Kathleen and I are living very different quarantines. That’s remarkable considering we’re sharing the same roughly 2,100 square feet. But while she’s been spending her days on phone calls and Zoom meetings, from 7 a.m. through sometimes deep into the evening, I have been spending my days singing Disney songs and skipping rocks in the lake. (What Ria’s been up to, I have no idea.)
My wife and I have very different jobs. Kathleen works for a large digital-marketing firm specializing in the automotive industry at a time when online retail and personal vehicles are more valuable than ever. I work for an airline magazine at a time when no one is flying and no one wants to touch paper handled by hundreds of other humans. Suffice it to say, COVID-19 is affecting us in very disparate ways.
To me, this difference highlights how much work shapes our lives. I guess this was always apparent, but having it play out within such a confined space makes it that much more obvious. I’ll admit that when I first learned I was going to be furloughed and my wife (fingers crossed) won’t be, I felt emasculated. It’s not like I’m the breadwinner anyway, but it turns out that contributing a sizable chunk to our family income was more important to me than I realized. Society had deemed me disposable, and that never feels good.
But this time away from the office has allowed me to consider the value of my work. I’m extremely fortunate to do what I do, and I hope to have an opportunity to return to it as soon as possible. I’m lucky to make magazines for a living, to work with a talented, smart and upbeat staff, to tinker with sentences and collect a paycheck for it every two weeks. But does it really matter? It turns out, in the grand scheme, it doesn’t. On some level, I already knew this. But it’s a very different reality when the time previously filled doing my job has been replaced by watching a 2-and-a-half-year-old.
The value of caring for others might be my biggest takeaway in all of this. The fact is, I’m paid more money to produce a monthly entertainment product than I am to watch my daughter. I’m paid more money to work on the magazine than professional childcare workers are paid to watch her. We live in a country with its values out of whack. We pay athletes unseemly annual salaries to play sports. (I say this as a big sports fan.) We criticize teachers because they get summers “off.” During this pandemic we’ve all been faced with learning just how essential we are.
Andrew Yang didn’t have my vote, but he definitely had my ears. Now, at least in the short term, we’re all going to live through an experiment in universal income. On the trail, Yang described a dynamic similar to the one I included above. His wife is valued less by society to care for their children, one of whom is autistic, than Yang was to work in tech. As a whole, caregivers aren’t just underappreciated, they are undervalued. We can change this if we rearrange the income equation.
A pandemic, a public health crisis above all else, should teach us just how critical it is to care for others. In a way, that’s what social distancing is all about. More acutely, it’s the caregivers who are on the front lines of this war. If my wife’s days are busy, healthcare workers’ days are exhausting and grueling and unyielding.
My hope is that if and when life returns to something resembling normal, we remember those who worked hardest during the crisis. Not just the doctors and nurses, but the bus drivers and grocery store clerks. The pandemic has forced us to reckon with who and what are truly most vital in this world—and, frankly, who and what are not. It’s essential that we don’t forget. –Andrew Waite