Main content start

The Elephant in the Room is a Homeschooled Toddler (and Sometimes Three)

I’ve always felt queasy when strangers ask me “What do you do?”  Call me a literalist, but my immediate instinct is to silently respond: “What you really mean is ‘What do you do that is monetized’, right? Because I make an awesome ratatouille and do decent watercolors, but most days I simply do a litany of unexceptional homework coaching, playdate scheduling, emotional cuddling, siblings peacekeeping, bedtime reading, lunchboxes packing, cooking, cleaning, tidying, and endlessly and lovingly listening but I get the feeling that this is not what you want to talk about.” But I was raised to engage in civil conversation, and I simply reply, “I’m a professor.” And there go, siphoned out of existence under one single word, the countless hours of invisible caring that I do.

“What do you do?” is a question that pretends to be bland and gender-neutral, even polite and altruistic, but relies on a massive erasure of all that needs to be “done” by invisible hands for families to function normally and generations to survive and become active in the world. “What do you do?” assumes that the only legitimate and meaningful and therefore socially sharable and talked about use of our time is paid work. It leaves speechless and humiliated those – mostly women – who dedicate their time to propping up entire communities in the shadow. It sucks up into a black hole of invisibility all the doers that work for free to enable paid work (that of spouses and that of children in the future) to happen at all. 

In normal times, a number of professionals performs a large part of the behind the scenes action that help others be doctors, managers, construction workers, mechanics, architects, web designers, philosophers, scientists, librarians, etc. The higher up you climb on the income ladder and the more all the activities necessary to live are outsourced to others – cleaners, cooks, personal shoppers, assistants, accountants, baby-sitters, tutors, drivers, and now TaskRabbit helpers and Instacart or DoorDash delivery workers. But, whatever their income, all parents have relied on one set of essential workers to go to work: the teachers or care-givers and the education infrastructure behind them.

In COVID-19 times, this entire stacked up system of substitutes has collapsed onto a single provider of everything that needs to be done for families to go on: the parent. And that parent is, in more than 80 percent of cases, a mother.

In COVID-19 times, this entire stacked up system of substitutes has collapsed onto a single provider of everything that needs to be done for families to go on: the parent. And that parent is, in more than 80 percent of cases, a mother.

If all fathers and mothers have been affected by shelter in place orders, the additional full-time parenting job that homeschooling entails has not been shouldered equally by all genders. Everything in this article applies to all parents as defined as the persons who actually do the parenting 50 percent or more of the time, regardless of sex and gender. In our societies, however, “parent” as a social role that attends to all the physical, emotional, social, educational, academic, medical needs of children has a notable gender bent.

 Already in pre-pandemic times, working married mothers were spending an average of 3.95 hours per day on top of their full-time jobs to do household, childcare, and related activities (travel to schools, malls, etc.) according to the American Time Use Survey for years 2013-2017. In comparison, working fathers employed full time devoted only 2.66 hours to these activities. That’s an overall differential of nine hours per week that women worked more than men, and for free, for the family’s wellbeing. In the meantime, fathers worked at their paid jobs seven more hours per week than working mothers and spent 34 extra more minutes per day enjoying leisure and sports. As for single parents, who are predominantly single mothers, the equation is even more dire. These figures translate into (even if they don’t fully account for) different pay scales, advancement, career trajectory, retirement assets, and overall physical and mental health. Yet it is rarely acknowledged as a major obstacle to gender equality. 

Another way to put it is that we, as a society, have accepted that full-time working mothers work for free an extra 470 hours per year so that others – husbands, children and even childless adults – can eat, sleep, work and have fun. It’s a good bargain for husbands (why pay a cleaner, cook, tutor, travel agent, scheduling assistant, driver, psychologist when your partner can do it for free and with love) and for society at large: why pay more taxes to pay for public daycares, schools that last until 6 p.m., police officers to watch out for feral kids roaming the streets, social workers, counselors, when there is a built-in system called families that do it out of necessity. In Germany, mothers have recently sent the bill for the free work they’ve performed during shelter in place under the #CoronaElternRechnenAb: 22,296 euros from March 17 to May 15 for Patricia Cammarata.

This is, however, only the measurable, externalized work load. It does not take into account the mental load and emotional work that mothers are predominantly taking on, at the detriment of carving out time for themselves or their own jobs (where they also predominantly perform the pastoral tasks). This constant internal checklist-making (bake cookies for teachers’ appreciation day, research colonial times costumes for end of year play, extend the washing machine warranty, cook eggplants before they go bad, mend holes in daughter’s favorite leggings, introduce dominoes to youngest to boost math, check on the eldest’s dispute with BFF) takes precious bandwidth that cannot be dedicated to work, self or rest. It clogs the mind with myriad microtasks for the sake of smoothing out any asperity in the family’s life and lightening up everyone (else)’s mood. Again, it goes entirely unnoticed, yet it impedes women’s access to a mental space and time dedicated 100 percent to their own projects. 

There is no “pipeline issue” that prevents promoting women at work. There is, in addition to gender discrimination documented in field studies, a “second shift at home issue” that deprives women of the time and mind-space to compete on the same grounds.


