by Reha Sterbin
As rough as it’s been for my family since the pandemic started, I know how lucky we are. We haven’t contracted COVID-19, yet. My husband Ben and I are able to work from home, and we haven’t lost our jobs, yet. Our kids are young — two and six — and need a lot of our time, but our bosses have been understanding, so far. Despite occasional anxiety flare-ups, my mental health is okay, for now. My daughter’s daycare is holding her place, at least for the next month. We have a dedicated device and wifi that can access my son’s remote learning tools, assuming nothing breaks. We’ve been able to put our nanny, Lupe, on paid leave at home since the pandemic started.
In the spectrum of ways this pandemic has hurt people, we’ve gotten the mildest of injuries, and we have a safety net to mitigate the damage it might do to us in the future: a little savings, family who could take us in, skills that would make it easier to find new jobs.
But even with all that going for us, remote learning nearly broke me.
Trying to do a full-time job while caring for young children is already impossible, and the amount of my time and attention it took to facilitate remote learning for my son meant I couldn’t do my best at any of those things. I’m a programmer, and in a male-dominated field like this one, my coworkers are overwhelmingly men who either have no children or a wife who’s taken on all the child care alone. My boss has been understanding, but the unspoken pressure to start turning in a full day’s effort has been mounting.
A few weeks ago, we asked Lupe to come back to work. It meant I could finally get relief from that pressure, but also risks for both of us.
From March to mid-September, my husband and I traded off child care and focused work time as best we could. Because Lupe was able to stay home on paid leave, she helped her family manage their own impossible situation by facilitating remote learning for her younger sister, who’s in high school. We arranged regular video calls so she and the kids could talk, and we kept in touch by text.
Although the situation now isn’t nearly as terrifying as it was in March, I knew Lupe would still have concerns about increasing the risk of exposure for her dad, who has a pre-existing condition. She’d also need to make sure her sister’s education didn’t suffer when she came back to work. And I wanted to be certain she didn’t feel pressured to come back if she wasn’t ready.
Domestic work has been undervalued for centuries. It’s performed primarily by women, and mostly by women of color, in private spaces where unfair practices can easily go unnoticed. Domestic workers are excluded from many labor protections that could provide some justice when that happens. It’s also a place in which countless white women have abused women of color while expecting their loyalty. I might hate that history, but I can’t live outside of it or pretend it doesn’t exist.
I’ve always believed that caring for my kids should be a good job, the kind of job I would want to have.
My friend Tam, who’s worked as a nanny for many years, told me that when I hired my son’s first nanny in 2014, and it’s helped me be a much better employer than I would have been without her guidance. It’s what led me to join Hand in Hand — The Domestic Employers Network. Hand in Hand supports employers who want to be fair but might not know how, and they do it with guidance from domestic workers themselves. We work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to set better standards, and alongside them to fight for better laws, leveraging the power that employers have in any labor debate to help shift the balance in favor of workers.
Hand in Hand gave me the language to have an open conversation with Lupe about what she needed, what I needed, and how to make sure both our families were supported.
This is what we decided to do: Ben takes his first meeting of the day while I feed the kids breakfast, review Jake’s remote learning assignments and prep whatever he needs for the day. If it’s a day with a morning live class, I supervise that. Meanwhile, at her house, Lupe has time to check in with her sister and make sure everything is set up for her remote learning. Then Ben drives over to pick her up, and Lupe takes over with the kids while we work. Before rush hour really gets underway, he takes her back home. Then he’s on duty for dinner prep and baths while I pick up the work I couldn’t do in the morning.
Managing Jake’s remote learning is a new and complex part of the job. On top of new technology and changing schedules, Jake is easily distracted, and keeping him engaged requires a lot of creativity. We’re asking Lupe to take on significant new responsibilities, and she deserves compensation for that, so we’ve given her a raise. I found Hand in Hand’s employer guide for online learning incredibly helpful in making sure we covered everything in our conversations.
Safety-wise, we’re treating this as a merging of our family bubbles — neither of us felt the safety benefits of mask-wearing inside the house were enough to justify trying to keep them on small faces all day, and keeping six feet of distance just seemed cruel to all of us. We’re on the same page about wearing masks outside our homes, taking our shoes off inside, washing our hands often, and sanitizing high-touch surfaces. If any of us does get sick, we’re prepared to stop the arrangement, and go back to paid leave. We rely heavily on Lupe — it’s only fair she should be able to rely on us, and that includes job and financial security.
As volatile as everything has been this year, I’m sure we’ll have to adjust our arrangement at some point. But for now, this is the best way I know of to help my kids, keep my job, and be fair to Lupe.
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