If there are any angels in heaven, they’re all nurses.”
Picture a nurse. What do you see?
For most of us, we see a woman. Teachers have used this thought experiment for years to teach about gender stereotypes, helping us see how they live inside our own imaginations and then debunking them with stories of “Anyone can be anything they want.” This is an important lesson! I remember, after all, my own shame during a high school history class when I realized I drew only men as doctors and firefighters and scientists and professors. Me, an under-18, card-carrying NOW member! I was guilty of stereotypical thinking, too.
The thing is, while it’s true that not all nurses are women, close to 90% of all RNs are. We could go into the history and the gender theory and the economics of why that is (the answer is NOT biology), but suffice it to say, in our imaginations and in our career choices, we generally see nursing as women’s work. So when President Biden asked a nurse (not a doctor) to sing at the COVID memorial service, and when he praised nurses (not doctors) as angels helping us through this pandemic, I swelled with recognition. I am not a nurse, but I remember with tenderness the nurses who helped me through the birth of both of my children, the nurses in Guadalajara who sat by my side while Rory was hospitalized as an infant, the nurses in Peru who cared for me while I lay immobile with a shattered leg. I remember, too, when family members were in the hospital close to death, how the nurses enveloped us in their care, both medical and emotional. They witnessed our family, our grief, our love, and they accompanied us across the threshold of the moment. And they are doing the same now: wrapped in makeshift PPE, working double shifts, exposing themselves to a deadly virus while helping very sick patients breathe or say goodbye. They are showing up to help us heal, and they are stepping in to care for us when so many of our other systems are failing.
But something in me also bristled when President Biden described nurses as angels. Because an angel is otherworldly, mythical, ephemeral. Nurses might be inclined to exhibit care and love, but they are also trained in biology and physiology and can insert an IV and clean a wound and read vitals and diagnose illnesses. Nurses are trained to think creatively, holistically, empathically, to see the patient in ways that a doctor doesn’t. Their generalized expertise quite literally saves lives. They may feel like angels to those of us who receive their care, but they are trained professionals, and calling them angels, however well intentioned, feels like a diminishment of their work, work that is already diminished so regularly by economics, social status, and gendering.
For a moment, though, when President Biden expressed his genuine gratitude for the work of nurses, I felt triumph on their behalf, this sisterhood of another feminized profession receiving the recognition they have always deserved. I thought, too, of teachers—my colleagues—celebrated for the passion and love and dedication they have been bringing to pandemic schooling. We, too, are an overwhelmingly female profession: roughly 75%, at last count. And for a while, at least, our accolades were pouring in—teachers’ animated Zoom videos going viral, “Thank You, Educator” signs popping up in yards, articles about teachers going out of their way to bring clothes and food and care to their students. For a moment, at least, we too were angels. Of course, being angels doesn’t mean we’re paid any more. It doesn’t mean that our working conditions are safe. It doesn’t mean that we are granted cultural respect. It doesn’t mean that we are granted adequate time to do the work expected by the public or that we are listened to when we raise concerns about reopening buildings. But we are angels nonetheless, showing up every day to help our communities survive this pandemic.
This is, in many ways, the heart of women’s work: Often invisible yet specialized, demanding of care but offering little care for us in return, essential but poorly paid. Nurses and teachers, yes, but also childcare workers and nursing home staff, office assistants and dental assistants and medical assistants (notice that word…assisting…what cannot be done without us). And mothers. Let us not forget the mothers.
There has been no shortage of reporting on how the pandemic has affected women, specifically mothers with careers outside the home. Women are bearing the brunt of childcare while school buildings are closed; we are often the ones juggling a work deadline with a Zoom lesson with our children’s grief and depression; we’re spending 24/7 as parents in a physical proximity that is new for many of us, and that we have actively chosen lives against. The result of this burden is both economic and emotional. Women have been hardest hit by unemployment. Women are dropping out of the labor force. Women are stalling in their careers (hello, tenure clock). And women are losing it. Maybe not in public, maybe not in front of our kids, but we are losing it. The New York Times has opened up a Primal Scream Hotline where callers get one minute to yell, laugh, cry, scream, and otherwise shout into the void. What they’ve recorded is desperation: mothers sobbing that they’re not cut out for parenthood. Mothers who feel deep disdain for their kids (and their kids’ laundry and their kids’ snacks). Mothers who want to run away. Mothers who are angry at the myth of “balance” they’ve been told. Mothers trying to keep their families from falling into crisis while quietly slipping into a crisis of their own.
