For the eight years immediately before my oldest child was born, I taught high school English. I coached the cross country and track teams, too, and I loved my job. I thought I was good at it and it was meaningful, fulfilling work. But, after Thea was born, I resigned because those early days of caring for her made two things clear: I was burned out from the emotional intensity with which I’d taught, and it seemed it would be impossible for me to be the kind of teacher I wanted to be while also being the kind of mother I wanted to be.
I saw right away that teaching had prepared me well for parenting in many superficial ways. I was used to eating meals in five stolen minutes, used to going to the bathroom on someone else’s schedule, and used to addressing the same question over and over again first with patience and then with firm refusal. I was also used to making many decisions quickly while being interrupted. I knew how to establish routines while also knowing when to be flexible and how to be vulnerable and open without losing authority. I was used to seeing care as the structural, academic, and moral center of my responsibilities. In my care for my students, I had experienced a distant relative of the kind of protective and relentless love that parenting entails.
Today, like most parents in America, I’m teaching my own children at home. Thea, now a kindergartener, has been home from school since March 12, and each morning her wonderful, kind, unfathomably genuine-yet-cheerful teacher posts a list of activities for her to do: word work, writing workshop, number corner, morning greetings that are both silly and purposeful. Thea loves the math problems and gets frustrated by sounding out new words. She loves to draw pictures for remote art class but finds homeschool physical education (or maybe my delivery of it) ridiculous. Every morning I sit beside her at a child-sized table, often with her three-year-old brother on my lap. Much of what I’m doing—constantly recalibrating my expectations and fine-tuning what kind of support she needs, trying to show her that my love for her is totally unrelated to her talents while also pushing her to try her best—are things I do all the time as her mother. Imposing teaching on top of parenting feels like looking through two similar (but not identical) transparent slides, making it easy to see the vast overlap.
In these days of isolation and anxiety, I’m also reattaching errant buttons, growing my own vegetables, and cooking more than I ever have before. I sometimes like to imagine myself—using homemade chicken stock, nearly moldy scraps of cheese, and the ends of a bag of basmati rice to make sort-of risotto—as an unimpressive yet pampered imitation of Ma Ingalls.
When I was a little girl, my mom taught me to sew and to garden. I made the dress I wore for the first day of middle school, and I had a little section of the yard where I planted annuals—pansies, I think—and one of those small, potted Christmas trees. The tree was still there when my parents sold my childhood home years later, short but robust and thriving, next to the driveway.
By the time I moved into a house of my own, I couldn’t keep up with the vegetable garden that had already been planted. I sent my clothes to the dry cleaner for alterations rather than doing them myself. Although I had once loved to cook—spending spring weekends trying new recipes for dinner parties with my roommates and summer evenings cooking with my mom at home—in recent years I’ve rarely made anything other than roasted vegetables or pasta. Particularly when I was a new teacher, lonely and somewhat defensive about my career’s level of prestige when in conversation with friends who were doing postdocs in astrophysics or finishing medical residencies, I was both self-conscious about my lack of domestic skills and perversely proud of my ineptitude.
Teaching was such a stereotypically woman’s job—teaching English. If I could neglect what I’d long internalized as frivolous feminine concerns of caring, I thought it might prove my worth in other ways. If I was too efficient and busy to cook or hem a pair of pants, I might also demonstrate that I was above the domestic and the personal. I thought I might prove—to some imaginary audience—that while my teaching job might have been feminine and unprestigious, I myself was not weakened by inefficiencies.
Sarah Menkedick’s new book, Ordinary Insanity, is an examination of fear and anxiety in contemporary American motherhood. In it, she probes her own experience with postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder and blends reporting on historical, political, religious, medical, and cultural expectations about the mental health of new mothers. In “Maternalism and Momism,” a chapter about the evolving ways in which mothers’ political and civic responsibility has been perceived, she argues that the unlikely combination of misogyny and first-wave feminism (in its opposition to a Victorian perspective on motherhood and femininity), have together devalued the work that women do. Menkedick writes that while Maternalism once saw the work and responsibility of motherhood as connected to greater societal good (like the labor and educational reforms of the Victorian era), it was gradually replaced by “Momism, a philosophy that instead perceived motherhood with condescension and increasingly “rendered [it] a private, reactionary affair.” The aim to offer women choices outside traditional feminine expectations is certainly both well intentioned and essential. But, “in an effort to liberate women from ‘the feminine mystique,’” Menkedick writes, “first-wave white feminists defined power, control and self-worth in stereotypically masculine terms of career and self-definition. Liberated women could not be the ones who cared for others.”
