Child-raising in the Plague Year

When do we get back to normal?

It seemed inevitable.  It seemed like no force on earth could change the pattern.  Children in two-parent families would spend their days in commercial nurseries, like children of single-parent families, while all adults would go off to work.

Creative thinkers could suggest ways of tinkering with the pattern.  Maybe instead of the parents paying the full cost of the nursery, employers could include nurseries at the office as a perk.  Putting employers in charge of child-raising would make arrangements for child-care more efficient.  Not everyone feels comfortable with employers exerting ever more power over their workers, but at least this would improve efficiency.

Maybe some level of government could take responsibility for child-care.   Maybe some level of government could certify the competence of child-care workers, or even guarantee them more than minimum-wages.  Not everyone feels comfortable with government exerting more power over citizens, but at least it would improve efficiency.

About no one could imagine a more radical departure from the pattern than tinkering with the nursery.

And then came the novel coronavirus.

Now lots of children stay home with their parents.  I know a young couple  who live with their two toddlers in a one-bedroom apartment with a backyard.  The two children play at home during most of the day under the supervision of their own father; they know not to disturb their mother, in the next room over, as she puts in her hours of remote work on her computer.  Late in the afternoon, mother “comes home” from her office, and father can then, remotely,  “attend” his graduate school classes and study-sessions.  Once a week or so, the children spend time with a grandmother.

Does this schedule seem surprising, even unnatural, now?

Not long ago, I think most children were raised by relatives who love them, instead of by strangers.   Then came a much more productive pattern, in which  parents concentrate on work during their high-earning years,  and have someone else care of children.  Businesses likewise do not lose years of work from employees who stay home with children.   The new normal wins in sheer productivity.

But the novel coronavirus has forced some families into a different pattern, oddly like the pattern that our great-grandparents used to raise our grandparents.  For the moment, it feels abnormal, temporary.  When do we get back to the new, efficient, productive, normal? I do not know.  Maybe this young couple does better with variation on an inefficient, non-productive, but more loving, old normal.

Of course, this young couple, though not wealthy, have certain advantages.  Not everyone can work remotely, or study remotely.  People who stock grocery shelves or drive garbage trucks do essential services and cannot stay sequestered.  Other people have lost their jobs or businesses or homes during the pandemic and have little hope of restoration.

And even this privileged family does not have all the advantages of old-fashioned child rearing at home.  Without play-dates, the children do not spend enjoyable time with other youngsters, and the parents have almost no respite.  The young father describes taking care of his children, all day, every day, as “very trying; not having the quiet time to myself that I had come to rely on to relax.”

Parents of toddlers feel sleep-deprived and exhausted.   Child care is hard work, as everyone knows who actually does it.  The talented, loving, thoughtful, experienced staff at the best nurseries might make it look easy.  A few hours of high-quality nursery would help both parents and children.

Someday we might get back to “normal,” to the unavoidable all-day nursery.  Multiple factors contributed to making that arrangement ubiquitous: career opportunities for women, salary stagnation for men, but, most of all, increased efficiency.  Having everyone work at his or her most productive employment increases efficiency, measured by gross national product.  We all work so hard because we produce more stuff (goods and services), and consume more stuff.  We send our babies to the nursery all day so that we can produce more stuff. When we are done with what we have consumed, we can send more used-up stuff to the landfill.

If we measure differently, we might decide differently.  Maybe at the end of the day – maybe at the end of the decade – the young father will value his trying hours with inquisitive, demanding, sometimes bored, toddlers more than he would value any stuff he could possibly acquire.

Maybe we never should go all the way back to “normal.”

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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