One of the biggest surprises of having children has been the realisation that childcare is a full-time job. That is to say, much like my work outside the home, it cannot be done harmoniously alongside the minutiae of household maintenance. You’re either doing one or the other.
The kids are colouring in nicely for 20 seconds, so you rush to put a laundry load in, only to be interrupted by one of them screaming. Or you put on the TV to sedate them, and use the time to get back to your other jobs. If you choose instead to sit down and have a cup of coffee while texting a friend, you will pay for it later: you can’t work two jobs without working permanent overtime.
“Can’t you work from home?’ childless friends asked when we explained the difficulty of surviving on one income (or two incomes, one of which would be spent on childcare costs). Working from home, I’ve realised, is good for parents – but only when you can interrupt work to go and pick up your child from school, or get up at 5am and get straight to work. Not when, as I previously assumed, you’re trying to do it while the children are awake and in the house.
If asked a question about balancing monetised and unmonetised work, most parents will list conflicts of schedules and contingencies and ruined or inflexible plans. “So even if he naps, I don’t know if it’s going to be 20 minutes or 40, and actually it’s better if it’s not more than half an hour because he’s one and half now and …” There’s no way of explaining it without sounding at best criminally dull and at worst on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
I’m a teacher. When schools shut here in Italy – the first step towards national lockdown – my manager informed me that some of my classes would move online. Our au pair was locked in the house with us, so it seemed perfect. I would continue teaching remotely, working roughly as many hours as my husband, while the au pair would watch the children. The rest of the time we would spend with the children. We were in a far more fortunate position than other families who were stuck at home with no access to childcare.
As I prepared for the first virtual lesson, several things went wrong. The online software did not have the right edition of the textbook we’d been using. As the students logged in, some were faceless, some voiceless, and those that weren’t stared helplessly at the screen like children lost in a zoo. I soon realised I couldn’t set individual tasks, because staring at a computer for five silent minutes while students scribbled things I couldn’t see felt like a waste of everyone’s time and money. At the end of the 90 minutes I felt stressed and deflated. I returned to my children and the messy house, forcibly contorting my face into a frail smile.
I could not keep my teaching work going without prioritising it, which would have meant making childcare second or third on my list. I tried to imagine what that might do to our mood during complete social isolation and quarantine. The answer became clear to me: if we were going to be OK with spending weeks on end indoors, one of us would have to use non-childcare time to recharge their batteries, not to do draining, difficult work. In other words, we had to each work one job each – not two or three (when you add in the household chores).
I told my manager I couldn’t make it work with the children at home. During the times when our au pair played with the kids, I’d lock myself on our balcony and listen to podcasts where celebrities spoke about how lucky they were to have a garden. I felt guilty that I had a balcony and live-in childcare and instead of using the time without the children to do paid work, I was using it to sit on said balcony and listen to a podcast. But the guilt was short-lived, as I recalled a priest’s advice: rest is part of our duty.
Lockdown has forced all of us to become fully aware of our limits. There are only so many hours in the day, and not all work is monetised. To prioritise unpaid work like childcare over paid work can, at times, feel like an indulgence rather than a sacrifice. But this time of quarantine has made everything clearer. Without the opportunity to escape the house, without any physical distance from my children, without a place of work to go to each day in exchange for money, that is how I have become most aware of our limits as a family, and felt, for the first time, free. Free to do work that doesn’t make any money, but that I value above any that does.