What it takes to care for a family and home may now be clearer to those sequestered as a result of the coronavirus.
Until now, the value of homemaking has often been unacknowledged in society. The pandemic has revealed its importance. Gov. Gavin Newsom recognized this in his daily televised coronavirus update on Friday, May 1.
“We owe a particular debt to all our mothers,” he said, “all the women out there, that disproportionately are in this care economy, that have just done heroic work — so often unrecognized [and] undervalued, I hope no more.”
In normal times, it’s women who usually keep the toilet paper stocked. They make sure such essential items as milk, eggs, bread, laundry detergent, prescriptions and pet food are replaced before they run out.
They are often the primary childcare providers. They also work and volunteer in their communities. This is in addition to cleaning, doing laundry and organizing events. Many women are also the unsung planners, preparers, setter-uppers and cleaner-uppers for meals and family celebrations.
I became a mother in the 1980s, and these observations are based on my experience and that of fellow working mothers. The division of labor at home has become somewhat more equitable since then (I assume), so men, please forgive me if this does not reflect what is true in your household.
Before COVID-19, the difficulty of maintaining a household wasn’t considered worth talking about. Television anchors never proclaimed the astonishing news that moms have performed miracles day after day.
One routine responsibility of homemakers — grocery shopping — has been transformed with the pandemic-created food and supply shortages. Before COVID-19, many in society considered it a boring chore, assumed primarily by women. A trip to the store was never a topic of conversation.
Now, success in foraging for food, toilet paper and disinfectant seem almost heroic. Shopping is now seen as a challenge for all that is worth sharing.
Additionally, some family members whose unpaid work has gone unrecognized are now being appreciated.
Older relatives, often grandmothers, have long been keeping families together behind the scenes. This has often involved transporting grandchildren to and from school and activities along with indispensable childcare.
Now that some grandparents are unable to see their grandchildren due to the risk of contracting the virus, many parents are more fully realizing how much they contribute.
Cleaning, formerly the purview of homemakers, has also taken on more importance.
Before the virus, a woman’s insistence on regularly cleaning the home was often seen by their partners or husbands as overkill. Some male partners also have claimed that hiring a housekeeper is an unnecessary expense. Many women have disagreed, but they have learned to do the cleaning themselves if they wanted it done.
The fact that paid housecleaners are mostly poor women working without benefits or legal protections shows just how little the culture has valued their work. Jobs that were degraded before the pandemic, however, are now seen as essential, according to a speaker on KPCC public radio station recently.
Until the pandemic, few knew how long microbes lasted after a toilet was flushed. Now, however, a germ-free environment is considered not only desirable but also life-saving. This is now headline news.
Today, knowing how long infectious agents can live on copper, cardboard and plastic is as important as sports scores were before professional and college sports paused because of the virus. The science behind cleaning and disinfecting is regularly described in prestigious publications and news reports. Amazingly, the authoritative Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention has even published guidelines on handling laundry safely.
These months, with many families at home from school or work, have revealed much to all. This includes the number of household duties, the skill and time required to do them and how they are shared.
When this disastrous pandemic subsides, could these realizations lead to a much-needed change in how the homefront is managed?
Sally Kilby is a South Pasadena resident. She has worked as a nurse, a medical librarian, an advertising copywriter, a magazine editor, a writer, a marketing director for a health sciences index and as the South Pasadena city clerk. She has two grown children.