In her weekly parenting newsletter, Jessica Grose of the New York Times recently touched on a popular pandemic side conversation — the growing disparity between mother’s and father’s time spent on child care and, resultingly, its effect on mothers reducing their number of working hours.
While Grose points to ample arguments and even soon-to-be published research supporting claims that women are forgoing work outside the home for child care duties, she doesn’t offer much in the form of an explanation as to why this is the case. In fact, no one has discussed it.
What is true in our house, as is likely true elsewhere across the country, is that my husband makes more money than me. In uncertain times (and to be frank, most times), it makes sense for us to lean in to the highest wage-earner. So his job takes precedence over mine when one of us has to take care of our kids. Although I know he values the work I do, many of our arguments over the years have stemmed from this fact. I value my work and my contributions, and I want my career to be treated equally, but I make less money. I recognize this is a small part of a larger conversation around gender roles, but I’m not interested in having that conversation right now.
In pandemic times, what matters most immediately is that my family can continue to pay our mountain of fixed expenses and that we can put some money away in savings for unexpected medical expenses, retirement and emergencies.
When nothing is certain and normal is being redefined, my husband needs to continue to show up and be a valuable, reliable, innovative employee so he keeps his job and his paycheck. To lose his salary would be much worse than to lose mine.
That isn’t sexist, it’s just reality.
If schools continue to remain closed to in-person instruction, then my fellow working moms and I will, out of necessity, continue to lean out of the workforce and into caring for our children.
So what I really want to discuss is the reopening of schools, with the understanding that first we need to take politics out of this discussion. Our headline-hungry society is being overrun with myopic viewpoints and oversimplified binary choices; if she says “schools must open,” then we should announce “schools cannot open.” But this is not a political decision.
If we as a society valued sex equality in the workplace — if we really cared about the long-term implications of the current exodus of women leaving the workforce — we would find a way to safely reopen schools in the fall. That way, instead of continuing to sacrifice work hours for child care duties, we could send our kids back to school and put in a (reduced-hour) workday.
To be clear, I’m not saying we should send kids back at all costs. Rather, we should put our best minds to task on finding solutions that get kids out of their homes, back to in-person learning, and back in touch with the resources schools provide that keep kids, families and communities safe, healthy, and emotionally and physically fed.
For instance, what about hiring teachers’ aides to fill in for what will inevitably be a shortage of in-person teachers? Can we allow teachers to opt-in to online or in-person learning and provide a similar option for students? Can we make use of empty stadiums, arenas, office buildings, etc., to spread kids out? Maybe we spread out elementary schools among current elementary and high schools and shift high schools online?
We are dealing with a novel virus that has created novel problems, one after another, in health care, education, travel and so many more industries worldwide. Rather than being continuously surprised at the situation we find ourselves in and tied to foolhardy partisan plays based on what yard signs we agree with, let’s come at a truly unprecedented situation with novel and unprecedented solutions. Let’s get kids back in school. Let’s keep women employed. And, as a side benefit, let’s slow the panic and eroding mental health of mothers (and fathers) everywhere.
Annie M. Kopplin is a Minneapolis mother of three and an attorney at Kopplin Law.