On Thursday, March 12, 2020, my husband and I took our exactly 1-month-old twins to the doctor for a routine checkup. It was a happy visit. While adding twins to our family had been exhausting and chaotic, I felt like we were managing OK, mainly because we had an abundance of family and community support.
We talked briefly with the doctor about “all of this corona craziness” ― there weren’t too many cases then in North Carolina, where we live. At the end of the visit, the doctor warned, “I just want you to know that I do think it’s possible they’ll cancel school for a little while at some point.” Given that our 4-year-old was attending full-time school and aftercare, and we were farming him out every weekend on several playdates because having all three kids at home felt completely impossible, the idea of canceled school was the stuff of nightmares.
I’m pretty sure you know what happens next. That night, the school district announced that it was closing starting the following Monday, and our ability to lean on heavily on our community evaporated as social distancing rules came into play. At the beginning of the shutdown, as we knew so little about the coronavirus, hiring a part-time babysitter felt risky and overwhelming, and we had many anguished conversations over many weeks about whether it was too dangerous to have our parents help us with our non-stop child care needs.
I’m grateful that our family has remained healthy these past months and we haven’t faced job loss and financial ruin. While I had already planned to take unpaid time off from my work as a journalist and entrepreneur following the birth of the twins, it became abundantly clear that my ability to return to work in any significant way would hinge on our ability to get significant amounts of child care for all three kids that we felt was safe ― an extremely complex calculation given all of the nuances of COVID-19.
While I have a robust and fulfilling full-time career, my husband earns more than I do, and his salaried job and health insurance are crucial to our family. Although neither of us feels that his work is more important than mine, it is less negotiable. So, like so many mothers in the past three months, I’ve had countless instances of losing my already frayed temper, finding my only moments of peace were crying on the way to the grocery store, and questioning whether I could survive one more day of the “Groundhog Day”-like monotony of tantrums and witching hours, refusals to do Zoom classes, and the endless grind to keep a highly social 4-year-old from bouncing off the walls while also feeding and caring for two newborns.
While parents all over the country are suffering from burnout, mothers are specifically being pummeled by the social crises exacerbated by COVID-19. Women have been hit hard by the economic shutdown, with women of color and those with less education faring the worst, according to Pew Research. Mothers all around have shouldered more of the educational and child care burden created by lockdowns and have reported the highest levels of psychological stress and severe anxiety compared to fathers and people without kids, a LeanIn.Org study found. The study also found that in two-parent straight families where both parents work full time, mothers are now doing 20 hours more per week of care and housework than fathers.
As states start to open back up, I, along with millions of other parents, am anxiously awaiting news about if and when schools and child care centers will fully reopen. Current ideas being considered to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools ― like extended virtual learning, fewer or shorter school days, and alternating schedules ― will again hit mothers, who are more often the primary caregivers, the hardest.
Cruelly, the Trump administration also just cut off another well-established, viable care option for some families by suspending the au pair visa program. The reason I’m even able to have the time to write this article is because our au pair ― whom we had been planning to bring in for months, pre-COVID-19 ― arrived after several delays, just before the border to her country closed and the visa program was halted. And while this may be a lucky circumstance for my family, for too long in this country, child care has been left up to individual privilege, navigation and luck. That’s not going to cut it anymore.
To keep mothers sane and in the workforce, compensate for the wave of child care center closures, and provide children with structure and better learning opportunities during the pandemic, we need a much larger public policy solution ― such as a new national “CareCorps.”
While some lawmakers and policymakers have called for a child care bailout, which is also much needed, the moment we find ourselves in demands even more creative thinking. Many parents have just barely survived these last months by holding onto the hope that everything they were experiencing was temporary. With coronavirus cases spiking across the country this summer, we, as a society, must address the reality that this isn’t going to get better anytime soon.
A CareCorps would address both the care crisis and the unemployment crisis. Based on the AmeriCorps model of voluntary domestic public service, the CareCorps could be staffed by recent college graduates, students taking a year off, or other young people looking for employment in an abysmal economy as well as a way to serve their country and those in need during the pandemic.
Long after the acute phase of this crisis ends, we could be feeling its economic and gender effects. By freeing moms to get back to work, the CareCorps could help stave off a widening of the pay gap that already exists between mothers and everyone else. COVID-19 threatens to set women back two generations in the workplace: Nearly two-thirds of college-educated mothers have left their jobs or reduced their work hours since the shutdowns began, and anti-mom bias could increase as employers become less understanding about a lack of child care as the crisis drags on. Scaling back a woman’s work for months or years could also have significant impact on her lifetime earnings.
CareCorps members could travel to different parts of the country and could be deployed based on location and the progression of COVID-19. In areas where schools are resuming in-person classes, the CareCorps could focus on tutoring and remedial work for kids who are at the highest risk of learning loss and who have faced hardships and instability during the shutdowns.
In areas that need to shut down schools to contain the spread of the virus, the CareCorps could offer pop-up day care for essential workers’ kids. It could provide home-based care for individual families and for small pods of children where day care centers are struggling to reopen or proctor distance learning in safe settings while parents work. While bringing small groups of children together wouldn’t be completely risk-free, it would be less risky than sending them to larger schools and certainly far less logistically challenging than creating uniform plans across multi-thousand-person school districts.
CareCorp members would be tested regularly for COVID-19. They could be housed in the dorms of the many smaller colleges that may be under-enrolled or even closing this coming school year, or they could live with families in need, like a domestic au pair program.
This program wouldn’t replace child care centers or schools, but it could flexibly fill in the gaps where demand far outstrips supply. While K-12 public schools are generally not at risk of “going out of business” because they’re paid for by taxes, child care centers are. The Center for American Progress projects that 50% of child care spots are at risk of vanishing.
The CareCorps could be subsidized by the government, families could contribute on a sliding scale, and Corps members could be given room and board and paid a stipend. It would also widely introduce the idea that care work is essential for a functioning society and should have appropriate government subsidy and funding, like in so many other countries all over the world.
CareCorps members would learn important skills that would serve them in any profession, and boasting of the training they got from taking care of children would further legitimize that work.
But the positive impact wouldn’t just be on families getting care. The young men and women who participate could be profoundly influenced as well as they learn that care work is real work. For men who participate, it could spark a sea change in their views of gender roles. The CareCorps might shepherd in a new generation of fathers who already know how to soothe a fussy baby or balance the demands of multiple children.
CareCorps members would learn important skills that would serve them in any profession, and boasting of the training they got from taking care of children would further legitimize that work. The list of skills they could proudly put on their résumés would be long. As Harvard professor Brian Mandel says, “If you want to see a truly masterful negotiator, watch a 3-year-old.” In addition to negotiation, CareCorps members would learn patience, flexibility, multitasking, attention to detail, strategy and planning, making it a meaningful gap year for everyone involved.
And mothers would get the lifeline they need to withstand this ongoing crisis.
Katherine Goldstein is a journalist and the creator and host of The Double Shift Podcast, a critically acclaimed, reported show about a new generation of working mothers. Follow her on Twitter or sign up for her newsletter.