If we were to truly express what is happening now, THIS ENTIRE ARTICLE SHOULD BE IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

Now fast-forward to COVID-19 times when shelter in place and homeschooling are putting, literally, another full-time job (and maybe several) onto already overworked parents’ schedules – whether they are able to find the time or not. Another full-time job which takes place AT THE SAME TIME (if we were to truly express what is happening now, THIS ENTIRE ARTICLE SHOULD BE IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Because we are talking of a new normal that is literally wrecking the health and resilience of parents, and pushing mothers one giant step further away from advancement, paid work, and recognition) as their prior day jobs (which are often pushed back into the night to be performed at all). In the past, because of the (already very blurred, depending on one’s field of employment) separation between personal and professional lives, companies and society were all too happy to be entirely blind to the second shift that women undertook. Now a third shift has been added, not consecutive to the work day, but concomitant with it. This is likely to last for another academic year as schools scramble to makes plans for social distancing with reduced budgets and increased protocols. Why is this not a top concern for policy makers, universities, and company leaders?

At the beginning of shelter in place, some had hoped that the invisible caretaking roles of women in the domestic sphere and its impact on their careers would at least finally become obvious. Now that Zoom meetings may involve toddlers’ burps and fifth grader’s tears, and office hours may take place in the nursery, administrators, colleagues, and leadership would finally see that our professional selves emerged thanks to sheer superpowers from the entanglements of structurally unequal and gendered private lives. Zoom would finally show that the personal is political – and that policies need to be put in place if we take gender equality seriously. But guess what, the toddler is once again the elephant in the room. 

To take a concrete example, since March 17, like hundreds of millions of parents worldwide, I have pivoted to become instantly a first grade teacher and a sixth grade tutor, a PE instructor, an art teacher, a tech assistant, an emotional coach, an aftercare provider, a cantina cleaner and preparator, a librarian and a child psychologist, while also imagining extra-curricular activities, Zoom playdates, and outings to make sure my two children continue to just be kids. All this alone as a solo mother, while working as a professor of French literature at Stanford University, and being the chair of a department of about 40 faculty and 80 graduate students – roles that now include reinventing every single aspect of how we work and plan the next academic year and, again, caring for others’ emotional and professional needs. Am I complaining that I had to shoot video of a magic trick with my 6-year-old and her plush rabbit while brainstorming with the older one how to complete the Earth Week Bingo Challenge, and listening to a Zoom briefing on academic continuity (camera off)? No. (These were the fun parts—don’t ask about the “Day The Doors Were Slammed.”) But I don’t know how much longer I can start my work day at 8 p.m. and not feel that the world has become totally insane and no one is seeing it.

I fear a second wave in this health crisis will come in the fall, that of mental health issues such as burnout, depression, anxiety, and addictive disorders to cope with stress. We can also expect a wave of women leaving academia and the workplace more generally if nothing is done to mitigate this impossible double bind.

More importantly, I fear a second wave in this health crisis will come in the fall, that of mental health issues such as burnout, depression, anxiety, and addictive disorders to cope with stress. We can also expect a wave of women leaving academia and the workplace more generally if nothing is done to mitigate this impossible double bind. We are in a structural situation where women are asked by society to resume their former domestic roles full-time while struggling to continue to work also full-time. The working mother pre-COVID-19 was adding nine hours of work to her week load to manage the household and kids; make that 49 today for parents doing everything alone (within or without marriage), and 29 for the lucky ones who share responsibilities equally. 

The rat race was already ugly enough. For working mothers and parents, it has become a rat race where you run on your hands, uphill, through mud, with a sack of bricks on your back, while feeding a bottle to a newborn. Smiling required.

 “Productivity” is expected to lessen in the current homeschooling situation. I would say the opposite: considering the three or four different full-time jobs that parents have to perform daily, our productivity has never been higher. But our paid work, the work for which we can add lines on our resume, and the intellectual production in the form of books, articles, conferences that universities use to assess salary raises and promotion, has taken a hit. As Emma Pettit writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Dips in productivity are likely to differ across gender and other factors, including race and caregiver status. That makes the pandemic not just ‘a blip,’ says [Professor Kimberly A.] Griffin, but an event that could have ripple effects for years to come.” With research and writing slowed to a crawl, women and caregivers are facing major socio-economic consequences in academia (but this is translatable in all sectors), from salary stagnation even after salary freezes are lifted, delayed promotions, stalled careers, lost income and lessened retirement capitalization, in addition to the psychological toll of 24/7 stress and overwork. These consequences will widen the gender economic and leadership gap and discrepancy between caregivers and non-caregivers that workplaces are already failing to suture.

How much longer are we going to turn a blind eye to this now massive, systemic gender inequality and the question of decent access to working conditions that recognize that caring for families is, to borrow from the shelter in place orders, “essential work”? It is timely and urgent to finally address the need for affordable and subsidized childcare, flexible hours, parental leaves that address real parental constraints, such as homeschooling or children with special needs, and to institute policies for salary and promotion that would equalize the scale when comparing parents and non-parents’ “production.” 

I would gladly go one step further and urge our societies to truly draw the lessons from the pandemic: we need to recognize and value the truly essential role of caregivers, in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and homes, and decelerate the constant push for “productivity,” “output” and the forced commodification of every aspect of human activities. Caring takes time. It cannot be optimized and made more “efficient” or “leaner.” Like thinking, or teaching, it is incommensurate to any economic measurement. But it needs to happen for individuals, families, communities, and societies to survive and thrive. And the invisible superheroes who hold us all afloat single-handedly should not be punished for attending to the needs of the toddler in the room.  


Cécile Alduy is a professor of French literature and chair of the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford University.