Who Should Watch the Children: The pandemic has put the unpaid labor of mothers in the spotlight.


From the newsletter:

The second shift. Every mom knows what that is. You put in a full day of work, while covertly texting the kids and babysitters, calling the dentist office to set up an appointment for the kids, and plugging in Saturday soccer games into the family calendar, and then go home to make dinner, help with homework, read stories, and throw in a load of laundry. 

I did that for a while until I couldn’t, because I also had to deal with IEP meetings, therapists, and bribes to daycare centers who didn’t want to watch an autistic kid. 

I made peace with the demise of my academic career and have no regrets about that. Writing turned out to be my real calling, and I’ve been able to do it on my own terms. We’re lucky enough that Steve’s job pays the mortgage. 

The two-career family relied on schools to act as surrogate parents from 8 to 3 every day. After school, private childcare facilities located on school grounds watched elementary school kids until 6:00. Older kids attended clubs and sports to keep them busy until the parents came home. In the summer, camps watched the kids. 

For 14 months, that all went away — schools, child-care centers, after school activities, camps closed. So many women, especially those with younger kids and kids with special needs, had to leave the workforce last year. They were needed to oversee Zoom schooling and make lunches and just talk with the kids. 

Now, the teachers’ unions and other education leaders want to shift the blame for this situation away from schools. They want to decouple the notion that schools are childcare. Even though they are. 

Responding to pressure from parents, both Republicans and Democrats passed new child tax credits and are proposing additional ones. (My pet peeve as a parent of a special ed kid: parents with disabled children should get double, regardless of income.)

This week, Biden proposed a $1.8 trillion “Family Plan,” which would include national paid family leave, universal pre-kindergarten, free community college, and subsidized child care. This is a huge plan. I could just talk about the community college policy for hours and hours, but let’s just talk about the child care proposal right now. 

In this package, $225 billion would go toward covering child care costs for low income and middle class parents with children five or younger. The program would pay for all child care costs of the neediest families. The plan would also set a $15 minimum wage for child care staff. 

J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, set out a firestorm on twitter on Thursday, when he tweeted that childcare is the preferred choice of rich women, and that most women would prefer to watch their younger kids themselves. He said that Biden’s proposal was biased. 

Parenting is a job, not a hobby. If we think that childcare workers should be compensated $15 an hour for their labor, then women or men who do it at home should be paid for their time, too. Why give preference to one type of parents over another? 

And let parents make that choice. Some have great jobs and would rather outsource that work. Fine! Pay the workers. Some parents aren’t so interested in the work world, and want DIY childcare. Fine! Then pay them, too. 

This then leads to other issues, of course. If home childcare is paid for, then should other labor done by parents be compensated, too? Should homeschoolers be paid, if they are saving the state the cost of educated their children? Is this line of thinking a direct path to school vouchers? Do we care anymore? 

The pandemic changed our behaviors in many ways. Some behaviors may be permanently changed. Amazon sales continue to go up, because people have gotten used to buying everything from lightbulbs to toothpaste online. People also stopped expecting that schools and communities would watch the kids during the workday. This change lessens the importance of major institutions in our lives and also puts the spotlight on the people who have taken up the slack. 

If parents — mostly mothers, really — continue to stay at home to supervise and self-educate their kids, then they are going to demand compensation for it. Women are no longer willing to work for free. This weird hybrid of conservative (mothers at home) and progressive (government pays) sensibilities might be the strange stepchild of this pandemic. For the many who hated that Second Shift, it might be the ideal solution. 

7 thoughts on “Who Should Watch the Children: The pandemic has put the unpaid labor of mothers in the spotlight.

  1. I’m a bit surprised by how surprised I am when it becomes Friday again and I see your newsletter.

    I guess I want to know what a family structure neutral policy looks like. Is it a tax credit/per child (that gives you money if it’s worth more than your taxes)?

    I do think the messaging by the BIden administration (and Susan Rice) has been getting women back to work. I don’t know if that’s the message because they are trying to make the argument that childcare subsidies are “infrastructure”? Or is there a belief that it is better if most women work out of the home, including when their work is taking care of other children (I guess, potentially including their own)? Or is it a belief that formal childcare, “pre school” is good for children? The structure of the benefit might be different in these different cases.


  2. Also, what does it mean to say “regardless of income”? Do we want to give the credit to everyone?

    All the data I see suggests that giving parents money helps families, so I’m certainly willing to experiment and see how it plays out.


