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I knew it was coming, but it still hurt: The news last week that the Ontario government is keeping schools closed through June made my heart sink. The plan for daycares didn’t give me much hope either, with a vague promise that they’ll operate again in the government’s Stage 2 of reopening, which is … no one knows how far away.
I was disappointed for my kids, who desperately miss their sweet, silly friends and big-hearted teachers. And for me, as I long for the ability to do even 15 minutes of work uninterrupted (“Mom, can I have a snack? Mom, how do you spell ‘potion’? Mom, where’s the Spider-Man toy that suctions to the window that I got for my birthday two years ago and haven’t touched since?").
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want my kids going anywhere near a school or daycare with new cases of COVID-19 still in the hundreds every day in Ontario. But the exhausting struggle to do my job, as an editor at The Globe, with two kids at home has crystallized an obvious truth for me (and I’m sure many others in this boat): Parents need child care in order to work. And in 2020, it’s still women who are carrying the burden when child care disappears, often at the expense of their paid jobs.
As Jessica Bennett writes in The New York Times: “It is undeniable, based on years of research, that women in opposite-sex couples simply do more of the domestic work and child-related planning.” And if you think a pandemic is going to change anything, forget it. According to a poll from the Times, parents aren’t dividing housework or child care any differently now than they were before COVID-19: 70 per cent of women said they were fully or mostly responsible for housework during lockdown, while 66 per cent said this was the case for child care.
This is all contributing to a troubling reality, writes Jennifer Goldberg in Today’s Parent, describing a trend in her social circles. “Moms who were able to keep their jobs at the start of the shutdown are now dropping out of the workforce … they’re being forced to make the Sophie’s choice of our time: your job or your kids.”
This article from The Lily makes the same case. “If a ball must be dropped, which one should it be? Chances are, in a heterosexual couple, it will be a woman’s paid labour,” writes Caroline Kitchener. The story of one of the women she interviewed, Aimee, perfectly illustrates this point. When daycares first closed, Aimee assumed she could remain in her CEO job at the company she co-founded, while her husband, currently unemployed, was primary caregiver to their child. “That lasted a grand total of three days,” Aimee told Kitchener, at which point her husband said, “I can’t do it. I can’t watch him for this long.” So (to the ire of women on Twitter everywhere) she made the only decision she felt she could: “I had to choose being a mother and being at home.” (And for the record, we all know that many dads would not have had this reaction.)
With women leaving their jobs by choice like Aimee, or the many laid off due to COVID-19, an obvious question has emerged: How can we ensure these women don’t disappear from the workforce permanently? In her column last week, my colleague Rita Trichur wrote about a new non-profit organization called the Prosperity Project, whose goal is "to ensure that women continue to play a central role, and that COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis do not erase gender gains in the workplace.”
No doubt, TPP – which will participate in a long-term prosperity study and use the results to develop resources to help women stay and advance in the workforce – is embarking on valuable work. But as Trichur also points out, “Concerns are growing that progress toward gender parity could be undone if women fail to re-enter the work force because they lack child care.”
Amanda Becker writes about the U.S. in the Washington Post when she says that the pandemic has pushed their “fragile child-care ecosystem to the brink,” but many of their challenges are present here too. As their facilities begin to reopen, they are dealing with expensive safety requirements, like smaller classes and personal protective equipment for caregivers. What this could ultimately mean is the “collapse of the system,” which is “likely to be particularly devastating for working women.”
To state the obvious, fewer daycare spots means fewer women back at work. “No recovery without child care,” Armine Yalnizyan, a fellow with the Atkinson Foundation, put it bluntly to Andy Blatchford in an article for Politico.
Jennifer Robson, a social policy expert from Carleton University, echoed that sentiment: Child care will have to be a “huge part of the plan for getting out of this.” Provinces need to step up, but as Blatchford writes, “the federal government has by far the most fiscal room to make an impact.”
Unfortunately, there are some things about this situation women can’t control, like government funding for daycares. But, in the meantime, we women can look out for each other – in the workplace and outside of it. And, obviously, men have a part to play here too – by doing their share at home but also recognizing the particular pressure many moms they work with are facing right now.
Now, excuse me while I go look for that Spider-Man toy.
What else we’re thinking about:
During these harried days of working from home with a three- and seven-year-old hanging off me (sometimes literally), my reaction is usually: Get me out of here. But I’m also savouring the lovely moments we wouldn’t have been able to have in our pre-pandemic life, like walks in a nearby ravine to see the resident ducks and visits to the shores of Lake Ontario to skip rocks and build sandcastles. On weekdays! In this Washington Post piece, Caitlin Gibson describes this silver lining, sharing the experience of one mother who had the simple pleasure of sitting on a blanket in her backyard with her one-year-old, with nowhere to rush off to. She watched her daughter experience nature, sweeping her fingers through the grass and studying a fallen acorn. “The weather was perfect. We could hear the birds. The wind was rustling. It was one of my favourite moments I’ve had with her."
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