Earlier this week, a pipe burst in the wall of our apartment. And not just any pipe. This pipe, a Charon in its former glory days, used to ferry the discarded bits and water from the garbage disposal and dirty dishwater down to the eventual Hades of the sewer. Evidently ours, rather than smoothly sailing, was instead slowly cracking, depositing its dead into our wall for an unknown amount of time. This disgusting malfunction only became clear this week, when the pipe finished splitting and its fetid ooze came up through the floorboards.
These are the moments that cause me to turn and look behind me, hoping to see the adult who will help me fix this. But the adult now is me, and it’s my job both to make the situation better and to keep myself together while I manage it, squirming under the spotlight of the modern family theater.
Current factors, like the global pandemic and the way it highlights the systemic inequalities long present in our nation, or the heartbreak of watching our toddler-in-chief continue to sow hatred and reap violence, have worn me down. I’m guessing you can relate. Here we were, stuck in our house, the outside looming, more of a special measure or a threat than an option, while our inside was morphing into an upside-down of stinky goo. I paced, feeling the panic start to swell in my chest as the soaked floorboards made their stomach-turning squish beneath my feet.
But I am fortunate to have a partner to share in the responsibilities of taxes, vehicular issues, insurance, and medical bills, and home ownership, all the tasks that make me cringe. He watched me wind myself up some and then intervened in my spiral, reminding me that the universe is enjoying some dark comedy at the moment; that he will help me with all of the various steps and stages of having the damage assessed and restored; that the flood caused damage to property and not people and we cannot lose sight of our good fortune.
Hearing this aloud, I was able to shift from my panic-induced inertia into productive overdrive. (I will admit, it is entirely possible that I exist only in one of these two modes). I began to remove and pack away everything that would be in the way of the myriad plumbers, inspectors, adjustors, and other professionals, who would visit our home with their masks on and machinery running, in the course of the week. My partner helped. We managed it in a couple of hours and have been since taking turns navigating the time-consuming process of having the damage repaired.
This mess took up the better part of my husband’s work week. Furloughed for a short time when the pandemic started, he now works from home. His makeshift dining room office is now crowded even further by the machines that whirr all day to dry up the wall and he alternates between focusing 10 or 15 minutes on work and fielding repair work or making lunch. I dedicated the bulk of my week to the process, too, juggling tiny bits of work with remedial and emergent housework, allowing regular tasks to fall away for the moment.
Like my husband, I am fortunate to fare well through the pandemic because of the flexible and from-home schedule I keep even during regular times. We are privileged and we are the exception in this country and especially so at this time. Because besides each other, a couple of jobs, and a flooded apartment, we also have two kids, stuck at home for the fourth month in a row, and if our jobs demanded different times and places from us, this little domestic chaos would have felled us. No question.
At 8 p.m. the night of the flood, my older son came out of his room and asked for dinner. Together, we tried to remember if anyone had eaten lunch that day and couldn’t, which meant that the two boys had likely used our distraction to binge on screen time and skip out on food. We are still socially distancing, so they are used to communicating remotely with friends. They are also now at an age when they can fulfill basic needs for themselves. I had not had to do a single thing for them all day until that moment, could dedicate my full attention to the mess in the kitchen. With the kitchen now disabled, I ordered a couple of pizzas and, finally sinking into my evening like a couch, thought about everyone else.
If a household repair could derail our work schedule and family schedule in an instant, how are parents coping with the pressures of parenting while working and even just existing during pandemic times? My first thoughts after a crisis are usually always with single families and double families in which one or both parents work outside of the home. During the pandemic, essential workers have not had the luxury to work remotely, no matter what their situation is at home, and by now more workers are rejoining the in-person workforce, as states toy with reopening and companies make their individual choices.
Even if the parents work from home during socially distanced times, what happens when an additional crisis piles on top of professional and family life like it did for us? During regular times, parents have the (still limited and scant) option to find professional child care for their children, from infancy through school-age, in order to lighten the load on themselves during working hours.
