In mid-March, when the novel coronavirus outbreak was starting to get bad in the United States, I reached out to a friend of mine, a fellow stay-at-home parent, to check in on her and her family. Her wife and their twin 3-year-old daughters live in Brooklyn, and I was concerned about them. My friend told me they were OK. She also said that her wife, who was by then working from home, had asked her, referring to the quarantine, “Is this really hard for you?”
“Are you kidding me?” she replied. “I’ve been doing this for the past three years!”
My kids are 4 and 2, not yet school-age, either. I said to my friend, “Yeah, it’s like: Welcome to the party, everybody. Now wash your hands.”
Our exchange got me wondering. Because the pandemic has forced working parents around the world to take on the additional responsibilities of numerous types of caregivers—teachers, nannies and housekeepers, to name a few—do people now have more empathy for stay-at-home parents?
Alexa Squitieri, 38, lives in Marblehead, Mass., and is a stay-at-home mom to an 8-year-old son. She thinks that her wife, who was forced to work from home during quarantine, might now have a greater appreciation for how isolating the job of a stay-at-home parent can be. Squitieri mentioned the constant camaraderie that can be found in an office setting. “That’s lacking when you’re at home,” she said. “When you’re an adult at home with a baby or multiple babies, you really have to work to find it. And sometimes, you don’t have the energy to work to find it.”
Since the start of home isolation, Brian Johnson, 42, has been working from home with his husband in rural Michigan. In addition to working full-time jobs, the two share the responsibilities of taking care of their 2-year-old daughter, breaking the day into “primary parenting blocks” when one of them focuses his attention on her. When I asked him whether he now has more empathy for stay-at-home parents or child-care providers in general, he said: “This is real work. And I don’t mean work as in drudgery. I mean, it’s a skill, it’s a craft. It’s something that takes time to get good at. It takes dedication. It takes devotion. I think those aspects are becoming clear to us right now.”
Jonathan Alvarado, 26, lives in Cherry Point, N.C., and is a stay-at-home dad of an 18-month-old and 7-month-old twins. He also works remotely 20 to 30 hours a week as a paralegal and writes a blog called thegreatdadsby.com. He said via email that during quarantine, his wife, who is in the military, had the opportunity to take part-time work. “It was a shock to her how stressful home life is,” he said. “She took the kids one day while I worked. It was a day full of crying babies and questions.”
When I asked Alvarado whether he thought the coronavirus pandemic would result in lasting empathy for stay-at-home parents, his response was: “Lasting? No way. Empathy is a great starting point, but it’s not the solution.”
“It’s like saying a person with a heavy load is appreciated by a second person,” he said. “The other may have empathy and share their appreciation, but that doesn’t make his load any less burdensome.”
“In many ways, the coronavirus outbreak has shed light on the invisible physical and emotional labor that stay-at-home parents perform,” Christina Cross, postdoctoral fellow and incoming assistant professor of sociology at Harvard University, said via email. “This growing awareness will hopefully translate into greater appreciation and empathy, but we as a society need to combine these feelings with action.”
Cross suggested supporting stay-at-home parents by making sure they have breaks to avoid burnout. She said that on a systemic level, “policymakers could guarantee adequate health care to address the physical and mental-health needs of not only employed workers, but also stay-at-home parents who are unpaid laborers.” She emphasized that the pandemic has not equally affected American families, and that the increased challenges of attending to the competing responsibilities of work, family and school are disproportionately affecting families of color and/or low-income families.
Vicky Salud, 37, of Chicago is a stay-at-home mother of three children, ages 7, 4 and 1. Whatever empathy may be gained from this time, she said, “I don’t want anyone coming out of covid saying, ‘Oh, I spent so much time with the kids, I definitely know what it’s like to be a stay-at-home parent,’ describing the loss of relationships and identity parents can feel when they leave the workforce. “You’ve stopped that identity for yourself. And that’s where being a stay-at-home parent gets hard for some people, or at least for me.”
Kelsey Grace, 31, is an artist and a single stay-at-home mom in Phoenix. She is also a widow, having lost her husband a year-and-a-half ago. “When covid struck, it flipped everybody’s world upside down,” she said. “But my whole world had already flipped upside down.”
While friends have tried to connect with her by saying things such as, “I think about you so much now that I’m at home all day with my kid; I admire what you do,” she said their experience isn’t the same as hers. “The empathy coming from covid is sort of like people visiting the idea of stay-at-home parenting, not actually being a stay-at-home parent.” She added that parenting her 2-year-old alone at home wasn’t as challenging as she expected it to be, and it was nothing compared to what families that can’t afford to buy groceries are going through. “This is a much bigger problem. It’s systemically rooted in us to not be able to realize how shattering this is for some people.”
It feels reductive to say that being a stay-at-home parent is hard work, but I’ll say it anyway. It’s a hard job. There are moments, like when our daughters are screaming so loudly at each other I can feel the blood swirling between my ears, when I think: If somebody doesn’t give me an adult problem to solve and an adult to solve it with, right this instant, I am going to lose my mind completely.
I know I’m lucky to have this gig. I’m also lucky to have a partner who does the majority of her paid job from home, and did so before sheltering at home. My wife’s work hours changed recently, forcing me to handle the girls’ wake-up and bedtime routines by myself. As a result, she told me that it’s not more empathy she has for me now, it’s more gratitude.
During this time, since I haven’t been able to take the kids to the park or the library or the art museum, I know my struggles are up in my partner’s face more often—and on her Zoom calls—but does that mean she’s any closer to understanding the loss of professional identity I sometimes feel? I doubt it.
For me, being a stay-at-home parent is a ridiculously difficult privilege. I don’t know if people will emerge from this time with a sense of productive empathy for stay-at-home parents. And yet, in the harsh light of the coronavirus pandemic, I hope that all of us who do this work are feeling at least a little bit more seen.