As soon as she began planning to work from home, Saba Lurie knew she would need to make major adjustments in how she operates her private psychotherapy practice, from counseling patients through a screen to managing her staff remotely.
She also quickly realized that, because her husband earns a higher salary, the bulk of the domestic work would fall on her.
The aggravations added up quickly: Her bathroom became an emergency office. “It’s the one place I can close the door and lock it,” she said. Her husband, unaccustomed to balancing his workday schedule with hers, forgot to tell her about some of his conference calls, leaving Ms. Lurie scrambling to figure out how to tend to their two daughters, ages 4 and 1.
Her practice, which she spent years building, has been pushed aside.
“The responsibility to deal is on me,” Ms. Lurie said. And many of her clients have told her the same thing. “What I am hearing is that we as women are going to be the ones to set boundaries or establish a plan.”
Ms. Lurie and her clients are part of a generation of professional women who had arranged their domestic lives, however precariously, to enable full-time careers and parenthood. They are facing this crisis in the midst of high-intensity parenting years, and a crucial moment for growing and establishing their work. Now, able to set up shop remotely, but with schools closed and child care gone, the pandemic is forcing them to confront the bruising reality of gender dynamics as the country is trapped at home.
In interviews with more than a dozen women who work as lawyers, writers, architects, teachers, nurses and nonprofit administrators, many said that they were grateful to have some child care help pre-quarantine, and that they could work from home. But they have been slightly stunned to learn that they are expected to organize and manage every domestic need for their family, while maintaining a full-time professional career as part of a dual career couple.
It was feminism of earlier generations, after all, that declared “the personal is political.” So the fact that the crisis hit after stinging political defeats for female presidential candidates adds to the uncomfortable reckoning for many Democratic women — even if they had decided themselves that the most viable way to defeat President Trump was to support a male candidate.
When Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race, Gretchen Newsom sat in her car and burst into tears. Six weeks later, Ms. Warren backed her onetime political rival Joseph R. Biden Jr., and Ms. Newsom is working, parenting and teaching as a single mother. And, as the political director for the San Diego chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, she is struggling around the clock to answer fearful questions from union members.
“It is kind of a slap in the face, we’re doing all of this and yet we have so little representation,” she said.
While the political disappointment may be most acute among liberal women, the bargain is bipartisan. Indeed, it is the kind of “lean in” feminism embraced by people like Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter — whose 2017 book “Women Who Work” essentially told women to get enough help to do it all — that is facing perhaps one of the most jarring shifts. It’s also an economic struggle, long clear in the lives of women who earn lower wages, that feminist political leaders have criticized for years.
“It’s like our economy is this house of cards for women and it is just toppling down,” says Cecile Richards, a founder of SuperMajority, a new political organization aimed at energizing female voters. “All of the structural problems that we’ve all known intellectually you can now see in pretty much every woman’s daily life.”
Now, those who are able to work from home have created new offices in cars, spare closets and, like Ms. Lurie, bathrooms. Millions of others, like nurses and home health aides, find themselves on the front lines of battling the virus, facing serious health risks. And with women making up nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage jobs, a majority in the service industry, many have lost their income entirely.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one-third of working women, compared with just 15.7 percent of working men, are employed in two industries that have been significantly affected by the virus: the health care and social assistance industry and the leisure and hospitality industry. In both fields, women are paid less than their male peers, according to research by the Economic Policy Institute.
“I hope we rethink a lot of structures after this,” said Candace Valenzuela, a Democratic congressional candidate from the suburbs of Dallas. “My hope is that coming out of this crisis we rethink compensation for both women and for people who traditionally get minimum-wage work.”
Until March, Ms. Valenzuela spent hours calling donors from her campaign headquarters. Now, she is at home caring for her sons, ages 4 and 1. Her mother-in-law, who lives with the family and often helps with the children, has fallen ill, and though it is uncertain if the coronavirus is the culprit, she is quarantined in a different part of the house. With space at a premium, Ms. Valenzuela cleared her curling iron off the counter, brought in a yoga ball and turned her bathroom into a makeshift office for the foreseeable future.
