It is day 60 of our shelter in place. Everything seems calm in Cupertino, California. Companies have quickly and successfully transitioned to working from home. Jack Dorsey has said Twitter employees can work from home forever, friends are posting gorgeous pictures of their new lives on Facebook and for the first time in more than 10 years there is very little traffic on 101 at 5pm.
But inside the California ranch houses there is a seething going on, a desperation at the role we find ourselves in in the pandemic. In this case “we” is professional, smart women. Women who have careers; women who have had the privilege of help in the house and have not cleaned a toilet in 25 years; women who like to stimulate their brains with hard problems to solve and challenging debates. Women who are used to being respected for the work that they do.
Women still do the majority of the housework but this work is not respected. And it is repetitive and never ending. It’s like Groundhog Day except I am not learning to speak French or do ice sculptures because I either don’t have time or simply can’t concentrate long enough in the breaks I have. Every day it falls on women, as I am seeing with my girlfriends, to keep the house running, fed and clean. As Eleanor Margolis says in her Guardian piece “Stop this retro nonsense about lockdown being a return to domestic bliss for women.” It isn’t, it is return to the stifling life so many women led before emancipation. Even though some men are posting on Instagram as they step up and help around the house (why weren’t they before?) it is a rare man that will clean a toilet unless he’s paid to do it.
My grandmother was a smart woman. She went to Cambridge University, studied biology and graduated before women were allowed to formally receive a degree. But then she married and moved to India as a wife of the British Raj. She was never able to work but volunteered for local women in what is now Pakistan. By the time I knew her in England she volunteered as a local magistrate but spent much of her time cooking, cleaning, looking after my grandfather, drinking gin, angry and unfulfilled.
I understand why. I, like her, was not cut out to work on the household day in and day out. I respect my friends who chose to stay home to raise their children, but I did not. I chose a career and to hire people to help me with the house and the children. But now, with the arrival of Covid-19, I live in a world where every day I do the same thing. Get up, make bread, make coffee, empty the dishwasher, load the dishwasher, run laundry, cook, clean the kitchen and, once a week, shop and clean the house or cajole young adults into helping me clean the house. And keep my professional responsibilities going on Zoom while competing for bandwidth with the same young adults who are working from home. Zoom goes up and down; bandwidth comes and goes like my patience.
I have no real complaints. We have food, a roof over our heads, an income, a vegetable garden and our family is healthy. I know we are lucky. But even knowing that, the loss of my old life of stimulating conversations, travel to meet with interesting people in exciting places, dinner with friends and most importantly the freedom of being my own master preys on me. And while I don’t typically pour my first glass of wine until 6pm I understand why some days my grandmother didn’t wait and numbed herself earlier in the day.
I have always known I was fortunate to be born into a generation where women can have a career outside the home. Now I feel it more than ever deep in my tired bones.
Photo: Paris © 2019 Penny Herscher