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.