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Clow: Care work crisis becoming critical during COVID-19 era

Ottawa Citizen logo Ottawa Citizen 2020-07-22 Erin Clow
Child care work is increasing for families trying to juggle a multitude of tasks during COVID-19 - and the burden falls mostly on women. © Matt Cardy Child care work is increasing for families trying to juggle a multitude of tasks during COVID-19 - and the burden falls mostly on women.

During this global pandemic, many fault lines have surfaced in our society. They are not the result of the pandemic, but have been exacerbated by the inequality magnified during the pandemic.

We currently face a crisis in relation to care work. I have seen it in my parent facebook groups and Mom WhatsApp chats. Life has become an untenable juggling act of responsibilities unacknowledged in the current Ontario government reopening plan. As we begin to return to a new form of normalcy, issues surrounding care work need to be addressed.

The care work crisis is one of marginalization and invisibility. The invisibility of care work has and continues to be the default.

For months, I listened to Ontario government news conferences which, without acknowledgment, unloaded care work on to parents, namely women.

When it was first announced that children would be staying home from school, I grumbled with my fellow moms about what we would do to entertain our children. Bold ambitions of structured days and baking quickly gave way to the reality of 24/7 care work.

When it was announced that we would move to online learning for the rest of the school year, I thought: wonderful, now I have the added responsibility of not only entertaining him, but ensuring he is engaging in meaningful learning.

When it was announced that the likelihood of returning to full-day everyday school in the fall was slim, I cried, and thought, what are parents supposed to do? And when it was finally announced that it was up to me whether or not my child attended school in 2020/2021, I laughed at this false choice.

Behind all of these decisions is an idea that care work can seamlessly expand based on necessity. These decisions are laced with ignorance of the amount of time and energy that goes into raising children. Behind them is an assumption that the economy matters more than mothers, fathers, grandparents and children. In all of these decisions is the entrenchment of the idea that care work isn’t work but rather a gendered responsibility. Labour in the home, particularly women’s labour, has and continues to be the ultimate backstop for our economy.

Everyday I encounter impossible scenarios that demand a sacrifice. Strategies that marginalize care work and demand a sacrifice from the individual. They come at the sacrifice of women’s careers and career goals. They come at the sacrifice of much-needed time to recharge. They come at the sacrifice of much-needed time with loved ones. And they come at the sacrifice of the relationship I want to have with my child. Everyday I say to my son, “just one second, I just need to finish (insert: email/meeting/conversation/reading/dishes/laundry/cleaning/cooking). The feeling of failure on all fronts is overwhelming and paralyzing.

None of this is in anyway to diminish the severity of the global pandemic we face. The impact and continued threat of COVID-19 is real and decision-making is difficult. But decisions cannot continue to be made at the expense of parents, namely women and children. A phased re-opening of the economy isn’t sustainable with parents being asked to choose between myriad false options.

Current options available include exposing to the virus some of the most vulnerable of society, namely grandparents, whose gracious offers to provide much-needed respite are greeted with an enthusiastic “yes” in our house. Other options include enrolling our son in day care or camps, and shouldering the costs as well as the risk of exposure to other children. (And this is a privilege, not a choice; one only available to some and therefore further exacerbating the financial divide within society.) A final option is a reduction in my hours of employment. Yes, all of these are options, but ones laden with consequences for parents, grandparents, children, women and society as a whole.

We need strategies that validate and recognize care work. Strategies that continue to marginalize this labour will not and cannot move us forward. There is an inherent incompatibility with a model that perpetuates the invisibility of care work, while promoting and prioritizing economic reopening. The crisis is now, and I, for one, won’t be silent anymore.

Erin Clow is Assistant Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy and the Education and Training Adviser in the Human Rights and Equity Office, Queen’s University.


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