  3. It would help if health insurance was also decoupled from full time jobs. My sister and her husband, both in nursing, considered both working less than full time to better share childcare but health insurance got too expensive that way. Like most employers who offer benefits, their hospitals contributed less towards premiums for part timers. This means that one parent absolutely has to work full time if benefits are to be affordable. My brother in law complains that no one cares if he misses his kids, but that’s another issue.


  4. I think the funding challenge (happening up here too, I hope – it was announced in our budget) with universal child care subsidies vs. a child benefit paid to parents is that presumably it’s more financially efficient, after the infant period, to have group care. (We already have a family allowance for kids.) Up here too I think parents would still pay some, just not a huge amount – Quebec’s is $8/day I think. Quebec’s daycare has had a few mixed results in quality too, and Quebec education is different.

    As a note, Quebec pays a provincial Family Allowance for kids between about $1000 to $2400 depending on income, etc., including a Special Needs allowance that has several tiers – additional $2400 for a child with special needs, tier 1 care required is an additional $12,000 and Tier 2 is an additional $8,000. That’s annually for kids under 18 – plus $8/day daycare. Yes, we considered moving there. 🙂

    I’m not personally opposed to also paying parents but it probably wouldn’t approach minimum wage.

    Up here federally we have a year’s unemployment insurance-funded maternity leave for most (not all) parents who work so that is kind of the equivalent in some ways…a small percentage (15 weeks I think?) is maternal leave, designed as a recovery leave, the remainder can be taken by either parent. Benefits are capped at I think $467/week, something like that. It’s been a while!

    The health insurance being decoupled is really helpful.


  5. We have a really different situation funding (and perhaps social) situation here.
    Govt uses a combination of subsidies and social guilt to get women back into the workforce as soon as possible (after the mandated maternity leave) – so they can resume paying taxes (forgive my cynicism).
    They have a goal of 100% of kids in some form of teacher-led ECE at the age of 4.

    However, daycare is still a very significant cost for families – and there is a palpable sigh of relief when the kids hit 5 and publicly funded school is the daycare solution. Which is also a factor in kids (often boys) starting school before they are really ready.

    Right now, Mum (and it usually is Mum) staying at home with pre-schoolers, is the province of the very rich (one income is sufficient) and the very poor (daycare isn’t affordable for multiple children even on 2 minimum income wages – though Mum will often work a cleaning shift after the kids are in bed) – and the alternative lifestylers, of course.
    [There is a whole lot of social research about these poor kids really being the ones who *need* to be in ECE since they’re not getting a whole lot of care and stimulation at home….]

    Anecdata here. 13 years ago, I was in a new mum coffee group. 12 mums and bubs (no Dads – all working). Within 6 months half were back in work (mostly full-time), by 12 months, only those who were having another baby (apart from me who had a different set of circumstances) were still outside paid employment. Within 3 years, only 2 were not in full time work (me and one mum with 2+ kids).
    Those Mums with kids in daycare under 1, spent at least half time off work with a sick baby (infections run riot through ECE – and babies have no immunity).
    None of these Mums had a high-powered career – they were personal assistants, physios, legal secretaries, mid-level office workers, etc. Many of them would have preferred to be at home full-time until at least the youngest child was 3-4, and then transition to part-time work. However, they couldn’t afford to do so – and part-time work (at reasonable remuneration) was simply not available.

    Despite the outrage of my teacher friends when I say this, school really is at least 50% daycare (with maybe 25% formal education, and the rest activities – which may be educational, or social, or purely recreational).
    And, if school isn’t available (for whatever reason), then the child-care, educational and social director activities land predominantly on Mum (yes, yes, YMMV, some Dads are the stay at home parent, but it’s statistically rare).
    We see this every time there is a teacher strike (unsurprisingly it isn’t Dad who takes the day off work), and it’s been brought to the forefront by the Covid school closures.

    I read, somewhere (can’t remember where right now) that the burnout rate for women with kids in 2020 is much higher than for women in general. That would be because they are doing at least another full-time job on top of the one they’re paid for….


      1. Cranberry asked: What is an “alternative lifestyler?” in this context?

        Shifting to the ‘country’ to live on a lifestyle block. Deliberately ‘downsizing’ the house and living off the land as much as possible (as in organic gardening, not running a dairy farm). For parents, frequently involves choosing to have a stay-at-home parent (usually Mum) who does all the ‘lifestyle’ work, educates the kids, etc.


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