Millions of American workers have children. Thanks to the pandemic, we can now stop pretending we don't.

Millions of American workers have children. Thanks to the pandemic, we can now stop pretending we don't.
Melissa Petro works from home while also being a caretaker for her children.Melissa Petro
  • Melissa Petro is a freelance writer based in New York where she lives with her husband and two small children.
  • Before the pandemic, she says she often played the role of the "secret parent," struggling to juggle work and family while sensing pressure from her employers to minimize her time spent parenting.
  • Now as more parents combine childcare with working from home, Petro says the labor of parenthood is no longer invisible or taken for granted.
  • While the pandemic has made working parents' lives more challenging, this normalization of parenting in the workplace is a silver lining, Petro says.

At Judge Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court last week, one Republican after another asked the type of questions parents have been asking each other for the past seven months, if not longer.

"How did you manage through lockdown?" Senator Ted Cruz asked the nominee, undoubtedly expecting little more than the pat response Barrett supplied.

When Senator John Kennedy asked "I am genuinely curious, who does laundry in your house?" he was joking, and many laughed— including Judge Barrett— but as a mom of two, perpetually surrounded by piles of clothes in various states of the laundry life cycle, I am genuinely curious.
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No, really, I want answers.

Never mind the laundry, our professional futures are uncertain and we are frightened for our family's safety as we approach what experts predict will be "a very deadly December," with tens of thousands of coronavirus deaths to come.

I fail to see the humor in the fact that even parents who can afford to do so are afraid to hire a babysitter or nanny. Affordable childcare has become even harder to find, with a loss of nearly 4.5 million childcare slots as many US daycares shuttered, including the in-home facility where my husband and I had started sending our toddler to just a few months before lockdown.
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Our kids are both young, and so we were relieved from having to choose between in-school and remote learning (which is, by all accounts, a disaster). Other parents in my community had the choice made for them when in-person learning was cancelled due to a coronavirus outbreak, undoubtedly leaving working parents in a sudden lurch.

Beneath the faux admiration and condescending suggestion that mothers are somehow morally superior by nature of our having kids, the increasingly un ignorable reality is that working parents struggle to balance their personal and professional lives— especially families without resources. Especially moms. Especially in the midst of a pandemic. Barrett smiled politely and demurred— it was, after all, a job interview. But American families like mine are fed up; I, for one, am tired of pretending I've got it all under control.
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The struggle to work without adequate childcare is real— and it's no laughing matter

Parenthood shouldn't qualify anyone for any particular position, but it shouldn't disqualify us either— and so often it does.

In 2016 alone, the National Survey of Children's Health found that parents particularly of children aged five and younger had to quit a job, not take a job, or significantly change their job because of problems with childcare. While both men and women can be affected, the fact that many women are still the primary caregivers means it disproportionately falls on us mothers.

Since the birth of my son three years ago, I've been fighting to not become one of these statistics

Without consistent and reliable childcare, my husband and I have tried (and failed) to keep parenting from interfering with our careers. My job as a freelance writer and teacher is important to us both, but his full-time, salaried job provides our family with health insurance and pays the majority of our bills, and so we agree it comes first.
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Economist Emily Oster dubbed the phenomenon "secret parenting"— a culture that places work and parenting at odds, and so employees feel the need to hide or minimize evidence of their children in the workplace.

In our household, "secret parenting" meant I watched the kids and managed the house by myself while my husband gave it his all at the office. I finished assignments on my phone from the pediatrician's office and Skyped with students while I distracted my toddler with screen time.

Secret parenting meant shouldering the burden on nights my husband stayed late at the office, and silently resented the work emails he'd field at the dinner table after I'd just spent over 10 hours solo parenting our kids.
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The juggling act is hard; the hardest part is pretending it's easy

Working without adequate childcare means letting opportunities pass by. Even when I'm trying to be honest with myself and my employers about my limitations, I frequently miss deadlines and make promises I can't deliver.

Pregnant with my second, I spoke candidly with one longtime employer. Instead of accommodating the situation, they discouraged me from applying for Paid Family Leave and rejected my request for a pay raise. When I refused lower paying assignments, they stopped offering me the more lucrative ones.

So I went back to trying — and failing — to do it all.
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Now during the pandemic, the era of secret parenting is over

Yesterday my husband participated in a Zoom meeting wearing a firefighter costume, our two children as well as a neighbor's toddler screaming gleefully in the background. My life has changed a lot in the past seven months.

But so has his. Instead of taking my once invisible labor for granted, Arran works from home and so we are better able to share the load — and it's impossible to hide from his employers, just as parenthood has been impossible to hide from mine.
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Having his help makes it easier for me as a working mother, but it's still not easy. Without hired help, there's simply not enough time in the day. I feel a little selfish and somewhat guilty when I'm off writing while he's watching the kids, as if I'm sitting here watching "Real Housewives" reruns instead of bringing in much-needed income and (just barely) maintaining my career. It's also a fact that his work-time is often interrupted and we're afraid of how it could affect his job performance — and, in turn, affect our family's survival.

There is no 'magic formula'

Feinstein had the gall to ask Barrett for strategies — a "magic formula for how you do it and handle all the children and your job and your work and your thought process, which is obviously excellent."

The question perpetuates the persistent, erroneous belief that these challenges are surmountable if only you work hard enough — if you're smart enough and your thought process is "excellent," you still cannot solve an unsolvable equation.
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Long-standing systemic issues and governmental failures have put families — and let's face it, women — in this impossible position. Instead of "it's improv," Barrett should have been honest about the help her family undoubtedly hires, then frankly acknowledged that the resources available to them are unavailable to most.

If there's any silver lining to the past seven months, it's the possibility that restrictions put in place to curb the spread of coronavirus will lead to a normalization of parenting in the workplace. The pandemic has made working parents' lives exponentially more difficult but let's face it, being a working parent has always been a challenge. But working parents — and moms, in particular — are an asset to the American workforce. It's time elected officials stop asking in faux-wonderment how we manage and start asking instead how to help.

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