The New Working From Home

Coronavirus is exposing all the cracks in our work/life systems.

For years, whenever anyone asked me for advice on starting a freelance writing career, I said "invest every dime you can in childcare so you can protect your work time." When I wrote the acknowledgements to The Eating Instinct, I made sure to thank all of the babysitters and daycare teachers who had helped raise my daughters during the years I worked on the book. I also noted that this is the kind of thing female writers often do—because we are always asked who's watching the kids—while male writers almost never need to explain how they can have a job and children simultaneously. 

Well. Here we are on day whatever of the coronavirus pandemic. My six-year-old hasn't been in school since March 12. We lost our other childcare on March 20 when New York ordered all non-essential workers to stay home. (Some states are defining all childcare as "essential," but we felt strongly that since neither my husband or I are essential workers, we should not subject our nanny or our kids to the added risk. She's home with full pay for as long we can swing it, because domestic workers are some of the hardest hit by the crisis.) It has taken me two hours to write this far into this essay because I keep stopping to help my first grader tearfully try to navigate a math app on her new laptop, which she's so excited to use except for how she doesn't know how to type. The two-year-old is watching her 5th millionth hour of Peppa Pig. Dan and I ostensibly have a schedule that enables us each to work 4-6 hours a day (about half our usual time) and trade off on kids, but we're losing frequent chunks of that time to be our homeschooler's IT department, to change diapers, to refill snack cups. 

I want to be very clear that we are insanely grateful that so far, coronavirus is only impacting us with inconvenience and logistical challenges (and you know, the chronic sense of impending doom that we all walk around with now). Our family is healthy, safe, and we live in a woodsy neighborhood with a lot of hidden trails where we can safely social distance and still be outside. And we've both experienced truly wonderful moments of bonding with our kids that we probably wouldn't have had in the rush of normal life.

The Instagram version of our homeschool life; all of the tantrums not pictured. (Yes that’s just masking tape.)

But I'm seeing so many families struggle with these logistical challenges right now. The guy who owns the landscaping company I hire most years to mulch my flower beds came by to give an estimate (from six feet away!) with his four month old son in the truck. His wife is a nurse and working long shifts, so he has to bring his baby along to job sites, as long as he's able to work. Our friends who own our beloved local independent bookstore had to send their staff home and close their storefront, but they're trading off caring for their baby while working frantically to fill the online orders that will hopefully keep their business alive during this crisis. Another friend whose husband is still working as an attorney in one corner of their NYC apartment, is stuck on the other side of the apartment with two boys under the age of five who now need to learn to keep quiet during video conferences. Or maybe they don't—I love this essay by Chloe Schama about how parents of all genders should be making our kids more visible to our colleagues right now, so at least coronavirus can once and for all make the case that we need federal paid family leave and workplaces that support families. (And, I would add, that we need to pay and value teachers and childcare workers like the essential and all-powerful sorcerers they are.) 

So this struggle is very real and it's going to be one of the most important non-health consequences of the pandemic. Right now I'm too deep in it to have any big ideas or solutions, but I think we've long known what it would take to support working families. The question is will we now, actually, be angry enough to demand these changes of our government and employers? Or are we all so exhausted from waking up at 5am to work before the kids get up (not to mention terrified of financial ruin) that when this is all over, we'll just gratefully slide back into our old imbalanced lives?


Feeding your family now: On the Comfort Food Podcast, we tackled the particular food problems you might be facing in your house right now: What do you do when your kid’s safe foods are out of stock? How can you make sure your groceries are safe? How do we ration food without scaring the kids? We’ve got answers to those questions and more in our latest episode. Find it here.

Still have questions? I’ve got you covered: For The New York Times Parenting section, I responded to common and pressing questions about feeding kids during a pandemic: What should I do if we run out of my picky eater’s safe foods? How can we help food-insecure families? Is it OK for my kids to eat nothing but mac and cheese right now? (Hint: Yes!!) Read more here.

Falling through the cracks: For too many families, the line between doing just fine and not fine at all is very, very fine, and a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic shatters it. My friend Lynn Steger Strong wrote about this reality for The Guardian. “Two in five of us live in constant fear of when one single catastrophe destroys us, debilitates us, gets us behind on rent or forces us to have to cancel some service or essential thing that only feels expendable now that we have no choice,” she writes. “We already felt, almost always, like we were one stroke shy of drowning, and now the emergency is here, it’s both invisible and unrelenting – there is no end in sight. It’s hit all of us at once.” Read the whole thing here.

Snapshots from our new reality:

You're reading Burnt Toast, Virginia Sole-Smith's monthly newsletter. Virginia is a feminist writer, co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast, and author of The Eating InstinctComments? Questions? Email Virginia.

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