An old cartoon from 1976 has been circulating on social media recently, titled “My Wife Doesn’t Work.” In 20 panels, it follows the daily routine of a stay-at-home mom: At 7 a.m., she’s packing lunches; at 11 a.m., she’s running errands; at 2 and 3 and 5 p.m., she’s sweeping, ironing and dishwashing while a toddler tugs on her skirt. The titular panel comes at 1 p.m. when we drop in on her husband chatting with a colleague. “My wife doesn’t work,” he explains. The joke has one of two interpretations: either he has no idea how much work it takes to run a house because he’s not around to see this labor, or he’s aware of it but doesn’t count it as “work.” Maybe both.
It’s not surprising that in 2020, this cartoon is being shared with a covid-19 twist. “Now you can’t even schedule the 4 p.m. playdate,” I saw one mom lament; another joked about performing every task in the comic while additionally spending 40 hours a week in Zoom meetings. Last week in Britain, two different female television guests were interrupted on air when their children breached their home offices. Some commenters compared it to when a dad on the BBC was interrupted by his own toddler a few years ago; others noted that unlike that video, in which the man’s wife immediately skidded into the room to retrieve the kid, no spouse or nanny attempted to rescue these women. “Yes, you can have two biscuits,” one mom told her son, flushed and embarrassed as she returned to discussing U.K. politics.
The pandemic exposed a lot of fault lines in modern society, including one that runs through the work-from-homeplace: The lopsided division of off-the-clock labor among working spouses has never been more obvious, and it’s made two things clear: 1) we can lobby for equal wages, promoting women, and harassment-free workplaces, but progress toward true equality hinges on chores — the diapers and the dishes and the hundreds of other essential tasks that must be performed, even if we pretend they don’t exist; and 2) unless we want to deal a blow to women’s careers and mental health, we shouldn’t try to return to business-as-usual until we address that “usual” has been pretty sucky for working parents.
Consider the version of usual that we’re looking at in the coming months. School districts nationwide have presented patchwork plans of reopening — students will attend every other week, every third week, every Tuesday when the moon is full — with no regard to the parents who will have to stitch together these patches while working jobs that expect full-time commitment. Florida State University announced last week that employees would no longer be allowed to care for children while teleworking — an exemption it had allowed with the onset of the pandemic. Beginning in August, workers would have to — well, it wasn’t clear what they would have to do. Send their kids to schools that might not be open yet, I guess, or shove their 4-year-olds in the laundry room for nine hours with a Lunchable and a boxed set of “Paw Patrol.”
One pictured a dean somewhere, chatting with a colleague, oblivious to the labor he couldn’t see: “My employees don’t parent.” (After public backlash, the university appeared to walk back the dictum.)
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Employees are always parenting now. Moms are always working now. Paid labor, unpaid labor, on-hours, after-hours. Deprived of school, they became teachers; deprived of summer camps, they’ve become counselors. Dads, too. Researchers at the Council on Contemporary Families found that the number of heterosexual couples who reported sharing housework had grown by 58 percent during the pandemic, from 26 to 41 percent.
The bad news is that still leaves 59 percent of couples who aren’t sharing responsibilities equally. Boston Consulting Group found women performing 15 more hours of domestic labor per week than their spouses; a United Nations policy brief on the impact of covid-19 on women warned that “even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.”
These are the sorts of balances that aren’t legislated, just negotiated, between bosses and employees or spouses at home. Back in May, the New York Times published a headline so incendiary it almost sounded like trolling, except it was based on a real study: “Nearly half of men say they do most of the home schooling. Three percent of women agree.”
A brief scan of my Facebook feed this week revealed every possible variation of maternal misery: One mom said she was desperate for schools to reopen so she could do more than 17 minutes of work at a stretch, while another prayed schools wouldn’t reopen for public health reasons, even though the thought of another semester of home schooling made her hair fall out. One mom said schools should reopen only if all children wore face masks, while another panicked that her severely asthmatic son couldn’t safely keep one on all day. A chorus of parents pointed out that children seem less vulnerable to covid-19, while a chorus of teachers pointed out that schools aren’t populated only by children, as thousands of janitors, cafeteria workers, speech therapists and administrators would like to remind you.
This isn’t tenable. This has never been tenable. The U.S. strategy of treating child care like a combination of a lottery and a blood sport has never been a solution. It’s just been a secret. It’s been something that parents are expected to magick together, uncomplaining, and then flawlessly enact behind the scenes.
If there’s a silver lining in any of this, it’s that the novel coronavirus has put sticks of dynamite into the cracks of our society, turning them into the canyons that must be navigated. It’s made the suffering visible. Instead of an office dad trying to settle a squabble over the phone while pretending he’s talking to a client, the squabble plays out on his conference call for all co-workers to hear. Instead of a nursing mom slinking into a bathroom stall to pump, she might be doing it on a Zoom call.
This moment in history has made visible how accustomed we are to choosing between physical well-being and mental health, to Scotch-taping our lives together while perpetually on the brink of exhaustion.
Opening schools is the red herring. The real issue is the absolute lack of safety net or social structure that has led Americans to think that opening schools is the only salvation. We can’t ignore this anymore, so we might as well put it all on the table: universal child care, mandatory paid parental leave. All the solutions we’ve dismissed as Scandinavian luxuries instead of universal necessities.
“My wife doesn’t work” has never been a true statement. But, “This doesn’t work for my wife” has always been a true statement, and now we can finally do something about it.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.