Figuring Out Work and Family in the Age of Coronavirus

— Corinne Purtill, a Los Angeles-based journalist who covers health, science, and technology

[In Her Words is available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.]

As the Covid-19 outbreak spreads across the world and the U.S. caseload inches toward 6,000 (as of Wednesday), millions of Americans are self-isolating to slow the virus’s spread.

This unprecedented period has disrupted all the systems that keep our lives running.

Most schools and day cares are closed. Grandparents, babysitters and others we rely on in our support networks can’t be enlisted for backup care, given the risk of contagion. Teachers are looking to parents to take over schooling, while trying to figure out what online learning even looks like. Parents are juggling the upkeep for children’s therapies, special needs or medical conditions. And then there are aging parents and older family members — they need our attention too.

Add to that the pressures of work (and holding onto a job) in an increasingly precarious economy.

It’s uncertain and uncharted territory for everyone. To get through it, we need to rely on each other — even if that means a text message of support from one socially distancing household to another. We also need to give ourselves permission to muddle through it the best we can.

Corinne Purtill is a Los Angeles-based journalist and parent of two, who worked remotely before all this.

Francesca Donner is New York-based, the editor of this newsletter, and a parent of three.

They discussed over text the new reality of work and family amid a pandemic.

Francesca Donner: Corinne, you’re a WFH expert. And I’m a WFH novice. So lay it out for me. What do I need to know?

Corinne Purtill: A long time ago — like, last week — we would have talked about setting up a home workspace and setting personal schedules. But this is a new world now. For so many of us, schools are closed. Day cares are closed. If you have a partner, that person is either also home figuring out this new reality (and taking up precious desk space), or is working extra long hours as a result of these new circumstances.

FD: I can relate to that.

CP: Do you remember the famous “BBC dad” interview? The look of quiet panic on Prof. Robert Kelly’s face when that sweet little girl bounced into the room and he realized that something unprecedented was happening?

FD: I do. Is that going to happen to me?

CP: It will. It already has. We are all the Kelly family now. Few of us saw this coming, and none of us know exactly what to do next.

FD: First things first: How do you maintain a sense of control when you’re WFH? Is there a daily routine? Do you get dressed everyday?

CP: All good questions. If you take away one key point from this conversation, it should be this: Put on pants. Real pants. Every day.

I know this is a controversial stance. But I’m seeing posts on Twitter about staying in pajamas and bringing the laptop into bed. This is a debatable point, but I advocate strongly for a shower and real pants every day. We must control what we can, even if it’s just our personal hygiene.

FD (writing in pajamas): My colleague, Taffy Akner, also a WFH pro, mentioned the pants, too. She said her pants are “elastic waisted.” Are your pants also elastic waisted?

CP: I own many elastic-waist pants, and I love them deeply. But for me, when it’s work time, it’s button-pants time. We all have tiny anchors tethering us to reality, and button pants are mine.

FD: A friend of mine in Northern California said she constantly struggles with how to avoid getting distracted by chores like cleaning and tidying. “Just being at home reminds me of all my home-related tasks and I start doing them,” she said.

And it’s not just tasks, there’s the hours dedicated to reading coronavirus news, which literally does not stop. (And you and I work in this business.)

CP: Totally. We all need to give ourselves a break on this one. No one is going to look back on the great quarantine of 2020 and wish they had tidied up more.

FD: Is it fair game to have a pot of soup bubbling on the stove when you’re supposed to be working?

CP: Yes, I’d argue that soup is fair game. You’ve got to eat. Think of all the time you spend in an office stepping out for coffee, or ordering lunch. You are entitled to that time at home, too. And if a giant pot of soup or chili emerges from it, so much the better.

FD: OK, Corinne. I think we need to address the elephant in the room. You know what that is, right? How do we handle the K.I.D.S.?

CP: Yes. Kids. The only thing more distracting than working at home with kids is having an actual elephant in your living room.

FD: Or reading coronavirus news. But I digress. You have two (kids, not elephants). I have three. How old are your kids again?

CP: Nine and almost 4.

FD: And now with schools and day cares across the country closed…

CP: Days home with small children should be approached like airplane flights with small children: Whatever it takes to get through it, do it, as long as they’re safe and not hurting anyone. We’re going to have to stretch some of our rules here. I don’t love YouTube, but as we’re talking my youngest is on there watching an alphabet cartoon, and the older one is engrossed in a video of a vlogger talking about her pet bird. It’s fine. They’ll be fine.

I have a question: Are men also panic texting about child minding?

FD: My guess is not close to as much as women. That’s because the bulk of child care the world over still falls to women. Which means …

CP: What?

FD: We are in deep trouble. One mom friend texted me that she was taking an important phone call from her building’s subterranean laundry room. If only the people on the end of the line could see the literal acrobatics we go through to pretend everything is under control.

CP: So much work is being done behind the scenes to make things look normal. But you can’t keep it hidden forever. Especially now.

FD: And maybe we shouldn’t. I know women are good at multitasking, but let’s be realistic: Working plus child care — it doesn’t add up.

CP: It doesn’t. Something has to give. It worries me that women are going to take a disproportionate hit economically in this. You and I have the luxury of jobs that can be done at home, however imperfectly. Working mothers without that option are going to face extremely difficult pressures.

FD: You are absolutely right.

CP: The Times reported that 114,000 New York City students are homeless and rely on schools for food. That makes the challenge of keeping kids out of a videoconference look trivial.

FD: That’s an important perspective. We all know this is going to be a challenge unlike any we have faced before. And of course all the backup systems don’t work: drop-in centers, play areas, and other alternatives we’ve used in the past. (Here’s a starting place for information on how to handle public school closures in New York City.)

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