As any woman who’s ever tried to take more than a month or two of maternity leave knows, extended child-related lapses in employment are at best frowned upon and interpreted as a lack of professional dedication and at worst, for part-time or undocumented workers, grounds for termination. Leaving the work force, even under the most dire circumstances, tends to be a one-way street. What’s more, these exits reinforce the notion that mothers, as opposed to fathers, are the only appropriate primary caregivers for children, that there is something natural, universal and inevitable about this arrangement.
As a result, some suggest that a year of Covid-19 may undo decades worth of progress toward gender equity in America, that even after the pandemic is brought under control, a generation of working mothers will never recover what they lost.
It makes you wonder: How meaningful was the progress we’ve made in the last three decades, if it can be undone so quickly and so ferociously?
Pandemics make visible what’s been hidden; they illuminate the connections between us, the dependencies we’d rather not acknowledge. I thought of this word, “dependencies,” when, a few months ago, I stumbled upon another startling statistic related to family life under Covid-19. It turns out that in the United States, the survival rate of infants, the most dependent age group of all, has gone way up during the pandemic. There are reports that premature births, one leading cause of infant mortality, fell significantly in the early months of lockdowns, when women in their final trimester of pregnancy were able to do something many of them cannot afford to do in normal times: Stay home from work.
Additionally, some suggest there have been protective benefits to infants of more attentive, home-based child care, with less exposure to the viruses and infections that circulate in institutional settings.
This highlights what many mothers and child specialists have long sensed but aren’t supposed to say: that whether the primary care taker is a mother, a father, an extended family member or a close friend, newborns and infants do better in homes. We don’t talk about this, we barely acknowledge it, because if we did, we’d have a moral obligation to provide financial support to make it possible for all babies. We would have to acknowledge the social value of infant care and child rearing and empower parents to provide that care in the way they think is best for their children.
We might even have to reconsider our idealization of the nuclear family, which we’ve now seen cannot really function without the support of broken institutions, to make way for the notion that raising children is a communal obligation, of benefit not just to an individual woman or couple trying “to have it all,” but to society at large.