Over and over again since becoming a mother, I’ve thought about the care that went into my upbringing and the subsequent support for my children and me that allows me to care for them. I can’t leave out a few men: my dad, who took dictation for my earliest stories; my husband, a devoted partner in parenting; my brother, an attentive uncle. But broadly speaking, both the foundational skills and logistics of caring have been made possible by women: my mother and my grandmothers, my midwife, my children’s pediatrician, the nurse who takes my calls about spiked fevers and mysterious rashes, the lactation consultant, my daughter’s speech therapist, the physical therapist who got me running again postpartum, every single one of my children’s teachers, and the women who brought food to my doorstep when I was still exhausted and bleeding in the days after delivery.
I’ve taken dinner to friends, too, but the dinners I take are usually from the prepared food section at the grocery store. When my son was just a few weeks old and it was still the bitter cold middle of a New England winter, I opened our door to find a homemade chicken pot pie on my front porch. My friend Gina had made it. It was thick and hearty and warm and I ate all of it in two days. I still think about this pie often, weekly maybe. I like chicken pot pie just fine but that meal itself is only a proxy for what I’m thinking about: care and love and kindness embodied in a way that I know the premade baked pasta dishes I’ve dropped off on doorsteps are not.
Certainly eating any food is better than going hungry. And learning—from an app or a worksheet posted on Google classroom or through a prerecorded video of a simultaneously sincere and cheerful teacher—is the best I can conceive of right now. But I’m seeing that I have long unwittingly subscribed to a belief system that prioritizes efficiency over care, utility over art, the public over the private, the work mostly done by men over the work mostly done by women.
As the weeks of social isolation and homeschooling drag on, I let myself imagine a world changed on the other side of this, not in the ways speculated about by think pieces—sporting events reimagined and temperature checks at airport security—but in the ways we value care. I hope that spending months at home trying to meet the dynamic educational needs of children might offer critical parents a more robust understanding of the work that teaching requires. But it’s not just teaching I’m thinking of. Women are not just doing most of the homeschooling but also most of the sewing masks, growing gardens, making bread from scratch.
And there are the caring professions. The New York Times recently reported that one in three jobs held by women has been deemed “essential.” Of the more than 17 million healthcare workers, 77 percent are women. Women now outnumber men in medical school classes, at a time when the occupational prestige of physicians is gradually declining. Is it too much to hope for a radical reassessment of the regard we hold for the work of caring in both public and private spheres?
When social distancing restrictions are lifted and it’s once more safe to go about something resembling the lives we had before, I will hug my parents and my friends. It will be a relief to not startle in alarm when I see someone else walking or running or cycling on my quiet suburban street. I look forward to no longer coating my cracked hands in Vaseline before bed. I will take my kids to playgrounds and out for ice cream. Like most parents, I will welcome their return to school for many reasons: because then I will be able to write more often, because I think they are missing their friends, and because their teachers will do work that is both difficult and exhausting. And I know it will only be a matter of time before I will slowly begin to outsource some of the care I’ve been giving—first P.E. and blended consonants, then growing vegetables and cooking dinner.
But I will see this work differently now. Some reversion to my old norms doesn’t necessarily mean being careless. My friends and I remember grandparents, so influenced by the scarcity of the Great Depression and World War II that they were unwilling to part with old margarine containers and spare buttons. It seems likely, given the current economic climate, that those of us living through the coronavirus pandemic will also be more frugal, both from financial necessity and a more general aversion to waste. One particularly germ-loathing friend of mine said her greatest hope for society after the greatest risk has passed is that people practice better hygiene, but my greatest hope is that we come to value care—both caring professions and the informal work of care in private life—in a new way. Not just because of the labor involved but because care and love and connection is at the core of what makes us human. Care is not frivolous or even simply good for us, but essential for us. Perhaps this understanding may grant some civic and cultural power to the work of care.
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