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The Nation and Magnum Foundation are partnering on a visual chronicle of untold stories as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States and the rest of the world—read more from The Invisible Frontline here. —The Editors
Covid-19 works like a highlighter, making our long-standing societal inequities more visible. This crisis has so far been most deadly for people suffering from environmental racism, regular racism, and the health and financial impacts of surviving poverty and a profit-driven health care system. And now, it’s revealing the unsustainable burden of a whole sector of unremunerated work.
The United States has long offered only symbolic support for parents: We have insufficient parental leave, poor maternal health care, expensive child care. Caretaking work–parenting, teaching, nursing–is lauded in the abstract, but not given the recognition a capitalist society uses to show what is really of value: financial compensation and societal accommodation.
For those of us fortunate enough to stay home with our kids under lockdown, the effects of the virus are underscoring the challenges of parenting in the United States. Caretaking is supposed to flow like female love: uncomplicated, given freely, untainted by resentment. If we say that this is impossible and we don’t have the support we need, we are whining and complaining.
But caretaking work is work. It is labor like any other.
So I’ve been photographing my way through social distancing: trying to keep my kids six feet away from neighbors in a small apartment where we ourselves are never much more than six feet apart. This is a look at one family’s attempt to stay fed, employed, and at least partly literate during a global crisis.
Though in the past we’ve struggled to pay rent in an expensive city, our family is extravagantly fortunate. I’m reminded of this during my children’s online meetings with classmates at their public school in our gentrifying, working-class neighborhood.
But holding a family together now takes vast amounts of invisible labor: explaining Google Classroom to kids, supervising assignments, endless cycles of shopping and cooking and feeding and washing, dressing and undressing and cleaning clothes and drying clothes and folding clothes and putting away clothes and taking them out again and getting them back on children, reminding people to flush the toilet and wash their hands, handling outbursts with patience and boundaries, managing our own fear and exhaustion, trying so hard to stay in the present and not think about the future.
Oh, and our jobs.
My husband Nick spent the first two weeks awash in work and worry about work. A freelance photographer and educator, I opened e-mail after e-mail canceling scheduled jobs, losing $5,000 of work in a matter of days. I still haven’t gotten my unemployment benefits to come through.
When I do have work–teaching online, pitching stories, editing the photographs you see here–I plug in my headphones and listen to white noise in my office, an open area in the middle of our railroad apartment. I can hear Nick typing behind me and my kids whining and running past. I feel invaded: There is no time alone, no physical space, no time inside my mind. I take naps surrounded by stuffed unicorns in my daughter’s bed; I lie in the empty bathtub to talk to my husband privately; I sit on the stoop in the rain. I miss my work, my city, my friends, my freedom, and myself.
Our child-raising was shared with teachers, after-school teaching artists, day care workers, friends, family and babysitters–my husband and I are both working parents. Teachers and grandparents do their best to help through screens, but most of this is on us now.
It’s hard for most adults to comprehend what’s happening here in the center of the pandemic, let alone to explain it to their children. My son maintains connection with classes and friends through remote learning. But my younger child can’t, developmentally, so she openly expresses the confusion and worry many of us are working to contain. A Pre-K student, January processes all of her emotions through play: conflict, connection, fear, and confusion. But now she can’t touch–or even see–most of her peers. Her class holds meetings online, but she hides and cries when it’s meeting time. She deeply misses her teachers, friends, and classroom, and her emotional reactions reveal what many of us all are feeling in deeply uncertain times.
I am unsure how much to grieve because I can’t tell how much we’ve lost. I can always teach, I think, Nick can always build, maybe we’ll end up in a cabin? In the woods? After 20 years building a career I love in a city I have stayed loyal to through September 11, Hurricane Sandy, a blackout, and an ongoing housing crisis? But then, maybe we’ll be fine. I got paid for work I did last month, my husband did not get laid off after all, as it turns out we aren’t spending money on anything but the basics and so we’re fine? Better than we thought?
This can’t last forever, and probably life will return to some sort of normal. I just wish I knew. I don’t want a Blue Angels flyover for health care workers or flowers on Mother’s Day. I want sufficient N95 masks for nurses, Medicare for All, and a system that doesn’t make parenting a luxury. Until then:
Hope you’re well!
Hope you’re doing well in these strange times
Hope you and your family are doing as well as can be expected
How are you guys?
I don’t even know
Don’t touch that
You need to find a better way to solve this problem
If you can’t share the Legos I am giving them a timeout
I am sure there are other Lego arms you could use instead
Wash your hands before you–
That wasn’t 20 seconds
Don’t touch that
Could you get the kids out of here so I can have my 4:30 meeting?
I’ll take them up to the park
Don’t touch that
Give those people their space
Don’t touch that.