When the pandemic began, my husband's new career unexpectedly ended. Always a nurturer, my husband had started working as a helper for local seniors in town, starting a new phase in his career—a companion for the elderly. He was good at it, too. He'd take them to lunch and doctor's appointments, help them make dinner and pick up their groceries. It was a departure for him, professionally. He'd taken care of loved ones in his personal life. He'd cared for his grandparents when they were sick, and when I started my freelance writing career a few years ago, he became our son's primary caregiver.
His jobs never reflected this caring side. He'd always worked as a manual laborer. When we met, he was working in factory jobs; later, he took other manual jobs, working in a grocery store. But at the end of 2019, he realized that his passion—the thing he loved about all the other jobs he'd had—was helping people.
I knew that already—he's a kind human being, given to delivering home-cooked meals to friends and helping out neighbors. He spent our son's infancy and toddlerhood cooking and cleaning, giving baths going to parks, but I always worried he wasn't doing much for himself. So I was thrilled when he told me he'd found a career he was passionate about in his 50s. We talked about maybe getting him more clients and finding him certifications. After all, the kiddo would be in school full time! He'd have time now!
And then COVID-19 hit the US. Within a few months, our kid was home from kindergarten and our state was locked down. We knew we'd have to make a difficult choice: one of us was going to have to help teach kindergarten (and eventually, although we did not know it, first grade) and one of us was going to have to work. So long, husband's new career.
I cannot write this piece without acknowledging that we are extremely privileged. We were able to make a choice about who worked and who didn't. Many parents don't have choices at all.
This pandemic has been horrible for women in the workplace. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women have borne the brunt of this pandemic because the industries that primarily employ women, like restaurants and hospitality, have suffered. Fewer women have jobs that allow them to telecommute. Culturally we still expect moms to pick up the slack when there's no available childcare. And then there's the fact that when you have to pick the parent who keeps their job, you'll probably pick the parent whose job pays most. In 2020, women made $0.81 for every dollar a man makes.
Our decision similarly came down to the bottom line. I was making more as a writer with an established business; my husband's career was just beginning. There were also safety concerns—I worked from home. My husband, as a caregiver, could not. His clients are elderly and high-risk, and their families didn't necessarily want more outside contact than they absolutely needed.
For these reasons, he was the one who stayed home to teach our child.
While we were lucky to have the ability to keep one parent home, this hasn't been an easy decision for the family. The role changes—and the stress around them—have been one of the toughest transitions for us.
My husband is normally the nurturer in our family, and I'm the disciplinarian. All three of us have struggled with the fact that it's now his job to be both teacher and dad–especially when our kid does not want to sit down for class meetings or do his math assignments.
This has been particularly hard on our kid, who was used to snuggles from Dad and The Look from Mom. Now Dad is the one who enforces screen time, sets boundaries and gets frustrated when our kid talks back.
According to our school's staff, this is normal. Many kids in remote school are coping with stress around changing roles. Parents are no longer just parents; we're also now teachers and friends. With guidance from the school, we've been trying to make this easier by announcing which version of us our kid is interacting with. My husband now says things like "I'm teaching now" or "do you need a snuggle"? And of course, we make time for play, so our kid gets as much non-school family time with us as possible.
I love my job. Ever since I was a child, all I've wanted to do was exactly what I do now: write. I'm very glad I didn't have to give up my work.
Despite this, I was raised in a world where women did all the stay-at-home childcare. My mom gave up work to have and raise my brother and me and only went back to work when she had a job that would let her bring her children along. I received on-the-job domestic training from her. So I feel incredibly and illogically guilty that I am not the one who gave up my career to teach and care for my son, despite the fact that I'd probably be a less patient teacher.
We've had to adjust the way we handle our finances. Before, we both made money. Now, I (a former newspaper reporter who hoarded my tiny paycheck when I was single) have to remember to make the house's money available, and my husband sometimes needs to ask for money, which is a strange and stressful dynamic for us.
We've always joked about our reversed gender roles — his child-rearing and my bread-winning, but the pandemic has brought home the fact that I haven't eschewed all the traditional gender roles I thought I had. I have been the protector of my family's moods. When my husband and son argue, I want to step in and mediate. In the beginning I did—I'd drop work and run in—and they often expected it. Now I know I can't. By inserting myself into school arguments, I undermine my husband's authority, and it also prevented him from figuring things out himself. Which he has, admirably.
While the stress is ever-present, we've all grown during our time in lockdown. My son can now stay seated in class and focus on his classwork much better than he could earlier. My husband has learned how to teach and motivate our child, and he's also learned how to reach out to the school when he needs support. The school has learned to call my husband, not me. And I've learned to trust the two of them to work it out. (Noise cancelling headphones have helped.)
So, what happens after the pandemic?
When I started writing this piece, I asked my husband what he'd do when the pandemic ends and our son goes back to school. I was surprised when he told me that he doesn't plan to go back right away, but work on our home, which needs repairs.
"But I thought you missed your clients," I said.
He told me he does; they're like family. But after more than a year of teaching our son at home, he'll need some time to concentrate on the projects he can't work on when he's so focused on our son's class meetings. Then he can pick back up where he left off.
I asked him if his career was as important to him as mine is to me and he shook his head. We're his first priority, he said. Like I said, we're fortunate.