I just read “This Isn’t Sustainable for Working Parents” in The Atlantic and it very much reflected some of what I’ve been thinking about lately. This quote (I know it’s long-ish, hang with me) resonated deeply with me:
During the pandemic, working parents with young children “are fundamentally not going to be able to be as productive as someone who’s been on their computer for eight hours at home with grown kids or without kids,” she [Melissa Mazmanian] told me. “Who’s going to get promoted two years from now? Or who’s going to lose their job two months from now?”
Indeed, Whitlock has observed, based on her and her friends’ experiences, that any initial concern for the needs of working parents has tapered off. “People were very understanding in March and April that people had kids at home,” she said. “We’re getting into July, and in general people are sort of over it … [During conversations about] reopening, everyone’s saying we can all work remotely still, [but that ignores] the fact that that’s the same thing we were doing in March, and that was really hard.”
My family has it easier than most. I see our privilege play out very clearly in this area: With two parents and one kid, our adult:kid ratio allows us to trade off. We live close to grandparents and we’ve formed a kind of pod with them so Benji can spend time with them when they’re available. And, at nearly eight years old, Benji is quite capable of joining his own video chats, feeding himself from the lunch I pack for him, and entertaining himself for long stretches of time, however much he might not want to.
Despite these advantages, we still struggle. I estimate I’m able to work perhaps five to six hours a day, starting about 8:30 and finishing about 3:30 or 4:00, but with innumerable interruptions and distractions. My meetings regularly feature Benji hovering in the background or leaning on me. I rarely find the time I need to focus closely, instead having to string together 15- to 30-minute chunks of uninterrupted time. Every day I ask myself, “What was I doing?” dozens of times.
I worry about what my boss thinks. I’m one of only two parents on our eight-person team; the other person (not my boss) is a dad who seems able to foist his kids off on his wife while putting in 12-hour days. My boss recently praised that dad for always being online: “Every time I log in, he’s working!” Setting aside the unhealthiness of constantly working, I felt a pang of anxiety at this praise. There’s no way I could earn that accolade.
My accolade would be: “Wow, she scrapes by turning in the minimum amount of work while also parenting all day long and doing added chores that accumulate faster since everyone is home all the time, and she still gets out for enough bike rides to stay sane.” In short, I’m winning the mediocre-at-everything game. I prefer to spin it as “balancing” everything effectively, but ultimately it means I do no one thing well; instead, I do everything just good enough.
So what do my boss and coworkers think when I pop on and off all day long? When I’m not working at 6 am or 7 pm, and when I sign off at 4:00 to go play catch with my son? When I don’t have a huge output and lots of work accomplishments to point to? When I don’t respond to emails late at night?
At the same time, what does Benji think when he asks to play at 9:30 am and I say, “Je suis désolé — I have to work” for the first of a hundred times in the day? (We’re practicing our French a bit.) I know how I feel at letting him spend eight hours a day on his Chromebook: like a parenting failure. I feel like a parenting failure when I turn him away in favor of once again asking myself, “What was I working on again?”
So even with our cushy, privileged situation, I end up feeling like I’m slowly, inexorably failing at both parenting and working. I can only imagine what people in less ideal situations must be thinking and feeling.