The start of the school year is typically a time of excitement for both parents and children: relief from 24/7 parenting for parents, and a return to friends, teachers, and familiar social routines for children. Over the past year, however, the Covid-19 pandemic upended the seasonal joy and replaced it with a period of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty for parents, children, teachers, and school staff. In New York City, where I live, the number of children enrolled for in-person public school instruction plummeted rapidly as details of the in-person schedule and safety protocols were gradually revealed and as teachers’ unions launched strong public opposition to the plan. At the start of the school year in August 2020, over 500,000 students, about half of the district’s 1.1 million public school students, enrolled for two to three days per week of in-person instruction. But by the end of October, only 283,000 out of 1.1 million had actually attended face-to-face instruction. The lowest rates of participation are among Black and Asian families, while white families are sending their children to school in person at the highest rate.“Without schools open, and with daycare capacities limited to slow the spread of Covid-19, the education and weekday care of children became a matter to be dealt with almost entirely privately, within families themselves.”
Without schools open, and with daycare capacities limited to slow the spread of Covid-19, the education and weekday care of children became a matter to be dealt with almost entirely privately, within families themselves. As parents made their lack of faith in governing agencies’ ability to keep children virus-free evident through their choice to send children to school in person or keep them home, the alternative to sending children to school in a country with little public support for childcare also became clear. Parents, especially mothers, and especially nonwhite mothers whose children are learning at home at higher rates than white children, were expected to fill in the gaps. City and school officials generally assumed women could somehow keep children home and care for all of their health, comfort, and social needs complaint-free, while also keeping up with waged work in or out of the home, unavoidable social obligations, healthcare needs, and all of the new social and logistical responsibilities the pandemic has produced.
The school situation and the consequences of closures for families highlight how two older and interlinked crises of the family are being exacerbated by the pandemic: the crisis of the privatization of the family and the crisis of patriarchy within it. In the absence of normally operating schools, and with limited daycare options and a meager financial safety net, families are expected to take care of themselves socially, financially, and medically without any outside help. Furthermore, in these times of strain, cultural scripts that encode women as “naturally” the best caretakers of children and other vulnerable loved ones offer a seemingly simple way out of the problem.“In pandemic society, as in so many other contexts and situations, falling back on gendered allocations of care work within families solves the problem on the face of it by placing responsibilities on the shoulders of women.”
The situation today reminds me of similar patterns documented by social scientists over decades of research on families, chronic illness, and disability. My own firsthand observations during more than two years of ethnographic research with food allergic people demonstrated to me how families are considered the primary bastion of safety and security. While my research and this short essay focus on the dynamics around childcare, research on elders, end-of-life care, and disability communities and activism demonstrate that the dynamics I have observed about the gendering and privatization of care are generalizable well beyond caring for children. In light of the specific patterns of vulnerability produced by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, old age, immunosuppression, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes join young age as biological and demographic characteristics that demand extra care to be taken by affected individuals and more work to be done by feminized, kin and non-kin caretakers. In pandemic society, as in so many other contexts and situations, falling back on gendered allocations of care work within families solves the problem on the face of it by placing responsibilities on the shoulders of women.
Privatized care: The case of food allergy
These problems around care, particularly childcare, are not new or unique to the pandemic. In fact, the current crisis of childcare infrastructure in Covid-19 times echoes aspects of what I saw in my multiyear ethnographic study of food allergy advocacy. Food allergy families had limited support from outside institutions like schools.1Danya Glabau, “Morality in Action: Risking Death and Caring for Life in American Food Allergy Worlds” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 2016). This topic will be discussed in my in-progress book, due out early 2022 and tentatively titled Reproducing Safety: Food Allergy and the Politics of Care. Adults had to organize the labor of their members around the need for one well-paid adult with health insurance benefits—usually a man—and a second who could act as the full-time caretaker of the family’s allergic children—usually a woman. In the context of a sudden disaster like the Covid-19 pandemic, the slow-burning struggles of US families, like the ones that I observed in my earlier research, have become a second-order disaster in their own right.
In interviews with dozens of parents of food allergic children, attendance at numerous events by and for people with food allergy in the United States, and through reading all the memoirs and magazine articles about living with food allergies that I could get my hands on, I heard time and time again about the lengths that women had to go to in order to ensure the basic health and safety of their food allergic children. Schools were a common flashpoint. Women often had to fight to force public schools to recognize their legal requirements under the Americans with Disability Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to ensure safety measures or appropriate alternatives for food allergic children. It could be a part-time job in itself to attend meetings, take children to doctors to receive required medical documentation, seek outside review of proposed safety measures, and educate individual teachers and other parents in implementation after a plan was approved. All of this work was uncompensated. The bureaucratic burden of interfacing with schools and other care providers outside the home even led some women to quit waged work to oversee the care and education of their children, even when a child attended school full time.“The allergic child’s parents (most often mothers) would be the ones to do the direct education, and the friend’s parents must then do the prep work of sourcing, researching, purchasing, and packing peanut-free foods in an appropriate manner.”