But now in the era of COVID-19, child care programs are being tested by a perfect storm of factors that stretch an already unreliable and piecemeal system to before unseen limits. If I am challenged right now to both handle the mundane and the emergent, to both work and feed my children, how are other, far less privileged parents out there doing it?
It turns out they’re not, because they simply can’t. The combination of summertime (school out), pandemic (isolation from our support systems, unsafe work and play conditions), and the depressed economy (much demand for and little supply of child care) has all of us gasping for relief. Child care centers and providers are among the most obviously affected in their need to change their protocols in ways that might prove to be unsustainable for them and their clients.
The novel coronavirus affects child care centers and schools first by demanding the implementation of stringent sanitation guidelines within a children’s environment, one that is by definition prone to the presence of bodily fluids and excretions. Even though every recommendation on the CDC list makes perfect sense (and some would argue, should enforced at all times, not only during a pandemic), their weight is a strain on child care operations, some of which are mom-and-pop shops with limited ability to meet the infrastructural and staff requirements of COVID times, especially after being hard hit by the pandemic in the first place.
Many child care centers, especially the most financially vulnerable to the long period of social isolation we have been experiencing, have not been able to reopen even as stay-at-home orders are lifted. They may not have the space to sufficiently distance children and parents; they might not have access to sanitation products and PPE (personal protective equipment) needed to perform their job safely for all involved; they might lack sufficient staff willing to place themselves at risk. A significant number of child care providers are finding themselves in a high risk group, reluctant to put themselves on the front lines of potential contagion.
Even as camps, schools, and child care centers rush to try to implement the various stages and steps toward sanitizing and ensuring post-pandemic conditions as recommended by the CDC, it is becoming clear that they will need help following the protocol. Child care centers operate at a thin profit margin in the best of times, and staff wages are among the lowest of any profession in the country, so that cutting salaries is an impossible expectation. Considering that getting child care centers running is an essential step in restarting the national economy — workers can’t work if they’re parenting or getting leaky pipes fixed — this crisis should be a priority.
For America’s working parents, child care is a democratic commodity: It serves everyone from the drastically and otherwise underserved (parents must work multiple jobs to afford the portion of the tuition they must pay), all the way through financially solvent communities (that afford centers funded exclusively by private tuition). Just as democratically, they all stopped receiving the majority of their tuition money during the mandated closures this spring.
These centers service over 12 million children between the ages of birth and 5 (before being eligible for public school education); that’s a whole lot of workers who can’t come into work, even on a good day when all are healthy and there are no crises requiring their attention. Over 61 percent of parents interviewed by the Washington Post reported having lost their child care options during pandemic times, making it impossible to work.
The crisis is clearly visible to some, like the Democrats in Congress who are working hard to pass child care stimulus bills, including a 50-billion dollar bill that would help fund the implementation of the measures and stimulate the restart of this essential service to our communities of workers. Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington is among the group that understands: It will take money and government support to get child care centers to reopen and be able to provide smaller, safer group sizes.
Murray, who was key in procuring Congressional assistance to national child care programs in the form of a $3 billion package back in March, knows the score. Without grants and a lot more attention, our national child care system simply won’t survive the restart after the pandemic. Murray and painfully few other politicians see the current crisis because they already saw so much of it coming. It turns out that, much like the leaky pipe in my wall, it’s been broken for years. And no amount of drywall and paint can fix this stinking mess. We need to restore the whole thing, replacing many of its parts.
A study conducted in Germany in 2012-13 reveals that lack of access to suitable daycare options is a major deterrent in parental performance at work, with absenteeism and reduced schedules resulting in lower pay and potential loss of employment. These way-before-COVID-19 figures show a number of things, some of them obvious: Easy access to child care ensures better productivity from employees who are parents; in two-parent homes, the loss of work is most often absorbed by one who performs most of the housework because she earns less anyway; the silver lining of enjoying time with the children as opposed to being at work is outweighed by the fact that the parent ends up engaging mostly in domestic work rather than focusing on the kid; and this mostly affects women, who were the clear beneficiaries of widespread access to child care in Germany.
