The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed racial and class inequities in brutal ways. Gone are the early days when politicians might say that the virus affects us all equally. We can see in the statistics, in the losses, and in who fills up the hospital beds that this isn’t true. And just as the pandemic helped usher in a moment of racial reckoning, it’s also laid bare something else: the deep misogyny that structures our lives. With few exceptions, this issue has received less public attention, yet it’s pervasive in comments on social media and in the expectations on mothers who have had to juggle work and childcare in new ways.
On Twitter and Facebook, people have berated mothers for not being willing to drop everything to be their children’s new teachers and caretakers during the school day. I’ve seen mothers accused of wanting to send their children back to school so they can go back to their Zumba classes; I’ve seen people assert that the only reason mothers want schools to reopen is because they don’t like spending time with their kids; and I’ve seen some people rhetorically ask mothers why they had children at all if they don’t want to take care of them.
Implicit in these statements is that women—mothers—frivolously want to send their kids to school because they desire time to themselves, because they find their kids annoying, because they don’t care about the lives of others. While people might occasionally level these sorts of accusations at mothers and fathers, it’s mothers who are overwhelmingly blamed. There is no acknowledgment that women (and all parents) send their children to school because they need to work, and that their male partners, if they have them, might also be involved in these decisions. And while school isn’t daycare, it has become the institutional structure available to parents in the United States that allows them to work. Schools in the twenty-first century have become places that not only provide education: they provide therapies and counseling, two and sometimes even three meals, extracurricular activities, and many also provide after-school care. When schools closed during the pandemic, all those services ended or became less accessible. Fundamentally, schools provide essential care.
The United States has never been kind to working mothers. When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, naming the “problem with no name” and decrying women’s default position as mothers and housewives, many women of color and working-class women quietly noted that her manifesto forgot about them. In 1984, bell hooks decimated Friedan’s arguments by pointing out that when middle-class women work outside the home, it’s almost always women of color and working-class women who watch their children, clean their homes, cook their meals, and fold their laundry. Furthermore, in 1963, more than a third of women were already in the workforce, often doing jobs that were underpaid and precarious. These women didn’t need to be liberated from the drudgework of motherhood and wifehood; they needed raises, job security, affordable childcare, and a social safety net so that their own children had someone attending to them while they worked to support their families.
In 2020, we circled back to these arguments again. In March the coronavirus ravaged New York City, and it hit Queens—my borough—particularly hard. The sound of ambulances racing down streets punctuated our lives, and we decided to pull our kids out of school, worried for the teachers and ourselves, before the governor announced that all schools were going to embark on an experiment: remote learning, he called it. I was in the last semester as chair of my department, and my workload had exponentially increased as my department also switched to online learning. Fortunately for me, my partner was on sabbatical and took on the majority of responsibility for helping our then pre-kindergartner and second grader with the transition to online school. Still, I found myself working long days, and I was often typing away at emails and making plans well after my kids were in bed. At the time, in mid-March, we couldn’t imagine that these isolated lives funneled through a computer screen would become our new normal.
Over the summer, we came to realize that the next school year would almost certainly not look like what we had once imagined. And while I was no longer going to be chairing my department, I still had classes to teach, students to advise, committees to sit on, and even more significantly, my partner would be back to teaching his usual heavy course load. I panicked. How do you prepare for classes, teach, grade, meet with students, and follow through on committee assignments when you have a 5 and 8 year old at home three days a week? My 5-year old was going to be a new kindergartner, and he didn’t have the most basic skill needed to navigate online learning on his own, reading. We were being asked to do what I always knew was unfeasible: simultaneously work and parent. And on top of that, act as teachers for our children at the same time. And we were among the more privileged ones in this position! We could work from home, and our jobs were stable. Still, this didn’t feel like an inconvenience. It felt like an impossibility. I briefly fantasized about quitting my tenured academic job but quickly realized that was ridiculous and impulsive. We also couldn’t afford it.
The two-parent working family is not a new phenomenon. Working-class families have long depended on women’s employment outside the home to make ends meet. However, once upon a time, not so long ago, many middle-class families comfortably supported themselves on one salary—and it was almost always a man’s. It is a relatively new phenomenon that middle-class women find themselves not only in the position of wanting to work but also needing to work to support their families. The middle-class family in 2020 experienced what the working-class family has long known: the precarity of our social institutions, the desperate need for a safety net, and the ways in which mothers are blamed when resources run out. The 5.4 million women of color who have lost their jobs this year because they had to care for their children or were fired because they worked for a service industry that was decimated during the pandemic are the clearest illustration. If there was ever a time that we needed a government that could step in to support families— parents, and especially mothers— it was during this pandemic.
I don’t believe teachers should be made to work in classrooms that feel unsafe. The debate about whether and how schools should reopen is ongoing, and there are convincing arguments on both sides about how various school districts have responded to the pandemic. However, over and over again, I see people turn on mothers who are pleading for help because they want to work or need to work, or simply because they don’t want to lose what they have spent years building. It doesn’t mean that they love their children any less or that they don’t respect the lives or livelihoods of their children’s teachers. It’s that the social structure that they built their lives on has failed them, and that’s where our anger should be directed. They—we—have learned what working-class women have long known: American society has never respected our work.
Karen Weingarten is an Associate Professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York. Her first book, Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880–1940, was published by Rutgers University Press. She is co-editor of two special issues, Disorienting Disability (South Atlantic Quarterly, June 2019) and Inheritance (WSQ, Spring 2020) and has published articles in Literature and Medicine, Hypatia, Feminist Formations, and Feminist Studies (among other places). She's currently working on a book about the pregnancy test for Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series. You can follow her on Instagram @the_home_pregnancy_test for more about this project.