Throughout Calarco’s qualitative studies on the state of mothers’ well-being during the pandemic, she found in heterosexual couples where both parents are working from home, when schedules conflicted, moms were more inclined to sacrifice a meeting or work time. “Even when dads are doing a lot, it’s those moments of conflict when we see mothers sacrificing their own careers, oftentimes because they make less than their husbands and feel like their job then matters less to the household budget as a whole,” says Calarco.
My own reality seemed to want to underscore all of this: During the various interviews for this story, my daughter wandered in just to say hi to whomever I had on the screen—one of her more mortifyingly unprofessional pandemic ticks—and practiced piano as I wrapped up my phone interview with Meng. As Grechen Shirley answered my questions, she simultaneously needed to nurse her infant son, who was refusing a nap.
We’re among the fortunate ones. We’re somehow still working.
“We know from research that an investment in high-quality, universal, affordable childcare is one of the best ways to get women back into the workforce and help them stay in the workforce,” says Calarco. More broadly, she says, until inequities such as the gender pay gap are addressed, women will keep finding themselves forced into difficult choices. During the pandemic, she’s interviewed women in-depth and found so many feeling guilt and frustrated with themselves. But guilt, she notes, turns one’s energy inward. “If we want to effect social change, we need that energy directed outward. We need rage instead of guilt, and it’s only through that kind of rage, I think, that we have a shot at demanding the kinds of policy changes that are necessary moving forward.”
When I asked former-teacher Williams-Coble, given her professional experience as an educator and what she has lived through as a parent during the pandemic, what sort of policies she thinks could help parents, she echoed a lot of what Meng, Warren, and Williams have proposed. Parents should have affordable, safe childcare options if they choose to work, and shouldn’t have “to ditch more than 40% of their income towards childcare.” She thinks funding should be available for parents who have opted to stay home and care for their children during the pandemic too, regardless of income level. She knows too well how many middle-class families have found themselves a few skipped paychecks away from the threat of homelessness. “I think we’re low-key trying to choke on this bootstrap mentality,” as if in the midst of all this, we also must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps without systems to help. “We’re strangling ourselves,” says Williams-Coble.
When I asked her if she would ever consider running for office herself—school board? Congress?—she laughed and talked about how much advocacy for education matters to her.
But then she paused and said, “I haven’t considered it, but since you asked, I’m going to.” She wondered aloud where one would start—alderman? She’s not sure but adds, “I won’t limit myself…. There’s still a lot of healing and learning, but I’m not afraid anymore to tell my story and come forth and speak from my experiences, because I’m not the only one who’s gone through this…. We’re not by ourselves.”
Sarah Stankorb is an award-winning writer in Ohio. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O Magazine, and The Atlantic, among others.