To me, the study clarifies even more macro issues, like the fact that European countries, where the connection between government assistance with access to affordable and sustainable child care and a family’s ability to participate in economic life has long been drawn. Germany can use an eight-year old study to anticipate the sociological changes the temporary closures of day care facilities will bring on their society and the type of assistance they should lend this aspect of their communal safety net. We can’t even be sure of how many of our nationwide closures will be temporary.
Some will say this is not Europe. But as compared to other developed countries, we have long been lagging in the widespread realization that we need to provide parents, mothers more specifically, and Latina and Black mothers especially, a lot more child care options if we ever hope to empower our most vulnerable communities to continue their progress forward. Part of our ongoing battle for equal pay and anti-racism must include the clear and urgent need for better affordable child care in every nook of our society.
We don’t even have universal free preschool in this country. As early as 2016, experts have studied the lack of parental support in the earliest stages of children’s lives and determined it is an obstacle to their work performance and productivity. If mothers had better access to VPK (voluntary pre-kindergarten) programs across all states, they would be able to participate robustly in the workforce.
Instead, parents are paying too much for child care, exhausting their income into the service that allows them to work in a Sisyphean-cycle that keeps low-income families wedged in their daily grind. Low- and middle-class families and families of color have the most to lose in this loop, since they also report having the most female breadwinners in America, and therefore the most to lose when their child care options are suspended or their prices are increased even more.
Here, in my home of privilege, my work is the one expendable when child care falls away. My schedule is more flexible, I earn less than my husband (he is the primary breadwinner), and I work from home anyway. My kids are school-aged, though, and for mothers of the 0-5 year old set, the inability to secure consistent and good quality child care keeps them from being able to qualify for or carry out higher paying work worthy of their skills. This drove a group of female employees at Amazon to band together and demand child care assistance from their employer, rather than have to forego their jobs and dedicate themselves to unpaid housework and childcare.
A national downward trend in female employment has been clear for some time. Equally, the connection between growing the job market for more women, more people of color, and more parents and growing the economy is a well-established fact. The lack of more progressive work-family policy, better child care options, and solutions to child care deserts, including their disproportionate effect on low-wage families and mothers of color, already drove a far too large portion of the female workforce out of their jobs and into their homes. In a reality transfigured by the global pandemic, this profoundly anti-growth, anti-feminist, and racist system won’t benefit anyone anymore, and as Amazon learned when they accommodated their working moms, not even corporations.
Now, the exorbitant cost of quality child care, a financial challenge akin to affording a brand new car every year, doesn’t even guarantee a quality product. Caregivers are not well paid and many programs are not good quality. The vast discrepancies between one privately funded center and another galvanizes the systemic disparities between white children and children of color because unlike other developed countries, there is no public subsidy for child care.
Instead, as Americans we place the heaviest burden on the parents of the youngest children, parents who are the youngest, least experienced, and lowest paid they will ever be, with government-mandated education only entering at age 5. The biggest losers in this contest are the kids, and heartbreakingly so, because study after study shows that stimulation during those earliest years provides the best markers for success by the time children are ready for kindergarten. The country’s response? Parents should be the ones bonding with their kids at that age. Except that parents also need to work, so in the end, the kids of working parents who cannot afford expensive and subpar daycare end up getting no one’s attention.
This has been the case with early childhood care and education in this country for far too long. Now, after the weathering of the spikes in this pandemic, we are left with the vestiges of a system that was always insufficient. Like the pipe in my wall, the slow leak had been filling up the drywall with garbage, but some paint and a piece of furniture kept the mess from view. The pipe now has burst. We are standing in the ooze. And yes, we are the adults in the room and it is for that reason that we are obligated to demand more and better from our government for our families. Let’s turn and look at them and not stop until they step in to help.