I feel these mothers. I am these mothers. Since March 7, 2020 (our pandemic life started a week early due to double-kid strep in our house), I have not been away from my children for more than the time it takes to run to the grocery store for a curbside pickup or to watch a few episodes of Bridgerton. Pre-COVID, I dropped them off at school at 8:30am and went to my office or a coffee shop or even my at-home desk to work: seven glorious hours that were mine. They were never enough to write and teach and exercise and sit in meetings and conduct research and also prep dinner or catch up on laundry, but they were enough to give me some equilibrium, so that when I went to pick up my children from school at 3:30pm, I could be present with them. In the evenings, we might cook dinner together or go to swim lessons and spend an hour after playing in the pool; after school, we might practice piano and finish up some emails together. This wasn’t picture perfect: they often had after-school meltdowns, I might be especially short after a stressful day, and there was never enough time to exercise and eat healthy and maintain adult friendships, but there was the veneer of balance. They had friends; I had friends. They had work; I had work. And when Papa would get home an hour or two after us (having left an hour or two before us in the morning), we’d sit down to dinner together, maybe splash in the hot tub, or just putz around the house in close proximity. Maybe once a week, I’d meet a friend for dinner or yoga; every other month, I would have an out-of-town conference where I could eat slowly and catch up on work and give myself over to academic life. And then in the spring, I would head to Peru for a month; Ross would take over daily life while I spent an intense month teaching, writing, and gorging on ceviche and pisco and Spanish, a trade-off for all the rest of the hours that I spent being the lead parent. Throw in a few weeks of summer day camp, the occasional date night, our monthly family-dinner-free-for-all-potlucks where kids ran feral and grown-ups got to drink wine and laugh together and, well, life looked and felt a lot different than it does today. Hectic? Yes. Stressful? Yes? A lot of work for mom? Yes. But there was something about the juggle of it all that made it feel like a choice, and that sense of choice was sustaining.
Today, eleven months (!!) into this pandemic life, it looks instead like this: kids are piled in bed with me, and the alarm goes off for all of us a few minutes before their first meeting of the day. I’m not sure the last time they’ve brushed their hair or their teeth, but by god, they’ll be at that morning meeting. I take the half hour that they are engaged to sip the coffee, still warm in a travel mug, that Ross left for me when he left the house at 6am; I might also read the news, play some Candy Crush or Redecor, catch up on text messages, or absorb my daily task list. When their meeting is over at 9am, the real crush begins: squeezing in meals (they are always hungry!) with chores and lessons and follow up work and nagging to brush teeth and practice piano and work on math facts, while also showing up (showered if I’m lucky) for faculty meetings and teaching sessions and service commitments. Around lunch time, when their synchronous day is done and we’re all fed and fueled, I let them lose themselves in video games while I try to tackle what awaits at my computer—mostly grading and emails, but every now and then a few minutes to look back at my research and remember that I once had even more to my work life than this. Evenings are taken over by cooking and corralling children and trying to coax them into a board game or a family TV night or a jog around the block instead of more hours on devices. When we all crawl into bed—Papa in his room because his face-to-face life is so differently scheduled than our virtual one—and the kids eventually pass out, I stay up too late reading or texting or doom scrolling, my only moment alone since the morning, and I’m too tired and too depressed to do much else other than lay curled up with the blue light of the phone.
Some of you are doing it better, I’m sure, and that keeps me up, too. Should I be letting them spend all this time on devices? How can I get them to care about personal hygiene or feeding themselves? Is our endless time together actually quality time? What have I done wrong that they are so clingy and won’t even let me go for a walk around the block without a freak out of leaving them home with Papa? It’s the old mom guilt, ever present and perhaps more acutely so for those of us who feel our attentions divided between home and work. Because work calls, too, and all I feel in that realm is not enough. Not productive enough. Not focused enough. Not writing enough. Not present enough. Not online enough. Not engaged enough. It’s all not enough.
I could add more to this story: The weeks we spent in the UP with extra kids while their parents with less flexible schedules figured out how to make the new normal work. The month or so we hosted cousins so my sister’s family could deal with a medical and financial crisis. The month Ross spent with his mom while kids and I were in Milwaukee. The anxiety around Ross going face-to-face before we knew if that was safe. The lost research sabbatical handed over to community partners and service obligations to feel like I was contributing something to my work world when I could no longer conduct my research. But also those first weeks, feeling like I’d been given the gift of being able to singlemindedly focus on being a mom, something I never thought I’d want but, in the crush of hectic life, I actually longed for. Of course, every day spent homeschooling and baking bread and playing scavenger hunts was a day I didn’t spend on writing or teaching or research. But the endless layers of caring and nurturing called. They always call, of course, and I’m certainly romanticizing over the ever-present guilt that plagued pre-pandemic parenting for me. But right now, in the midst of an actual crisis, the calls to care and nurture are just so urgent. Rory is despondent and Anna is lonely and Ross is stressed… how can I help them? Our mothers need vaccines or a COVID test or in-home help…how can I help them? Families around us are in crisis, and we have resources and flexibility…how can I help them? Schools are desperate to make a smart shift into this unknown territory…how can I help them?
