Over the past few weeks, like most people, I have been sheltering in place. I'm in Oakland, California, with my husband and our 4-year-old daughter.
It’s a seemingly simple task meant to keep us healthy and safe, but it poses obvious challenges, including working from home while caring for my daughter. But this challenge speaks to a deeper problem I’ve noticed, one related to the role women are being expected to play.
On multiple occasions during this sheltering in place, my brain has flashed scenes from the TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
In the series, based on a book by Margaret Atwood, women are asked to leave their jobs and return home. Then they are forced into subservient roles — caretakers, mothers, maids, cooks.
At first I was confused by why my subconscious was making this connection, but as I talked to other female friends — all of whom have been thrust into expanded motherhood roles — I began to understand how hard this adjustment is on many women.
Caretaking is women's work
There is an underlying fear that is already a reality for many: As this crisis unfolds, women seem to be the ones who are expected to drop any personal ambitions and dreams to become full-time caretakers for loved ones, even if both partners have careers.
Pallavi Somusetty is a filmmaker with two young kids. She suffers from asthma and is being very cautious about any contact with the outside world. Since any previously scheduled work has fallen through, she is a stay-at-home mom for the time being. She also does all the cooking and cleaning and delivers groceries to her aging parents.
“I love them so much,” she said of her kids. “I just wish things were different and that I could feel the other parts of my life that fulfilled me mentally and emotionally and spiritually. Like, I can't access them right now. So I think I'm just grieving that.”
“I want to be out there filming and I have these restrictions right now,” Somusetty said. “So now I'm just — I'm a mom. I'm sort of mourning that.”
A few days into the first week of teleworking and home care, my boss, a mother herself but with older kids, asked me how I was going to deal with caring for a preschooler and doing my job.
It was a valid question that I knew was coming from a place of concern, but I had no idea. I remember mumbling that I thought we would be fine.
My husband, also working from home, hasn’t fielded any questions about child care from his employer.
The truth, of course, is that it has been challenging to hit deadlines while also keeping my daughter busy and occupied — a challenge I see continuing as long as schools are closed. It helps knowing that so many people are in this same boat, and my employer has sent out several messages in support of working parents.
Trying to make it work
Nevertheless, I automatically scrambled, as women always do, to find a solution. Luckily, with my job as a reporter for Voice of America, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., it was easy to shift my workday, starting at 5:30 a.m. PDT. I actually am more “in the loop” with my East Coast colleagues.
So, every day, I wake up, log on and get to work. When my daughter gets up around 8:30 a.m., my husband can get her going with breakfast while I continue to work.
But starting after breakfast, my husband can usually be found tucked away in the bedroom, working alone, while my tiny deskmate is by my side, quietly watching Peppa Pig or some other kids show on YouTube (I have major “mom guilt” for letting her do that). Most potty managing and hunger needs are met by me, unless I am on deadline or a call, and then I scream for my husband to take a turn.
As women, it seems we are required to just figure things out in regard to kids.
I know my situation is fortunate compared with those of many others. My heart sinks thinking of the women and kids sheltering at home in domestic abuse situations, for whom work and school were a refuge. And the news coming out of New Orleans and New York, where I lived for several years, is incomprehensible.
My Facebook feed is starting to get posts about friends of friends who have died. And, officials say, the worst is yet to come.
I realize men are under pressure now, too, of course, and many may be caretakers, but the responsibility tends to fall more heavily on women across the board, around the world and throughout history. Just this week in Malaysia, the country with the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia, the Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development posted a social media campaign urging women not to nag their husbands during the lockdown, to wear makeup and dress up at home. The posts drew online ridicule and were later removed. Sigh.
But, I remind myself, we have made progress, right? This is all a minor setback, right?
I try to remember this is just temporary, and that we are all home to save lives. And though borders are closing in real life, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the borders will hopefully soon reopen, unlike in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
And with those reopenings, I hope that the dreams, ambitions and work that many women have put on hiatus for weeks, possibly months, to care for loved ones will come flooding back ... with an increased ferocity.