Beware the opening anecdote

Many families (in the U.S. at least) will be facing a childcare crisis this summer. The American school year already has little relation to full-time work schedules. Families with school-aged kids too young to care for themselves often wind up using day camps as summer childcare. These camps have been announcing their closures left and right these days. Couple this with a number of childcare centers that are having trouble re-opening after state-ordered shut downs, and there are a lot of families trying to figure out what to do. I suspect the market for summer nannies will be brisk, and it will be a tough job unless more places like zoos and playgrounds open soon.

Sadly, this crisis hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it should. I suspect that’s for the same reason that childcare in general doesn’t get much attention. The people who make policy don’t need it. The one bit of help has been somewhat unintentional. If an adult in a family has lost a job and qualifies for unemployment benefits, the added $600/week from the stimulus bill plus the timeline (through later in the summer) means that these parents could potentially stay home and take care of their kids at least through then. You can occasionally find me making this point on discussion threads where people are lamenting that the extra unemployment benefits mean people have no incentive to go back to work. Um, if daycares are closed and you have small kids, you can’t go back to work because there’s no one to watch them. With small kids, this is not a small detail!

Anyway…this topic is crying out for more discussion. So I was happy to see Caroline Kitchener’s article in The Lily (that a number of readers sent me) called “‘I had to choose being a mother.” The subhead: With no child care or summer camps, women are being edged out of the workforce.

This is absolutely 100 percent true. Many working women’s income is seen as the “secondary” income in a family, and so their involvement in the workforce is always slightly tenuous, subject to not too many sick days and snow days and the like. When a crisis hits, they get nudged out, with longterm implications for women’s careers and the advancement of women in leadership and…

Unfortunately, you can’t read past the opening anecdote in this story without changing the topic. The opening story is about Aimee, who was running a tech company with 13 employees when the coronavirus hit. Her husband had been taking time off from his job to figure out his next move. Their 3-year-old’s daycare closed. Rational people reading this story would conclude that the obvious solution was for him to care for the child. Which, according to the article, he did for three days before deciding it was too much. So Aimee wound up shutting down the tech company (ending the jobs of 13 people!) because she, as the headline notes, had to choose being a mother.

It’s hard to know what’s going on in any family. I have to trust there’s more to the story than this — something the internet, which was quick to dunk on the husband, can’t see. But in any case, the discussion immediately became about this particular gentleman’s faults, as opposed to the larger crisis.

Which is too bad. This is the problem of anecdotal “ledes” as they are spelled in newspaper parlance. They are the default start for any feature story because we all like stories. They make the issue relatable to us. So journalists are trained to use them. But they have to be used carefully to make sure they clearly make the point the writer wishes to make. The issue raised with this anecdote was not “wow, another young family facing a childcare crisis” it was “wow, another high powered woman whose husband refused to pull his weight.” The family, at least according to the article details, had a good solution to the childcare crisis. He just didn’t want to do it. We judge the opening anecdote, rather than the rest of the story. I guess the one upside is that in the internet dunking, a number of fathers noted how much longer they had cared for their own small kids. Three days seems a bit…unimpressive.

How will your kids be spending the summer?

Photo: Columbines, one of my favorite wildflowers, spotted on a weekend walk.

31 thoughts on “Beware the opening anecdote

  1. Thank you so much for talking about this article. I read it on the week-end and was stunned and mad and so very, very sad. If indeed, the husband/father is as incapable as the article made him sound – then Aimee is even more remarkable for being able to lead her organization and also raise her son and (seemingly) take the lead around the house. I so very much hope that there is more to this story and yet know in my heart that there are many family situations that have this exact dynamic.

    1. This is what I’m thinking. Unfortunately, I have known families and couples put into similar extreme situations because of gender roles. Usually there’s religious views involved.

      Who knows what’s going on here. But if it’s what it looks like, it’s just a sad commentary on what our culture does to women. Our culture, it seems to me, will shoot itself in the foot in order to adhere to traditional values, more often than not. Many Americans would rather be broke and suffering than utilize the talents of women. I wish this weren’t true, but anecdotally at least, I’ve seen it over and over again.

      1. @KLM – yep. I wrote an essay here about 6 years ago about the book The Nesting Place that looked at it through that lens. The author (who is an amazingly talented decorator/influencer) moved again and again and struggled to live on her husband’s income because she was supposed to be a stay-at-home mom…and finally they figured out that she was MUCH better at earning money than him. But the book does not use that as its narrative!

