(This story is part of Home Bound, a series that examines Americans’ fraught relationship with their homes—and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hit the reset button.)
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, people in power—the primarily white male business leaders and policymakers who set the standards, policies, and cultural norms for the rest of us—didn’t think much about home. It was a man’s castle. One’s private domain. What went on in the home, to them, was an oasis of family and leisure, separate from the vital workings of the economy. Economists even had a name for it: separate spheres (PDF). Men specialized in the sphere of paid work. Women were responsible for the unpaid domestic labor of home.
But once the pandemic hit, those power brokers, along with everyone else, were forced to reckon with what women and caregivers have known for ages: There are no separate spheres. At least not for women.
The majority of women and mothers work outside the home, contributing an estimated $7 trillion to the economy every year—more than the entire GDP of other advanced nations. About 40% of mothers are breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families. And the majority of children are being raised in families where all parents work. Yet when the schools and childcare facilities shut down in the pandemic, without a second thought, it was women who took on the bulk of schooling and caregiving at home. That impossible task—combining work and care at one in the same time—contributed to more than 2.3 million women (PDF) being forced out of paid work in order to do the unpaid work of care at home—a phenomenon that may set women’s economic gains back a generation and cost as much as $1 trillion globally in the coming years.
The pandemic sharply revealed to the wider world that the care work of the domestic sphere of home, much like roads, bridges, libraries, and fire departments, is actually part of the critical infrastructure that makes the economy go. And that, for most families with young children, having a stable home—or even being able to afford one—requires stable childcare. Activist Ai-Jen Poo calls it a “Care Awakening” that has junked the outdated separate spheres ideology and completely redefined the way we think of care and home.
Now, the question is, what are we going to do about it? Canada just committed $30 billion Canadian ($23.9 billion U.S.) to create a high-quality, universal early care and learning system in the next five years. It’s time for the United States to not only catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to supporting families and home, it must go farther.
A VISION OF THE FUTURE
Imagine for a moment: After months of excellent prenatal care, you and your partner have at least three months of paid leave each to recover physically, get the hang of breastfeeding, bond and set your new family dynamics. (Solo parents have a longer paid leave.) You have plenty of time to find high-quality childcare that will be open when you need it and close to work or home. The care is easy to find—perhaps there’s a local or regional quasi-governmental authority that connects you to a network of all the stable, well-funded options in your area—public, private, faith-based, center-based, in home. You aren’t worried, because you know any option will be excellent; the child care workers and early care and learning teachers are well-trained and well-paid.
You don’t worry about straining the family budget, because none of the options will cost more than 7% of your family income, the benchmark set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as affordable, or, if you’re living in poverty, it won’t cost you anything. And if you choose to stay home to care for your child yourself for a while, you receive a cash stipend and later, help transitioning back into now-enlightened workplaces where flexible work and flexible career trajectories for all workers are the new norm. (Remember, we’re dreaming here.)
You don’t feel guilt, blame, or stress because you live in a country that values care and family well-being and where investing in universal high-quality childcare is seen as a child’s right and a public good. READ MORE
By Brigid Schultelong
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