“Please, no Barbie,” I would say as I left the room. “Try a show that teaches you something, like Peg + Cat or … I don’t know.”
Then I was back in my office, working for as long as she’d let me, feeling terrible because I basically just started my kid’s day with television. And I knew the television would just keep going as long as it kept her quiet and away from me.
I’m an attorney at a nonprofit, and while we don’t bill clients in the traditional sense, we do bill grants. This means that even though I don’t have to think in six-minute increments like I would at a law firm, I do have to keep track of my time, and I do have to log approximately 40 hours in a week, even in a pandemic with a child at home.
When the stay-at-home order started, I imagined my husband and I would split the day in half: I could focus in the mornings and he could have the afternoons. I told my supervisors I’d keep something like East Coast hours (we have an office in Boston, so it wasn’t that odd) and be available between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. Portland time. I knew my husband would have to work during much of that time, too, but I thought we might rotate our primary attention: I’d take a focused time block to work, and then he would. I’d ask when he had calls, and attempt to work mine around that. Likewise, I’d tell him when I had calls and hope he’d work around mine. But inevitably, we ran into conflicts.
One afternoon, I’d asked for two hours, at any time he could provide them. He said he could take over at 4 p.m., so I waited, putting off my critical work until then. But when 4 p.m. arrived, my husband appeared in the kitchen and fixed himself a snack. The clock crept on. 4:10. 4:15. I was about to take our daughter into the kitchen and retreat to my office when his phone rang.
“I have to take this,” he said, dashing into his makeshift basement office.
I told myself to be patient. Sure it was nearly 4:30, but we could start bedtime a little late, and I’d still get my work done. But when he hadn’t reappeared at 5 p.m., I stormed downstairs and shrieked, “Are you planning to come back up here?”
“Of course,” he said. “This was just a call I had to take.”
By the time he was upstairs and available to take over, “my time” had become less than an hour, overlapping with dinner preparation (which I also do). I was so upset I couldn’t work.
Even on days when I was able to work quietly for a while, I had a hard time keeping my focus on work. So much had to be done. The shopping. The cooking. The endless dishes. The laundry. Yes, I’d done all those things before the pandemic, but now they are more prevalent and overwhelming with three people who never leave the house. All meals come from my kitchen. All groceries are bought in my large weekly hauls instead of my preferred daily trips to the market down the street to pick up the thing I forgot or wanted to buy freshest. The mental and emotional labor of keeping track of what we’d eat, where I’d get the things we needed, and what to bring with me to the grocery store (leave disposable bags in the car, bring face mask and sanitizer; gloves optional) was too much. I was crying daily over both little and big things (the fact that I’d forgotten to buy eggs; the way my daughter looked when she said, “I miss my friends”).
Then, on March 31, I received a notice from my work about Families First Coronavirus Relief Act leave. Of course, I’d paid attention to the FFCRA, hadn’t I? The bill created a forgivable small business loan program and was providing direct payments to many Americans. But I hadn’t realized that it also extended paid federal sick and family leave for specific covid-related reasons, including having a dependent child whose day care or school is closed. That was me.
The FFCRA is not available to everyone. Some of the people who could use it the most are excluded: independent contractors such as housekeepers, Uber drivers and other “gig economy” workers mostly don’t qualify. Day laborers don’t qualify. Even for those who were traditionally employed, layoffs and mass business closures may have cost them their job and with it, their sick leave. It applies only to businesses with more than 50 and fewer than 500 employees, which means both tiny employers and the largest corporations also are left out. But for workers who do qualify, the FFCRA grants paid leave to care for dependents.
Americans don’t typically have paid federal leave; not for parents of new babies, illness or dependent care. I felt guilty about this, and it took me more than a week to ask my employer about taking the leave. But my relief at the thought of being able to reduce my workload was much larger.
I was simultaneously wrangling with my own feminist guilt. I felt like I should have been able to manage the full-time load. I told myself that if my husband had been better at sharing child-care time, drawing boundaries with his employer and taking a stand (“I’m not available to take your call right now; we’ll have to connect later”), I might have been able to keep abreast of my work without feeling so exhausted and overwhelmed. Even before the stay-at-home order, though, I was the default parent. I kept track of everything, and my husband was more like my willing assistant. He’d do anything I asked him to do, but I sometimes felt like I shouldn’t have to ask. Often I don’t ask. I just keep taking care of things, hoping someone will notice.
My husband is not a sexist 1950s outlier; each day another study confirms his approach is average for American men. He perceives he’s doing half the work, but I would disagree. He’s able to prioritize work so his career doesn’t slide. The feminist in me, the woman who wants gender equality and wishes heterosexual partnership weren’t such an unequivocally bad deal for women, knows I should be saying something, that I should speak up every time that labor is uneven, pandemic or not.
But I’m exhausted. I did suggest my husband take the same leave (either overlapping with mine, or at a staggered, later date.) He said he couldn’t risk it; his employer probably would begin layoffs in the near future, and he didn’t want to put himself on the chopping block. It made sense to me, even as I internally screamed about the hits women are expected to take in their professional advancement that men never are.
During the first week of my leave (covid dependent care leave provides two-thirds pay so I’m still working a third of my schedule), I felt an unmistakable loosening in my chest. I had whole days where I didn’t check my work inbox. I didn’t feel bad about the hours when I didn’t accomplish anything. I could spend afternoons playing with my child and cooking without losing sleep or work time.
Taking leave doesn’t bring me closer to gender equality, but it does help me breathe. I don’t want to fight with my only adult companion right now; the battle for gender equity at home will be here long after covid-19 has gone. The FFCRA offered me a lifeboat, and I’ve chosen to climb aboard.
Marissa Korbel is an attorney and the managing editor of The Rumpus and a freelance writer living in Portland, Ore.