  2. Thanks for raising this. I also read the article over the weekend. My initial thought was, can you imagine if it was the mom who opted out of childcare after only three days, what the negative commentary would be?!!! My second was that surely, with just a little more work, the author could have found a family example that better illustrated the point about lack of childcare that she was trying to make.

  3. Yeah that anecdote definitely derailed the article, since it was such an extreme situation. It went around my academic mom’s whatsapp group with all the head desk gifs. And you’re right, there are much bigger issues beyond the actions of some (apparently) crap men. We’re looking at an August start at the earliest and it’s just not sustainable.

  4. My husband’s tech job is busier than ever, and my consulting work is drying up – though it’s also hard to push for more work when there’s a complete lack of child care. So I’m taking the hit to my career and taking care of the kiddo this summer, and I’m feeling frustrated and anxious about the situation. On the one hand, it’s undeniably a good thing that my husband’s job is unaffected, and the timing on my underemployment means we can make it work. But I don’t want to be underemployed two years from now, and it’s hard to focus on addressing that situation with no child care. Policy makers blathering on about “opening the economy back up” without considering child care just make me want to laugh (Or cry. Or both). It’s so obvious that they aren’t from two-parent working families, or they would know that there’s going to be no major return to work for a significant portion of the population until that issue is somewhat solved.

    1. @Amy J – definitely a chicken-and-egg problem. I see this too with women who want to get back into the workforce. They don’t think they can pay for childcare until they have a job or are running a successful business, but it’s hard to get a job or start a business when you don’t have childcare…

    1. @Emma- yep. I suspect a number of men are finding this time very good for being away from the distractions of the office…because someone else is handling the distractions at home.

      1. Yes! I have often found myself thinking that the winners in all of this are full-time working dads who get to work from home. They get the bonus of more family time, but they generally aren’t expected to pull the weight with child care. Meanwhile, full-time working moms are definitely the losers because we are expected to provide full-time child care while also continuing our careers.

  5. I definitely took about 100% of the responsibility while the kids were all at home because of covid-19. It was so hard. Now they are back at school and the school has daycare for up to age 10, so my youngest is there after school. The school’s daycare is open until end of June, and then closes for the month of July . I take some vacation time in July and my in-laws watch the kids when I am working. We signed them up for summer camp last year and then they ended up not wanting to go. So not trying that again this year.

    1. @Sarah K – so glad schools are open for you guys. I hope the US can look at the examples of other countries where schools are open and get our act together here. Sadly, the whole school thing is now caught up in our uniquely American brew of litigiousness plus a certain chunk of well-to-do people wanting children in bubble wrap, and no one caring much about at-risk kids. It’s all pretty tragic.

  6. Our kids will spend the summer approximately the same way they have spent the last 70 days – fending for themselves and working on family projects when we recruit them. For background, my husband and I work together, from home, in a company I founded while he was working another job. When their school closed, he volunteered to manage their schoolwork while I worked. The second day, he suggested that we switch off. The third day, I declared the kids would be completing whatever “school from home” work they could do on their own.

    We laugh at our ineptitude at managing the 9 year olds school work, but the truth of the matter is that neither us are teachers or even very patient with our own kids when it comes to making them do things we don’t see as valuable. We informed the school and actually advanced our move by nearly 2 months so we would use the spring for packing/moving/unpacking and be up and running by May 15.

    Yes, it helps that our business makes passive income and most of our day to day interaction with distributors etc has been shut down. Summer is also a historically very slow time for education publishing and while we have projects that need to be completed in house or delegated our, all of that is limping along right now.

    Since we moved to Texas, there looks to be some summer day camps that will be open, but our sleep away camp plans have all been cancelled. Im thankful we are past the preschool stage.

    I have absolutely no doubt that there is more to the story beyond a husband lousy at childcare. It’s much easier in business to give a reason like childcare over say, profitability or dried up funding. This narrative will let her found something again— saying that their company wasn’t profitable before the shutdown is bad publicity for future investors.

    1. @Calee – yep, my suspicion is that the “I had to choose being a mom” comment is the equivalent of a government official/CEO “leaving to spend more time with my family.” Not actually true but a more useful story than the actual truth.

  7. We just got a babysitter for four hours a day for our preschooler and it is incredible. Add two hours of TV to the day and now, in our two parent family, we each only have to do two hours two or three times a week.

