The problem of childcare will likely emerge as one of the true unresolvable crises highlighted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
With school and daycare an ever-changing uncertainty, parents have had to scramble to do double- and triple-duty as educators, caretakers, and employees. Tacking into fall brings even more uncertainty, since schools are not yet cleared to open, and daycare centers are bursting at the seams. Add to this an increased load on the East End, with more people from the city seeking refuge in vacation destinations year-round and you have a recipe for recalculation.
The community that has felt the true burden of childcare in the fiercest way, though, has been the community of essential workers on the East End, much of which is comprised of people of color. Women of color have experienced a disproportionate share of the burden of the childcare dilemma, negotiating not only the muddied waters of what to do with their children when there are no options, but also the added risk factors for COVID-19.
“You have two sides of it,” said Bonnie Cannon, executive director of the Bridgehampton Childcare Center, which serves lower income families on the East End. “You have the essential workers that, number one, have to be on the front line, and so, from a health perspective, they’re out there, and they’re more exposed to the COVID-19, and then they have families at home that they have to come home to, and so there’s more of a chance that they may be subjecting their families to the COVID-19 than other ethnicities, and here lies the disparity.”
Ms. Cannon also noted that other disparities include wage disparities, economic disparities, and educational disparities, in addition to the health disparities that already put minorities at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to exposure to COVID-19. “People of color are at the lower end of all of these spectrums,” she said.
Essential workers, Ms. Cannon added, have also been forced to make childcare choices that other parents may not have been forced to make.
“Having to stay at home and not being able to be an essential worker, because you do have a family, and you do have children, and so you have to stay at home, because you don’t have anyone else to take care of your children, and you can’t pay for that, because you can’t work, and you don’t have income coming in, and that means that there are wages lost on the family,” Ms. Cannon said.
The relationship between a lack of available childcare and everything else becomes cyclical: wages are lost, and, therefore, childcare becomes increasingly inaccessible. Without any kind of federal intervention to aid parents — and particularly women, who assume the majority of childcare responsibilities — the hole becomes deeper and deeper. Basic necessities, like food, shelter, and water, suddenly become out of reach. Food pantry demand on the East End, Ms. Cannon said, has shot up, a part of this endless cycle of demand.
Some mothers, with nowhere to turn, have opted for caretaking choices that they might not have made during other circumstances.
“You have to make some real choices,” Ms. Cannon said. “You say, ‘OK, I’ve got to feed the family. I’ve got to go to work. What am I going to do?’ Then, you talk about the quality of care for your child.”
She said that, with childcare centers only partially open or maxed out, some mothers had chosen to leave their kids with caretakers that they likely would not have picked in other scenarios, like teenagers — the ultimate Sophie’s choice.
Although the childcare dilemma has hit home for mothers (and fathers) across the country, non-essential workers have had the relative luxury of staying home. And while working from home with untethered children is an inconvenience, it is likely not a life-threatening one. But the newfound world of navigating parenting and childcare in a world in which contact can produce a deadly virus, or failing to show up to work can render your family insolvent, is a burden borne more heavily by essential workers — and those workers are, by and large, people of color.
The stress of negotiating childcare and essential work, Ms. Cannon said, can also feel unending to mothers in these situations. “You’re really just trying to make ends meet, so you really don’t have a chance to just sit back and breathe and just take it all in because you’re just trying to make it,” she said.
It is a perfect storm, enacted on the vulnerable, and one with no clear end in sight.