Like millions of other parents, we have been struggling to sustain the competing jobs of work, home schooling and parenting. School is out for the summer, and the debate about how and where to resume it in the fall is raging. But here’s how our spring went and how the fall will probably look: We wake up when our younger daughter climbs into our bed to tell us about her dreams, we make breakfast, and we triage the tasks everyone needs to get done during the day. These might include guided reading and arithmetic exercises for the 8-year-old, math homework and a social studies report for her 12-year-old sister — and for the two adults in the family, both college professors, there’s email, class preparation, grading, committee meetings, research supervision and scholarship.
The same pattern continues this summer, minus the homework, with camps closed. It is difficult but deceptively so: On most days, it feels as if we get a reasonable amount of time to devote to our professional tasks. And yet we are unable to concentrate enough to complete the work.
Our strategy is to trade off being the parent “at work” and the parent on child-care duty for blocks of three hours or so. We ask the kids not to interrupt the at-work parent unless absolutely necessary. If they need to interrupt someone, it should be the parent on duty — but they should make an effort to solve problems on their own, since the parent on duty is trying to get professional work done, too. Invariably, both parents end up fielding questions about craft projects, complaints about sibling misdeeds and requests for snacks. Our personal responsibilities interrupt our professional ones, which interrupt our personal ones — and we feel we are failing at all our jobs.
By dinnertime, our kids typically complain, “We haven’t seen you at all today!,” while we want to scream, “We haven’t seen anyone but you!”
We wanted to understand why no one at our house feels they are getting the time they need. So before school ended, we collected some basic data on exactly how we were dividing our time, at this moment when paid and unpaid labor has become an undifferentiated blur.
We chose a Thursday morning for our experiment. For a stretch of three hours (not counting a 40-minute break for lunch, when we suspended the data collection), the parent on duty kept track of each time the children interrupted. We used an Excel spreadsheet to record the information.
We then generated a graph that represented when the on-duty parent was working without interruption, when the parent had to stop working to respond to a child and when the second child interrupted the first child’s interruption. (“Interruptions,” we should clarify, included requests for help with homework, questions about chores and snacks, check-in hugs, and tech support — but not distractions such as cello practice or shrieks of laughter, which also take their toll.) Looked at one way, the situation appeared manageable: Over the course of three hours, the parent on duty was interrupted for a little over half an hour in total, meaning they got almost 2 1 / 2 hours of work time.
But that time didn’t come in two clean chunks: The parent was interrupted 45 times, an average of 15 times per hour. The average length of an uninterrupted stretch of work time was three minutes, 24 seconds. The longest uninterrupted period was 19 minutes, 35 seconds. The shortest was mere seconds.
Numbers like that help illustrate why sustained concentration while working from home is so difficult.
Social science research underscores the costs of interrupted professional focus. In a laboratory setting, it can take upward of 20 minutes for people to get back to the task at hand after an interruption, and the quality of their work declines. People skip steps in their projects when they attempt to refocus, studies have found, or repeat steps they’ve completed. On the other side of the equation, our kids would certainly vouch for the decline in the quality of our parental labor. And pre-pandemic research demonstrates that working from home heightens both job stress and family conflict, particularly when it requires the kind of multitasking that quarantine demands.
We know how lucky we are: Unlike many parents, we have enormous flexibility in how, when and where we work. And yet the current situation is untenable. That we felt driven to quantify the interruptions, however briefly and incompletely, is a sign that we are at the end of our ropes. With many camps either canceled or moving online this summer, employed parents (particularly mothers, surveys find) will continue to do multiple, incompatible and increasingly demanding jobs simultaneously.
Before quarantine, even extracurricular activities — music lessons, sports practices and play dates — afforded us windows of uninterrupted work time. We sent emails or made phone calls while waiting in a parked car, after chauffeuring the young violinist to her lesson. Now we set up the webcam for those lessons, edit the videos for virtual choirs and troubleshoot unending tech mishaps.
During the pandemic, the waged (although undercompensated) work done by education and child-care professionals — including teachers, coaches, school psychologists, technology specialists and cafeteria aides — has moved into the home, where it is now performed by unwaged caregivers. At the same time, many employers are asking more of their employees. For example, planning for the uncertainties of the fall college semester requires a complete summertime overhaul of course readings, activities and assignments that we have built over years.
Some policy solutions might help. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires employers to provide paid leave for parents to care for children whose schools have closed. Yet it offers only two-thirds of salary, for only 12 weeks, and only for businesses with between 50 and 500 employees. By one estimate, as little as 17 percent of the private-sector workforce may be covered. (We aren’t.)
Congress should expand the FFCRA to include everyone doing additional care work because of the pandemic and to provide essential workers with financial support for the care of their dependents. Compensating care work directly and equitably, as feminist projects and groups like the Wages for Housework campaign and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have long advocated, would also give caregivers the ability to negotiate with their employers over establishing boundaries between work and home life, while crediting the economic value of caregiving in ways that might transform the post-pandemic economy.
If our micro-experiment shows anything, it confirms what feminists have long known: Caregiving labor has to be done by someone, it will not take a back seat to caregivers’ other work responsibilities and it enables other labor that has historically been more highly valued.
Meanwhile, our responsibilities mount. Our fall university courses will probably include online and in-person components — perhaps with extra sections, to make social distancing possible — some during evenings and weekends. We’re crossing our fingers that schools can reopen safely come September, restoring a line between our responsibilities as parents and professors.