When I heard the sirens from Vice President Kamala Harris’s motorcade in the distance last week, my heart just about stopped. I have lived in Washington for more than 20 years and have seen enough motorcades to think of them more as an inconvenience than a novelty. But this motorcade was different. This motorcade would drive down my block and stop in front of my home.
Vice President Harris was coming to my home to discuss the Biden/Harris “Build Back Better” agenda and how it would support women like me in the “sandwich generation,” caring for children and aging parents at the same time.
My 15-year-old daughter, Claire, was born with complex medical needs and multiple disabilities. Even though my husband and I both had well-paying jobs, we could not find qualified, affordable care for Claire. Because of a lack of paid family leave, I relied on donated leave from my co-workers to care for Claire while I continued to look for a way to get back to work.
I never found care that would work, and I had to leave not just my job but also my career. I had invested years getting a good education and went deep into debt so that I could do work that I liked and that had an impact. I hoped that this career would eventually provide a stable home and a good life for my children.
But because no one ever knows what the future holds, all it took was having a child who happened to have disabilities to derail all of my carefully laid plans. Making life even more complicated, both of my parents became ill soon after Claire was born. I needed to be available to care for them, too, since support for seniors who want to stay in their homes is also lacking.
I had struggled side by side with other parents throughout the last four years to help ensure that the protections of the Affordable Care Act remained in place. We often brought our children to Capitol Hill to show lawmakers exactly whose lives were at risk. One of these friends, a parent advocate with the nonprofit Little Lobbyists, had heard that the vice president wanted to meet with a mom like me. She thought my story would help humanize the issues facing so many people in the sandwich generation who are crumbling under the weight of a system that has ignored caregivers for too long.
But I knew that there was no quick fix to the problems that women have struggled with for decades. I knew that no legislative agenda was perfect.
My hope in speaking with Harris for a video to be shared on social media was that I could convey to the country that women are badly in need of paid leave. I hoped to convey that women need reliable, affordable care for their children so that they can remain in the workforce. I hoped to convey that seniors like my parents also need reliable care and an affordable way to make house modifications to stay in their homes. That this care was necessary because too many daughters cannot care for their children and their parents, let alone work at the same time.
Most of all I wanted to convey that everyone deserves the resources they need to not just survive but to thrive.
Leading up to the meeting with Harris, I had near-daily visits from the Secret Service and the advance team from the vice president’s office. Two dogs, Bono and Hossu, explored every inch of my home. My family was background-checked thoroughly and kicked out of our own house while it was searched. I told my neighbors they needed to stay inside during the vice president’s visit but could probably catch a glimpse of her through their windows when she arrived. My own windows were covered with butcher paper to ensure no one could look in and see the vice president once she came inside.
We had not had any guests in our home since the coronavirus pandemic started 18 months ago, and our home was suddenly flooded with the dozens of people needed to support the vice president, keep her safe and document her visit. Preparing to have the vice president of the United States as our first guest since the pandemic started was surreal.
When we finally sat down together, Vice President Harris asked the crew to turn their cameras off so she could talk to me one-on-one, without the pressures of knowing others were listening. Harris was warm and engaging, and she seemed genuinely interested in how families like mine struggle.
With a woman and mother as vice president, I had hoped we would get a seat at the table. I just never expected that seat to be at my kitchen table.
When the cameras started rolling, I reminded myself that the day was not just about me but about the millions of women who would not have this opportunity to voice the problems so many of us face every day.
The pandemic has laid bare that women have reached their breaking point. To date, more than 2 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic began for the simple reason that work and care are inextricably intertwined. Millions of women couldn’t hold on to their jobs while faced with a lack of quality, affordable and reliable care for their loved ones. They are suffering.
I see the economy suffering, too. Instead of asking how it will cost to invest in caregiving, we should be talking about how much we can gain ― a smaller gender employment gap, new jobs, economic growth and the ability of caregivers like me to live in dignity.
As members of the sandwich generation, we play so many roles at once. We are a short-order cook, launderer, chauffeur, teacher, activity director, personal assistant, stylist, party planner, coach, disciplinarian, nutritionist, tailor, handy person, house cleaner and dishwasher. As caregivers, we also need to be emergency responders, nurses, therapists, insurance coders, experts in a variety of ailments and more. And we need to be able to do all of this every day.
I told the vice president that I am constantly overwhelmed and struggling. She said she recognized that sometimes just a full night’s sleep would help, but even that is elusive.
She told me she and her sister would spend hours and hours of her childhood with her “second mother,” Mrs. Shelton, so that her own mother could work. She spoke of how she cared for her mother during a long battle with cancer, just as I am helping to care for my father going through cancer treatment now. She spoke of how hard it can be parenting children through middle school and just making sure the homework gets done.
I was already familiar with the Build Back Better agenda. I knew it seeks to make child care more accessible by providing financial assistance to families who struggle to pay for care. It would provide incentives for employers to open on-site child care centers and it would make universal preschool a reality. It also included 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, higher wages for professional caregivers and tax credits for families like mine that often bear enormous expenses related to caring for a disabled loved one.
After we spoke, the vice president turned her attention to my children, the four lights of my life. She asked to see my daughter’s pet hamster, Olaf, fed him kale and talked about her childhood pet hamster Kenny. She talked to my son about how hard it is to be in middle school.
After she left, I felt hopeful that there may soon be some solutions for families like mine. Just like we fund roads and bridges to make sure they don’t crumble, we need programs that support caregivers, or they will crumble, too.