

  1. Caretaking gets noticed–and yet it doesn’t.

    Hence the assumption by a lot of big city school systems that “somebody” is going to be home with remote-schooled kids supervising them while they do their work.

    When this is all over, I think we’re going to discover that a lot of young school-aged kids have been home alone all day Monday-Friday for months.

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  2. The attempt to address the needs of freelance workers in the bill is what first catches my attention.

    “Did I have COVID? No. Was I injured? No. Was I a freelancer, whose employment had been impacted by the COVID crisis? Uh, yeah. Was I unable to work because I had to care for a dependent whose school was shutdown? Uh, YEAH! Thankfully, I earned enough money last year, so I qualified. Wow.”

    Would you have been able to apply and receive funds even if you hadn’t also had additional care giving responsibilities? Would someone who had additional care giving responsibilities but whose employment wasn’t affected by the COVID crisis have been able to claim funds?

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    1. So, say, a Facebook employee who had work to do, but couldn’t do it because they had a child or parent to take care of, couldn’t apply for the funds. And, FB was providing “self help” by giving people time off or looking the other way at first, but that crated issues for what some FB employees considered fair.

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  3. My musings are centered on the discussions we have about fairness with the allocation of government funds. Say, for example, the hullabaloos that broke out over the use of private schools with big endowments and their applications for the small business stimulus funds (loans). The checklist is different than for the individual employment funds, but a prime question is whether your business has been affected by COVID. Many private schools make you pay anyway, and, in any case, many families had already paid by the time schools had to send students home. So, many did not loose tuition dollars. But, they did see impacts on fundraising and auctions, which were still on the schedule. So, is it legit to apply for the funds? Is it legit to *not* apply for the funds?

    (and, the small business loans were limited — a shared amount that could run out).

    Brings me back to the question of how we allocate resources when there is need, which I’ve been thinking about since the beginning of the pandemic.

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    1. bj said, “Many private schools make you pay anyway.”

      I’m not sure they could make that stick if the family had signed up expecting in-person school for 2020-2021 and they were only offering remote.

      My BFF told me flat out that if their private school went remote, they would be bailing on their tuition commitment.

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    2. In the spring, when the schools were required to be closed, many contracts clearly stated that tuition would not be refunded if schools were closed because of epidemics. How 2020-2021 contracts were written would probably be different from school to school.

      Whether individual families would bail would probably depend on whether they are with the school in the long run and how selective it is.

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  4. Parent at multiple privates here and a lawyer. Under all the contracts I have seen, you have to pay for the whole year. Unless you have tuition insurance. And even then, it has to be, typically, a change in circumstances; trying that for remote as opposed to a move, among my acquaintances, has mostly resulted in denial of coverage. Maybe your BFF will get lucky though!

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    1. KV said, “Parent at multiple privates here and a lawyer. Under all the contracts I have seen, you have to pay for the whole year. Unless you have tuition insurance. And even then, it has to be, typically, a change in circumstances; trying that for remote as opposed to a move, among my acquaintances, has mostly resulted in denial of coverage. Maybe your BFF will get lucky though!”

      School is still open. We’ve had six weeks of in-person school so far.

      Hypothetically, I don’t think my friend should bail if she wants to ever come back to the same school, but I understand the temptation.

      I really question the idea of being legally forced to pay for a service you’re not actually getting. I don’t know about my buddy’s school, but I believe we signed our tuition contracts in January, before COVID.

      I’m a bit more sympathetic to colleges making the argument that most of their students are getting essentially the same educational value online. It’s not like you need childcare for your typical college-age kid…

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    2. The contracts I’ve signed explicitly state that you will not be returned tuition for school closures because of epidemics. I think the schools would argue that in order to hire the employees they give them contracts, which in turn, guarantee that they get paid.

      Is your school tracking COVID? There’s a group sourced project tracking COVID cases in schools: https://www.npr.org/2020/09/23/915738935/new-dashboard-tracks-coronavirus-cases-in-schools-across-47-states

      The data look promising, with no outbreaks currently associated with schools. And six weeks should be long enough for outbreaks to show up, even if there is asymptomatic transmission that only shows up when the infections travel to older adults. And Texas community case rates are much higher than most of the rest of the country.

      The schools in the databases haven’t been open as long, mostly, but it’s good to see that 3 weeks don’t seem associated with outbreaks either.

      In no way is my college kid getting the “same educational value” online. A very big part of her expectation of college is the out of classroom experience (clubs, plays, activism, close colleagues and friends, relationships with professors, community participation efforts). In her freshman year, she had a play produced, volunteered in the local schools, wrote for several publications, went to rallies, and worked on archiving documents.

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      1. A very big part of her expectation of college is the out of classroom experience (clubs, plays, activism, close colleagues and friends, relationships with professors, community participation efforts).

        And colleges have only been marketing themselves on this basis for, I dunno, decades.

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