    Things are opening up in Western Canada but daycares cannot necessarily afford to do so since they are being asked to have fewer children in the room which makes it financially impossible to reopen without government support. (Or I suppose without charging parents much more.) We saw the writing on the wall for the next year and I am so glad we now have a sort of nanny situation. Our sitter is a former student of mine who was available, as I suspect many university students would be as other forms of employment are shut off. Life is so much better now that we have some help.

    1. @Karen – this sounds like an excellent decision to hire someone to help. It really is life changing to get a few focused hours per day. And yes, the economics of daycares don’t work without a huge subsidy unless you can keep the child to adult ratio reasonably high.

  8. I’ve seen this article shared several times last week and for a long time avoided reading it because it seemed a little click bait-y. I thought Brigid Schulte gave a more measured and insightful interview on Fresh Air last week about this topic- particularly her point about how society still views family structure as a breadwinner/ homemaker model, and how the pandemic is blowing that paradigm apart- or at least how it should be doing so. But I guess, unfortunately, for some people the pandemic is reinforcing that paradigm instead.

    I have the questionable luxury of being unemployed due to COVID, so we don’t have to make the difficult choices that so many of my friends are making in terms of how to fit together work, childcare, life, and affordability. My friend was so relieved to be furloughed last month- she said wryly that there were programs to help them figure out how to manage the mortgage payments, but nothing to help her figure out how to work from home and homeschool three kids while her husband continued to work outside the home.

    1. @Diane C – yep, policy makers understand mortgages. They don’t understand childcare. I think your friend’s comment pretty much sums it up.

      1. Look they understand slavery. Women who do work and childcare or the work unpaid while men do more or have more… They understand it and how to underinvest in the slaves, in this case women.. it is not that they do not understand it.. it is that slavery is profitable for them… and they are not really asked to be better… We watched a documentary about Miles Davis’s second wife, Betty Davis. Very interesting film. I went back and looked at it and Miles Davis severely beat all of his wives, all of whom were considered genius and incredibly talented. He beat many, many women and all of his wives. And yet this is something even when the New Yorker or whomever covers him even now.. is not really discussed just how abusive he was, how violent to women, and how much of say some of his best work was really the result of his second wife’s creativity and work… how big an impact she had on some of his best work and how little credit and how little was done really do uplift her to even get her music out there… It is pretty astounding to go back ad think about this … about who are our men… and why do we permit them to be so unaspirational … and what is the role of entrepreneurship or anything in changing this for the better.. Nancy Drew was written by a black woman from Newark and the publication of her character totally profited on and defined by a white man… Will this ever really change for the better in a country founded on slavery… and really props to how much women accomplish even though it hasn’t…

  9. I vented my thoughts here on this earlier last week. Now I am scrambling to find a summer nanny. I have to go to work. I am an essential worker. I am going to rearrange my schedule to have Fridays off for the summer. At least then I am just looking for someone to manage my 4 kids 4 afternoons per week. Neither my husband nor I will be quitting our jobs–so there is likely to be a lot of screen time in our house this summer.

    1. @Gillian – I hope you find somebody great! There are a lot of college students home for the summer and unable to get more traditional jobs (e.g. camps, life guarding, etc.) so hopefully the supply of responsible people looking for 3 month gigs is larger than it might be.

  10. The hospital I work at opened up an on site daycare about a year ago, and it has been open for children of nurses and doctors. Bet they didn’t anticipate that particular benefit of having an on site daycare! They pushed back so hard about opening one for so many years, and at this point I bet they are grateful they did. My husband has been telling me that about 25% of his workforce has had to call out each day because of childcare issues. It’s a huge problem.

    1. @Omdg- a huge problem, but I’m sure the powers that be at your hospital fought it because, like so many powers that be, they didn’t need childcare in order to work so they couldn’t imagine that other people would.