Take the example of the infamous “peanut-free table” at lunchtime. This is a system used by many schools to keep peanut allergic children away from peanuts to prevent an allergic reaction. On the face of it, it makes sense. If hygienic separation from allergens is needed to prevent a child from having an allergic reaction, and a group of children share the same allergen, isolating those children seems logical. But organizing a solution based on the needs of individual children and the demands of their caretakers comes with hidden costs. Children at the peanut-free table are also separated from their friends during a crucial opportunity for socialization, unless the child’s friends also commit to peanut-free lunches. If so, the child’s friend’s parents have to learn what foods to avoid. The allergic child’s parents (most often mothers) would be the ones to do the direct education, and the friend’s parents must then do the prep work of sourcing, researching, purchasing, and packing peanut-free foods in an appropriate manner.
Ultimately, the school’s decision to separate children based on allergies, rather than limiting peanuts outright for everyone, creates invisible work for the parents of peanut allergic children and the parents of their friends. But it doesn’t seem like work is being done when everything works, and no one gets sick. Parents are not demanding compensation for their time or knowledge, so it seems free to school administrators. Everyone wins—except the parents (again, especially women) working behind the scenes to make it all seem effortless.
This is just one small example of how care for children in the United States is treated as a problem to be solved by individuals—particularly women—within private families. Allergen safety is not guaranteed given the current status of food safety regulations in the United States. It is supported in only a lackluster way by the public education system, largely on a case-by-case basis, and it requires significant intervention by mothers to get even imperfect results. For some, the burden is such that it is easier to stay home and become a full-time caretaker than to work or pursue other endeavors. Such reliance on women to orchestrate and carry out appropriate care work for vulnerable family members is one that arises time and time again in the history of families, medicine, and disability.
The roots of the crisis
The shortcomings of public forms of care and the idea that private workarounds by family members working off the clock could serve as some kind of solution around the edges existed well before 2020. But both the limitations of public care and the lengths that families must go to in caring for each other in private has been heightened since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States in full force in March 2020.“In prepandemic times, these educational institutions masked another long-term problem in the United States that is now impossible to avoid: There is very little childcare infrastructure outside of schools.”
There are resonances between what I found in my prior research and the patchy and lackluster responses of localities like New York City to the Covid-19 care crisis. Schools that had previously doubled as free childcare for many families are now closed. Already overstretched private and subsidized preschool capacity is now even more limited due to state and city health measures. In prepandemic times, these educational institutions masked another long-term problem in the United States that is now impossible to avoid: There is very little childcare infrastructure outside of schools. In New York City, the prepandemic childcare shortage was so dire that parents often join waiting lists for childcare before their children were even born. What exists is often privately sought out and paid for out of pocket, starting at $1,500 per month per child in the outer boroughs, by individual parents and families. While schools offer the promise of free childcare, freeing up women and other caretakers for other types of occupation during the day, they come at great cost and have proven to be a very fragile infrastructure in a moment of crisis.
Melinda Cooper roots the current crisis of care in the United States in the competition for political dominance between neoliberalism and new conservatism that began in earnest in the 1970s.2Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017More Info → Devolving responsibility for the care of children, the elderly, and disabled people to individual families and their private bank accounts satisfied both politically ascendant groups. Neoliberals could point to reduced spending and the supposed optimization of service provision by market mechanisms when families paid for help and resources out of their household budgets. Conservatives could point to the resilience of the (patriarchal) family and claim that family was returning to its rightful social role as the site in which care for children, elders, and disabled people could most competently be provided. As Veena Dubal additionally points out, the stability of household well-being being dependent on a precarious labor market is shrugged off by both sides by pointing to the past success of the nuclear, patriarchal Fordist family.3Veena Dubal, “The Time Politics of Home-Based Digital Piecework,” Ethics in Context C4eJ 50 (2020). According to this myth, one wage earner, most likely a man, could provide for an entire family. Therefore, where is the problem with a mother dropping out of waged work to care for children?
