It’s late afternoon and I’m hunched over my laptop in a small upstairs room of my home that normally serves as a storage space, but is now my office. It seems like nearly everyone has had a change of workspace in the past month, but mine is a bit different. I normally work directly below this room, in an open home office that’s now been taken over by my two young daughters, recently displaced from kindergarten and daycare.
I’m cloistered in here to escape them. I can hear my husband down there with them, alternately sounding cheerful or strained depending on their behavior and moods. He’s a natural with kids and loves to spend time with them, but amusing them for days on end isn’t something he’s accustomed to. He works long, odd hours, so typically, when the kids get home in the afternoon and on many weekends, he’s away and I’m doing childcare. But in the alternate universe of social distancing we now find ourselves in due to COVID-19, he’s a full-time stay at home dad, and I’m the one earning all the money.
Before everything changed, any appointment, emergency, or unforeseen event fell on me, as the person earning less in our marriage. It’s a situation many women find themselves in. I’m a former research biologist, now building a career as a freelance science writer. I love my work and want to be taking on more and bigger projects ― complex stories that will make a difference in the world. I’m ambitious, but my workload always has to maintain enough slack and flexibility to be able to absorb the blow of sick kids, snow days, teacher’s strikes, or whatever else comes our way.
My ambition always has to be measured against incidents like last spring’s Stomach Flu from Hell, when I found myself home with a sick-yet-still-highly-active toddler for two weeks while she recovered, working late into the night to try to keep up with my assignments.
In an instant, a man who normally works 60 hours a week or more found himself at home with no patients to see, and I found myself the sole income earner for our family of four.
My husband, whom I met while we were both completing our doctorates, works as an optometrist. He earns far more than I do, and works longer hours seeing patients and completing paperwork. He would never think of rushing away from work for anything less than a catastrophe. We both value our careers, but simple math dictates that his comes first.
Four weeks ago, seeing the writing on the wall, my husband shut down his practice and was forced to lay off his staff. Official orders to do so came only days later. Overnight, everything changed. In an instant, a man who normally works 60 hours a week or more found himself at home with no patients to see, and I found myself the sole income earner for our family of four.
Now he’s the one who cuts sandwiches and wipes bums, while my work has taken on an importance that it was never allowed to have before. And I love it. It’s terrifying, but also strangely empowering. My working time is now respected.
Rather than an open office just off the family room where I am easily accessible — a symbol of my fractured working life — I am tucked away behind a closed door that my children understand is not to be opened, because Mom Is Working. For the first time in my life as a parent, my work takes precedence.
The privilege of being able to afford daycare has meant that my children rarely see me work. They are only vaguely aware that I do, and not in the serious manner of their father, who actually puts on a tie and leaves the house each day. Yet after a week of our reversed roles, my 4-year-old built her own “laptop” out of Legos and began to carry it around, typing on it “like Mommy does.”
A few weeks ago, their father might have been standing 2 feet away from them, but they’d run across the house to have me solve a problem, because Mom is the one you take your problems to. Now, for the first time in their lives, petty squabbles and spilled milk are something to go see Daddy about. I can only hope that this change in their perception of the importance of my work lasts beyond the weeks or months of self-isolation ahead.
Of course, there have been other times when women’s work has suddenly become more important. The second world war immediately comes to mind, when women stepped up and did the jobs that needed doing while the men were off fighting. For the first time, women saw how valuable their efforts could be, and many didn’t take kindly to being stuffed back into their former roles when the war was over. I don’t think I will either.
My hope is that something of this time will stay with our daughters, whether they clearly remember it or not — that they’ll know fathers can deal with sibling disputes and mothers can be the providers for their families.
Does it take a massively disruptive, world-altering event to bring women’s work to the fore? And will this one leave some permanent change behind for those of us who found our working situations improved by it?
I’m lucky to be married to a man who is engaged with and happy to care for his kids, but I wonder how many men are out there now realizing that the hours their wives put in caring for their children aren’t as easy as they look. I’m sure this isn’t the only household with a man out of work and a woman’s usual work-from-home situation unaltered. But I’m facing another problem typical of women’s careers: Because I don’t get paid anywhere near what my husband makes ― though I might love being our breadwinner while he enjoys being his children’s caretaker ― this isn’t sustainable.
This little bubble of time when we both get what, perhaps, we secretly wanted can’t last. My hope is that something of this time will stay with our daughters, whether they clearly remember it or not ― that they’ll know fathers can deal with sibling disputes and mothers can be the providers for their families. Maybe someday they can model in their own lives what they’ve seen in this time of crisis.
I hear the clink of dishes as my husband lays the table for dinner. I can picture his movements as he finishes cooking and gets our kids washed up and into their bibs and chairs. I’m thrilled that today, and for a little while, it’s me who gets to show up to a hot, home-cooked meal and children who are happy to see their parent after a long workday.
Erin Zimmerman is a biologist and freelance science writer whose work has been featured in New York Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Narratively, the Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. She is currently writing a book about her adventures in natural history. Follow her on Twitter at @DoctorZedd.
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