  11. Our daycare has been open the whole time as our governor deemed daycare an essential service. We kept our son home for 7 weeks to help flatten the curve/protect me from getting COVID as I’m high risk due to RA. But we sent him back about 3 weeks ago and it has been AMAZING! I ended up doing 80% of the child care on the days my husband was home because our son is a huge mama’s boy and often demands I do things for him instead of daddy (we have tried to fix this but it’s really tough – I think a 2nd child in the future will solve some of this problem, hopefully). I have gotten some comments about our decision to send him back to daycare, but I could not keep up with the demands of my job. I’ve been busier than ever lately so I just couldn’t do it unless I let him watch like 6 hours of Daniel Tiger/day which isn’t good for him either. Our daycare has been extra careful about things. Drop off and pick up happen at the front door as parents aren’t allowed in the buildings, they take every child’s temp when they come in the morning, parents must wear masks at drop off and pick up and the staff that interacts with parents wear masks, too. We haven’t had any cases among staff or family yet so things seem to be going well so far. I’m so so so so so grateful to have daycare right now. My heart goes out to all the parents who are trying to balance work and child care. It’s physically exhausting and very hard on your mental health – or at least it was for me. I had so little patience and wasn’t really enjoying the time with my son because we got no breaks from each other. Granted, he is 2 so that is a really demanding/exhausting age with tantrums, etc. So we are all much better with him in school – and he is so happy to be back with friends and to have access to the school playground!

    1. @Lisa – your governor sounds very sensible for deeming childcare essential. It sounds like your community has been very responsible about all this, and lo and behold, your kids are all fine. Here in PA, gun shops are apparently essential and daycares are not.

  12. This is such a huge issue. As a FT working mom of two (6 and 9.5) with a FT working husband and us ALL being at home, I feel like I’m being ground to ash. My husband is 100x better than the article makes that guy sound, but it’s still really imbalanced. I read and deeply appreciated “Fair Play” by Eve Rodsky, but my husband isn’t open to conversations about things being imbalanced in our home. (Which yes, is a huge issue.) I think that book presents a constructive way to discuss invisible work and make it more visible, and then divide it up.

  13. Thank you for taking this issue so seriously. I really appreciate your perspective on this. It’s a terrible situation, particularly for working families.

    My daycare opened back up and it has saved my sanity and enabled me to actually focus on my job, rather than only getting in a couple hours of work a day. My husband works in healthcare and is out of the house all day long, so we couldn’t tag team it much, although he is helping more now than he has in the past.

    My daycare is offering childcare for up to age 13. I wonder if more childcare centers will consider this possibility as there is a huge void. Sadly, I think our daycare still has very low numbers of children attending because of people’s health concerns.

  14. I’m a university lecturer and I’ll be working more than usual this summer to prepare two hybrid courses for the fall– I want it to be less “emergency remote teaching” and more informed by good online teaching. Just today, I decided I would deal with childcare, in part, by conscripting my 10 year old son to help me make instructional videos. He loves videos and editing, I don’t. His salary will be a subscription to Adobe creative cloud for as long as he helps me.

    I’m grateful he’s 10, it’s sort of the goldilocks age of quarantine. I’m not afraid to let him be bored, and there will be much screen time, too.

  15. This is a huge issue for me too. I am a manager with 22 people in my department (6 direct reports) and we are preparing to return to work this summer, but I am only coming back part time because my preschool was unable to open for the summer. Many of the other parents using my preschool are out of work so demand is down. They hope to open in the fall. So for the summer, I hired one of my daughter’s favorite teachers to come in to our home 4 hours a day, 3 days per week until school starts back, whenever that is. As it turns out, most of her preschool teachers work part time so I couldn’t get any interest in a full time in-home position. My husband also works full time from home, and he contributes fully but we are still both exhausted and struggling. We have discussed other options this fall if “our” preschool doesn’t open, up to and including us rotating taking leave. I earn more than he does, but I am willing to be the leave taker because my job has suffered with work-from-home – I’m really having trouble being heard on conference calls and have found my organizational influence has dwindled significantly. Meanwhile my male coworkers, none of whom are in a dual career relationship, seem to be doing great and I expect the disparity to get worse this summer once they are 100% back to the workplace and I am only onsite 12 hours per week. Very frustrating.

    1. I’m frustrated on your behalf! Just out of curiosity, when you say you aren’t being heard, is that in a literal, technical sense? Or is it a function of the way Zoom can really enhance the voices of those-who-were-already-loudest and how it’s hard to snatch that yellow rectangle away from them because they don’t stop for a breath? I’ve had the latter issue in some un-moderated meetings.

  16. I’ve been a teacher for a good number of years, but it’s only now that I’ve taught middle school for a while that I’ve realized how much parents depend on schools to provide child care. Daycare and some preschools make the child care aspect a bit more obvious, but it’s true in elementary and middle school, too.

    I think the August-to-June school year (which varies by region) is based around old farming traditions, but some public schools have moved to year-round schedules. It wouldn’t make a difference in these times of COVID-19 closures, but do you have any thoughts about year-round school?

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