Yet, the intermixing of new conservative and neoliberal policies have themselves produced a situation in which one wage isn’t enough in the best of times. In times of additional need or crisis, like the Covid-19 pandemic, the publicly funded resources that exist are further reduced to a state of dramatic inadequacy. In the New York case, for example, the availability of publicly funded prekindergarten, which now starts as early as 3 years old, has been reduced or paused due to rapidly changing health guidelines. Parents who would typically have access to these services are potentially pushed to pay out of pocket for private services or to find a family member to do the care work at home.
Moralizing demands for family self-sufficiency and a mystical belief that women relations are the most fit caretakers of children and other people in need of care continue to dominate discussions about social services by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. At the same time, wage compression, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and increases in household debt have made a joke of the idea that many families can cover their necessary costs without government support. Only financially fit families, it seems, deserve to have access to needed resources for their young, old, and frail relations at any time, and especially in a time of crisis. For everything else, we have women.
The disaster of care work in unprecedented times“It is now a generalized crisis mediated by school and childcare facility closures rather than one that is primarily felt by parents of lower income strata and parents of children with disabilities or chronic illnesses.”
There is much to learn from comparing the ongoing Covid-19 crisis to prior research on the gendered politics of care work in the United States. For one, comparing the current situation to my work on food allergy families shows that the “crisis” of access to support for caring for children is not new, just adjusted in form and who it affects. It is now a generalized crisis mediated by school and childcare facility closures rather than one that is primarily felt by parents of lower income strata and parents of children with disabilities or chronic illnesses. But those who were already vulnerable are feeling the effects even more acutely: This latest crisis compounds long-standing, slow-burning crises organized by race, class, gender, and nationality, or what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence” in the context of environmental activism.4Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011More Info →
It also points to how, in a disaster, the most easily available solution can rise to the top with little critical or creative thinking on the part of officials and policymakers. Schools were closed—rightly so from the perspective of limiting transmission—with little thought about who would do care work in their absence or how noncare work tasks in the economy and society would get done. Mothers and other family members have cobbled together care for children before, so seemingly everyone in power assumed that this private, hidden system would save the day once again. This type of thoughtlessness about downstream consequences also seems to be a signature attitude of our times. Yet a crisis, more than any other moment, is a time for careful thought about how policy and action affect opportunities for freedom and oppression, marginalization and inclusion. As Donna Haraway argues, an existential crisis of care and life is the most necessary time for critical thinking, which should prioritize seeing from the perspective of the actors most prone to being forgotten. As she puts it, in a crisis, “think we must.”5Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016More Info →
Is the state of care in the United States during the Covid-19 pandemic a disaster? It depends on who you ask. For those who are not dealing with the direct effects of a lack of childcare—or even for those not managing it indirectly, as colleagues and friends of parents—it may seem like a distraction from bigger problems, like vaccine distribution and the overall economic outlook. But for parents at home juggling parenting and work, like digital humanities professor Miriam Posner, the pandemic has been a “giant fucking impossible disaster hanging over all of our heads.” This is especially the case for women. With parents thrust back into caring for young children full-time, often on top of waged work for outside employers, seemingly flexible gendered divisions of labor in the home are likely to fall back upon patriarchal assumptions about responsibility for childcare.
To be sure, a return to the home is sometimes welcomed by working women themselves because parenting can be enjoyable and meaningful work. This is a perfectly reasonable choice, if it could be made freely and with control over the timing and conditions under which a parent stays home full time. But what the Covid-19 disaster has done is removed any semblance of agency from such “decisions” that parents, especially women, might make. As Jessica Calarco put it in a recent interview with Ann Helen Peterson, in moments of need, “other countries have social safety nets. The US has women.”
The more distant consequences of such a “choice” can’t even figure into the picture for most parents who might find themselves grappling with children who are suddenly at home 24/7. The need to save for expensive, largely privatized higher education; the need to assemble a financial cushion should someone get Covid-19 and have to pay inflated costs in the mostly for-profit US healthcare system; the desire to serve as a role model of a strong, independent, working woman for one’s children: None of these can even be considered when children are suffering. Yet, long-term, all of these could impact a child’s future.“In our current moment of crisis, gendered care roles and the ideology of the family have turned out to be resources for managing the unmanageable and unimaginable.”
So why does this state of affairs continue? In our current moment of crisis, gendered care roles and the ideology of the family have turned out to be resources for managing the unmanageable and unimaginable. For employers and city and state political leaders, the personal and economic harms suffered by women and families in silence have prevented the childcare situation from becoming a true political disaster. Playing along and playing house has saved the political and bureaucratic class from having to put their own reputations on the line to intervene in material—that is, financial—ways to support families through measures like enhanced publicly funded childcare, more robust health care, food and housing assistance, and meaningful, long-term unemployment benefits.