Ms. Valenzuela considers herself lucky because her children are young enough that she is avoiding home-school. And her husband had already taken on much of the household duties since she began her campaign last year. Still, she said: “The way we’ve been able to MacGyver a career as a woman is completely under attack by a global pandemic.”
The crisis has become a moment for some to reconsider how much progress has taken place on a societal level.
Ms. Lurie, the therapist, recalled the day she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, holding her year-old daughter. Since then, she said, “it has just been having to recalibrate, recalibrate and recalibrate. What I promised my daughters isn’t something I can deliver and that’s such a painful thing to consider.”
Dori Howard, who helps run a women’s co-working space in Los Angeles, said she viewed the pandemic as sending feminism back to the “1950s with women stuck at home.”
Many friends and colleagues, she said, have put professional projects on hold because their husbands have the higher income. Indeed, research shows that women with children often face a significant drop in earnings after having a child, but there is no similar drop for men.
“Of course their husbands make more money than they do — because of the wage gap,” Ms. Howard said. “It’s a cycle of despair.”
The new set of challenges comes as more American families are likely to be dependent on a female breadwinner. Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18 today, compared with 18 percent in 1987. Nearly a quarter of families are headed by a single mother, the second most common family arrangement in America after living with two parents.
Aireka Muse, a television writer in Los Angeles who gave birth to her first child six months ago, has taken to working on her latest project from her parked car. The other day, she said, when she walked back up to the family’s one-bedroom apartment, her husband asked, “When are you going to be done?”
“For him there was a limit to the time and a box for being more responsible for our child,” she said. “But me taking care of my son is not circumstantial. I’m never going to be done — there’s always going to be another project and there is always going to be my son.”
Ms. Muse has some hope that the quarantine experience — and the up-close look at parenting, professional work and keeping everyone fed and healthy — could shift some men’s perspectives, especially those who identify as feminist but might not be first in line to call the pediatrician.
“At least for my husband, they are more hyperaware of the work that their wives have been doing, and something has got to give,” she said. “Instead of just running on automatic pilot, I wonder if it is eye-opening for them?”
Late last month, Representative Katie Porter, a freshman Democrat from California, found herself trying to self-quarantine in her bedroom after exposure to the virus, while spending around seven hours each day on conference calls. At the same time, Ms. Porter, a single mother to three school-aged children, was trying to keep up with the distance learning requirements for three different grades.
“When the email says, ‘Make sure your student does A,’ I don’t even know which student they’re talking about,” she said. “It was overwhelming.”
Ms. Porter is trying to channel some of her personal frustration into political action, raising alarms about the level of stimulus payments disbursed to single parents and pushing for legislation that would expand the amount employees can put in tax-free dependent care accounts.
Amy Pompeii, 46, has managed to juggle working as a nurse at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center with being a single mother since her husband died nearly a decade ago. With her daughter, a college sophomore, now at home, Ms. Pompeii has help to care for her 10-year-old son.
“A lot of my co-workers do not have that luxury,” she said. So far, the hospital where she works has not been inundated with patients battling the virus, but her children still worry. “We are all under a very stressful situation, but the men I work with, for the most part, they go home and decompress, do something to clear their mind,” Ms. Pompeii said. “We don’t get to do that.”
In therapy sessions with his clients over the past few weeks, Avi Klein has heard all sorts of domestic frustrations — a divorced father desperate to see more of his children, a high-salaried husband who is trying to carve out time for his wife’s graduate studies, and women whose less flexible jobs are taking precedence over their partners’. But among heterosexual couples, the most common scenario is that women are taking on the emotional and care-taking labor, according to Mr. Klein, whose client base is male and whose own wife takes care of their three children while he runs his practice out of the family’s home in New Paltz, N.Y.
Mostly, Mr. Klein said, people remain in survival mode: “What everyone is doing is impossible and crazy.” But whenever the chaos subsides, he said, “this has to reshape our views of gender in a meaningful way.”
“To spend this much time at home, to have this experience of taking care of a family will change us,” he added. “We will have to all have a better sense of what we are asking our partners to do.”