So many of us are at home now. All together. The whole family.
We're also at work now, at home. All together. The whole family. We would never bring our families to work, but now we've brought our work home to our families. And on top of that, the doors have been locked from the outside.
For those of us lucky enough to still have jobs, and to do them from the relative safety of our homes, the effects of Coronavirus-related school and office closures are destined to be far worse for women. If you're one of those women who's teaching your kids, changing the diapers, making the lunches, washing the dishes, and — oh yeah — working your day job, I encourage you to fight your fate.
Right now my husband and I are muddling through these early weeks as full time lawyers and caregivers to our two-year-old son. And trust me — it's not an Instagram-ready picture. Dried yogurt coats every surface of our house. I found juice running down our wall like a crime scene. A family of ants took up residence in our kitchen and a tick took up residence on our son's scalp. Our toilet overflowed — twice! — and no one knows why except the guilty two-year-old who ran out of the bathroom yelling, "Don't spill the toilet!" Don't even get me started on my hair.
As is often the case for hetero couples at the intersection of kids and career, at first I carried the weight of our load. In between virtual meetings and time-sensitive projects, I pulled out the tick and pulled out the Lysol. In between legal briefs I taught our son to play T-ball and did sprints down our driveway while doing a two-year-old's version of the conga. "Fast Conga," we call it. "Fast Conga" is also a metaphor for my life.
But while I Fast-Congaed all over the place, my husband sat comfortably in a warm bedroom upstairs. He talked on conference calls for 12-hour stretches, entirely unconcerned with what was happening on the other side of his door. When he emerged on Day 3 just minutes before our son's bedtime he said, "This is so hard!" I whipped my head around so fast I think I hurt myself. "Which part?!" I hissed, through my unbrushed teeth. As I glared at him with wide, terrifying eyes, I wanted to light him on fire. My son and I had barely seen him all week.
When I got pregnant three years ago, I ramped up my work and never slowed down. Before the baby came I worked until all hours of the night, effectively pre-working my maternity leave before I actually took it. When a big corporate re-org was announced when my son was an infant, I again worked until 3:00 AM most nights — only now I had a baby who often woke up at precisely 3:05. I worked so long and so hard I felt truly, frighteningly unwell. But that was a much smaller problem than the risk of getting "mommy tracked." Even women lucky enough not to face blatant discrimination when pregnant or a new mother often fear subtle unconcious biases — she's probably too busy for this big case; she probably can't come to this dinner — which can be just as damaging in the long run.
And now here we are, the women who held on through our pregnancies, our maternity leaves, our first months back with feces in our hair, once again positioned to fall behind our male colleagues because many of us are working while parenting alone.
If you have only one minute to read my advice while dishing up applesauce and half-listening to a conference call, read this: Their jobs are not more important than ours. Their careers are not more important than ours. I don't care what their business cards say. I don't care what their pay stubs say. We still make only 82 cents for every man's dollar — how do you think we ended up with this gap in the first place?
Now read this: You don't have to let him get away with it. And you don't have to feel guilty about it, either. There's an excellent chance he's not quite as important as he thinks he is. And there's an excellent chance you are more important than you admit to yourself, and that taking this step to protect your job — to protect your long-term career — is a lot more important than you think it is.
Women are taught to advocate for themselves at work — to ask for the higher salary, the better project, the bigger job. But sometimes advocating for the future of your career means standing before your partner with knots in your hair, with only five and a half painted toenails, wearing a pajama-outfit you've been wearing for one day too many, asking him to change the damn diaper because you're in the middle of a project. It means telling him you have an important call, so his fourth of the day will simply have to wait. It means handing him the plunger and letting him worry about what's happening on the other side of that door. I made it clear to my husband that he's not the only one who's "at work" right now. I spoke up — loudly, frequently — until he heard me. And then I spoke up some more until he actually started to listen.
I am well aware that we have far bigger problems than gender dynamics at home right now. People are dying and the economy is tanking and no one knows if or when it will end. That's all the more reason why women need to be on a level playing field as we enter the inevitable recession. This national crisis shouldn't also be a career crisis with a disproportionate impact on mothers because they can't make the call, can't make the deadline, can't make it work. I'm confident that our husbands' bosses aren't wondering right now whether they'll be able to make this work.
And sure, maybe my husband and others like him had a valid reason to think that the superhuman woman on the other side of the door could handle it all. Maybe I could. Maybe we can. But just because we can carry on a conversation with our boss while doing Fast Conga doesn't mean we should have to. And just because we can doesn't mean our jobs and careers won't eventually pay the price.