Maybe this is the more accurate description of “women’s work”: that urge to ask and then try to answer, how can I help them? Not because we’re wired to do so, but because we’re trained to do so. And even when we think we’ve escaped that training, even when we think we’ve chosen some other more balanced and woke lives for ourselves than this incessant caring and mothering that is unpaid and unacknowledged and disrespected (by us, too! the irony!), the pandemic comes along and knocks us on our asses. “We need you right now,” it says with a finger in our chests. “We need you to step in and step up. We are depending on you to be here—for the children, for your partners, for your jobs, for the nation. We need you to keep on keepin’ on, while also staying abreast of the science and the politics and the emotional health of your children and K12 learning standards.” And then just before it walks away, it turns back: “Also, you might consider learning how to make your own sourdough starter and upping the hours a day you spend on your Peloton. You might also start sewing your own masks, making your own homeschool curriculum, and adopting a pandemic puppy. And don’t forget to get your kids to write thank you letters to essential workers while you are calling elected officials. There’s a lot at stake…Although truly, none of this last bit is technically necessary, but you sure are going to feel like a failure if all you do is keep your kids alive during this pandemic.”
Honestly, I’m not surprised to hear mothers screaming and crying into an anonymous hotline recording. I’m not surprised by reports about mothers’ increased alcohol consumption. I’m not surprised by the jokes shared on social media about divorce. I’m not surprised by the spike in mental health needs. I’m not surprised when mom friends and I share links to dream houses across the country or across town where we want to move, by ourselves, with no one touching us or asking for a snack or crying because of a Zoom glitch. I’m not surprised, especially because it sounds so eerily familiar to what Betty Friedan wrote about womanhood and mothering a half century ago.
We are tired. We are untended. We have nurtured and cared and kept on and the yawning gape of the pandemic makes us a little panicked because how much longer can we do this?
But the world has continued on, as best it can, and so we must continue on. There is no break from the parenting, the worrying, the feeding, the guilting. There is no break either from our paid work, where the demands remain the same despite our demands outside of work exponentially growing. And lo if you are a mother and a teacher, where you are being pitted against your own self in the political battles over opening school buildings.
We may be angels, us women, but we are tired angels. And while a presidential shout out for women’s work is heartening, it is not enough to sustain us.
This may be the time for a caveat. I know that there are hetero couples out there where dad bears the brunt of this “women’s work.” I know there are single dads that feel invisible when we talk about gender roles. I know there are queer couples that blow up this entire heteronormative idea of the gendered division of labor. I know that there are cis- and trans-women who have thrown a middle finger up at this entire gendered system. I know that I am speaking of generalizations based on culturally ascribed gender roles, and I know that these roles do not neatly fit onto everyone’s life. Nor am I saying that they should. I also know that as an upper-middle-class white woman, I have flexibility and resources and a cushion to make this hard time survivable, and that these privileges often come at the expense of women of color. I also must acknowledge all that I am not living through: I am not also living the deadly pandemic of racism. I am not also living with the specter of deportation. I am not also living with food insecurity or housing insecurity or domestic violence. I am not unemployed. I am not weighed down by racialized ideas of my “strength” or my “femininity.” I am not also living under a religious regime that dictates how I live my life. In other words, I am not saying that there is a monolithic idea of “woman.” I am not saying that there is something inherent or biological to women’s work. I am not saying that we all experience the weight of gendered roles and women’s work in the same way. And I’m definitely not saying that Ross would agree with any of what I’ve written here when it comes to his experience of the division of labor in our family.
What I am saying is, just like nursing and teaching are fields that are overwhelmingly dominated by women, this invisible work of caring and tending and keeping others safe is work that overwhelmingly falls to women. Not only to women, and not because we are inherently, biologically better at it, but because these are the deep ruts of family and social labor that it is all too easy to fall back into, especially in times of difficulty or uncertainty. A kind of social programming, if you will, that is made all the more visible in a crisis.
Let me be clear: I am glad that the pandemic has made “women’s work” visible, on both an intimate and national stage. I am glad that we are acknowledging that we literally cannot survive without nurses and teachers and mothers and childcare workers and caretakers. But even for the most privileged of us who have found ourselves engaged in “women’s work,” whether by choice or by default, this is a heavy load. And while recognition of this too often taken-for-granted work is nice—Thank you, President Biden! Thank you, journalists and social scientists! Thank you, grateful partner!—recognition is not the same thing as: Rest. Remuneration. Respect. Equity.
In March, our world collapsed in on itself. And I like so many other women sat down and gathered up my little world in my arms, vowing to keep it safe. Because despite my lifelong resistance and life’s choices, I have been unavoidably trained for this moment, to care and nurture and keep others safe. I have roiled and raged against it, but like it or not, I am here, tending to my women’s work—with both reluctance and wholeheartedness. And it just doesn’t seem fair that this work should be so crushing. So while I appreciate accolades and being seen, I’d rather not be an angel in heaven; I’d rather be fully human, right now, wrapped in dignity and compassion and load-sharing and compensation. Women’s work is work, and while the pandemic may come with acknowledgement of how essential our labor is, I would take an eased burden and better pay over praise any day.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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