Greetings from Seattle. It’s going on ten months without seeing you, but I swear I hear and smell you in the pre-lucid hours of morning. Pot lids clattering to the linoleum to make way for the Crock-Pot from the back of the cabinet. A knife slapping the cutting board, slicing through onion or potato. The Conair curling iron heating-up on the bathroom vanity that emits an aroma of thrice-baked Rave ExtraHold. The dryer dial cranking to a halt, signaling the drum to start its spin. You calling to me from my bedroom doorway—smartly dressed in last season’s Talbots, hair coiffed à la Diana, smelling like honeysuckle, and ready for “real” work—wakes me from my dream. You’re not here, you’re in Tennessee. And the year isn’t 1989, it’s 2021.
I’ve been having these dreams for good reason. Being a mother and teacher during this pandemic eerily mirrors memories of you, and other moms in the Eighties, raising the kids as you labored, sometimes paid, mostly under or unpaid. Reflecting on you and my othermothers, women simultaneously working and caregiving feels less like an anomaly during this public health crisis and more of a return to the historical workday. But a major difference between you and me-as-Mom is that my partner works and takes care of others by my side; your grandchildren see your son-in-law’s work in all its forms.
As I remember it, Dad worked at work and recreated at home. I knew Dad worked at the aluminum company in town, that Beth’s dad was a lawyer, and Jessica’s was a postman. Yet I had no access to these jobs, never went to their offices, nor knew really anything about the day-to-day operations of their professions. My observations of these men were of them seated in front of Braves games on TV, scooping forkfuls of mashed potatoes or beans at the dinner table, or sometimes fiddling around the yard, rake in hand. I only heard about their jobs in passing comments from you, the wives.
“Dad’s working the night shift.”
“Jim has a new client.”
“Doug has to be at his truck by 4am.”
But ask me about your work, Beth’s mom’s work, and Jessica’s mom’s work? Well, that is a different story.
You cared for us kids while at work, and worked as caregivers without stop. I knew you helped elementary school children learn to read and do math. From a nearby desk, peering across the top of my Babysitter’s Club book, I watched you lean in to students to pass along gentle guidance and encouragement. Beth’s mom had her own classroom of first graders. I heard about her anxieties for students as she decompressed in the car, taking me and Beth to ballet lessons, or in conversations I overheard with you. Jessica’s mom (wo)manned the main office at my middle school. As Jessica and I snacked on cheese crackers and cans of Fresca she saved for us from the lunch she never had time to eat, I watched her type and patiently answer parents’ in-person questions from our “secret” perch behind her desk chair.
Mom, I attended the School of Working Women: a front row seat to women taking care of other people’s children while taking care of their own. Women waking-up at ungodly hours to make themselves look presentable for a long day of interfacing with others. Women putting the kids to bed at a reasonable time, just to do another work shift of cleaning dishes, doing loads of laundry, and paying bills. Women working together to make a school day—a schoolhouse—hum along, to keep the kids fed, to ensure no one missed a lesson. Women changing-up the routine when a child got sick or transitioned to a different classroom, or when the holiday season crammed the calendar with rehearsals and potlucks. Women collaboratively piecing together supervision and carpools in lieu of free after-school care and public transit absent in most small towns. Women making a lot less money than their husbands but seemingly doing all the work.
I have a theory. My own sex and gender-inflected interests inherently clouded my view on men’s work. Had I been more into sports, perhaps I would have seen men coaching, lugging bags of soccer balls and coolers from truck beds. Had Dad owned his own business, perhaps I would have hung by his desk chair after school, watching him keep the books or thoughtfully troubleshoot personnel issues. But as it was, children were not permitted behind company lines. We weren’t allowed to tag along to trial. We couldn’t ride in the back of the USPS truck. If such a time ever arose, it was a token “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day.” Those work parodies were followed by one of you moms picking us up to take us back to work with you.
Remember when I went away to the Big City for college? A universe of potential career trajectories opened-up before me. Yet when I imagined myself doing work, all I could envision was caring for children. Is this a coincidence? Assuredly, no. Caregiving as work is what I knew, having seen it modeled by you and other moms. I majored in urban studies, focusing on the urban education strand. I interned at shelters housing women and their children. Beth and I worked as counselors at an all-girls summer camp in North Carolina. I taught English to Japanese high school students. I mentored homeless youth in a residential program in Nashville. I taught Social Studies at an alternative high school. I studied youth development in graduate school. As you know, Beth became an elementary school teacher and Jessica runs her own online sewing shop, specializing in children’s clothes.
Now that the pandemic forces me to teach college students from my home computer, your two grandchildren are next to me while I work. They watch me respond to student emails during Zoom breaks. They hear me decompress with my women colleagues over the uncertainty of graduate student funding and the aching loneliness undergraduates express in their online assignments. As they snack on yogurt and chips held back from the lunch I never had time to eat, my boys shyly respond to co-workers’ questions about their school days spent in our impromptu schoolhouse. They, too, attend the School of Working Women. Now I understand that you, Beth’s mom, and Jessica’s mom loved us but didn’t love managing us while doing your paid labor. At best, working two jobs at once means feeling like you’re doing neither particularly well. At worst, it means always being on the verge of losing your mind. In these moments, and with nowhere to go because of the pandemic, I find some sense of relief (or is it productivity?) slicing onions or potatoes, experimenting with a new ponytail style, or starting a load of bath towels.
At the beginning of this crisis, I hoped the pandemic would break the cycle, that dads also working from home would be an adequate substitute for direct observation of a “profession” for the kids. With men caregiving too, will society finally take Angela Davis’s argument to heart and start compensating domestic labor? But one year in, the hours my partner spends in-person at his lab tick-up while I continue working from home. The news of women dropping out of their chosen professions to focus on home-work makes me see little has changed.
Years later and miles removed from me, you, Beth’s mother, and Jessica’s mother continue to labor unpaid; you take care of your infirm husbands. These men, beaten down by years of paid work and unschooled in domestic tasks, rely almost entirely on you, the wives, for daily survival. None of the chauffeuring, cooking, scheduling, feeding, cleaning, and coordinating with other women has ceased for you. If you had been adequately compensated for being an educator and for all those hours of domestic labor over fifty years of marriage, you could make a choice today: continue caregiving or pay for help and have a much deserved break.
The work-home changes wrought by the pandemic make me want to quit something, just one thing, everyday. But more broadly, it has unveiled the tenuous separation between paid and unpaid work many women of your generation struggled to gain for my generation but never got to enjoy. My generation of mothers, sisters, daughters, and aunties reaped the rewards of your labor, at least until this pandemic came along. Now once again—as if we never left the Eighties—we knit a patchwork of local, benevolent support in the absence of universal childcare and healthcare and standardized maternity leave. Before schools, offices, and laboratories reopen to those of us working from home, all caregivers, women and men, need a plan for the next crisis, and the next. Otherwise, we mothers will, once again, fill in the gaps left by the absence of policies for families to survive. So, Mom, in this new year, like you, I’ll keep working and caregiving, because that’s what mothers do.
Your loving daughter
The author with her mother at a performance of The Nutcracker.
Cover Image: “Mom teaches daughter” by Nenad Stojkovic, licensed under CC 2.0.
- The School of Working Women: A Letter to My Mother - March 19, 2021