all work no pay

The Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Unemployment statistics can’t capture the full extent of what women have lost.

Illustration: by Simone Noronha
Illustration: by Simone Noronha

As I was writing this, my virtual kindergartner flung open the door to my “office” without knocking. “I’m on a break,” she declared, the first of five in her school day. I knew she expected me to navigate away from my Google doc and over to YouTube, where I’d open a video of Daddy Yankee’s “Con Calma” so we could dance along. We follow the choreography of an animated moose and panda boogying amid neon fruits on most mornings, but today my plan had been to get some work done.

I cued up the video and stood up from my chair without protest. I’ve learned the hard way that getting mad at her makes everything worse, that getting mad at my spouse makes everything worse, that I will get mad at myself for getting mad at them, and that my precious solo time will vanish in a mushroom cloud of frustration that ultimately has nothing to do with this moment and everything to do with the forces pummeling women and work right now.

What is my work? I continue to call myself a writer, though I do very little writing. Last year, I pushed my second book’s deadline back a few months, then a full year. I feel my chances of making money, staying relevant, or completing a project evaporate like sanitizer from my chapped hands. I have essentially dropped out of the workforce and been absorbed into housework and caring for my children, where there are no wages, no protections, no upward path, just a repetitive circle. I am by no means alone.

“Can we unionize mothers?” I ask my husband, a labor organizer who helps rideshare drivers fight for basic workers’ rights. “How about women?” I am only half joking.

He looks at me over his reading glasses. “Who would you bring your demands to?”

Every month ushers in another report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics detailing how the pandemic is pushing people — women overwhelmingly, most of them Black and brown, millions of them mothers — out of the workforce. The recession has decimated jobs in sectors dominated by female workers of color: service and hospitality. Each report triggers an avalanche of stories with headlines such as “Women Are Not Okay.” Reading them feels torturous but necessary.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, women have lost 5.4 million jobs since the pandemic began. Not only are their jobs vanishing, but women, faced with adding caretaking and virtual-schooling duties to their professional responsibilities, are quitting. Nearly 2.1 million women have left the labor force entirely since February, meaning they are no longer looking for employment and no longer counted in unemployment statistics. Those women may seem as if they’re making a choice to step back, but as often as not, the choice isn’t really one. It’s not a choice to care for your children when schools are closed and child care costs as much as your take-home pay. Experts call that kind of rock-and-a-hard-place calculus “constrained choice” even as they acknowledge that the term is inadequate.

The pandemic has revealed how vulnerable we all are — just one errant droplet away from illness and disability. But just as Black and brown people are more threatened by the virus, they are also more threatened by a scarcity of work. Black women and Latinas had higher rates of unemployment before the pandemic; in February 2020, 2.8 percent of white women were unemployed, compared with nearly 5 percent of Latinas and Black women. In December, those rates nearly doubled, but the impact of unemployment isn’t always equally felt. Black women, for instance, are more than two times as likely as white women to be the breadwinners of their families. What do you do when work is impossible but the loss of work is catastrophic?

The reports and articles undo me. Not because the numbers are surprising but because they don’t even begin to tell the whole story.

In pushing my book back, I delayed a payment of close to $30,000 — what would have been the bulk of my income for 2020. I take freelance assignments to make up for lost earnings, but the work is piecemeal and won’t come close to the amount I expected. I have far less time to work, and the time I put into freelance is time I cannot put into writing the book.

I don’t need to look beyond my own circle to find women in similar predicaments: a small business of custom leather bags put on hold in order to homeschool, a mother laid off during maternity leave from her job as the finance director of a large restaurant group, an online elementary-school teacher who wants nothing more than to sit next to her students and read.

What we’ve lost — and all the accompanying grief — can’t be captured by numbers: It’s individual, nuanced, and ever changing. It will take years for women to fully return to the workforce, likely to lower wages. The damage will be long term.

Yet I hold on to a flicker of hope that American life is still up for grabs, that we can demand more from it. I, like many others, believe we can have family leave and affordable child care and still pay mothers — all people — a basic income. The past year has broken me, but in that wreckage I’ve found a deeper sense of self and my priorities.

I am a woman of color, a writer, a mother. I struggle with the very gendered fact that I am dependent on my husband’s salary, and I worry that it may take me a lifetime to undo the false notion that my work is somehow less valuable. I used to think ambition — the desire to be efficient and exceptional, to prove my worth — was a force that came from within. I wondered when mine would show up already. But that idea, like the blurry days of the past year, is long gone.

When I was younger, I remember hearing that my generation, X, would be the first to do “worse” than our parents. We would make less money. Why “worse”? I wondered then — and still wonder now. I was raised by immigrants who came to America with very little and worked their way into the middle class. It feels shameful to admit that I don’t have the desire to hustle up the same ladder. My daughters will have fewer financial resources than I did, but I already know I have given them more of a sense of self and confidence and community than my parents, who spent years just surviving, were able to give me. Is “worse” really the right way to describe either situation?

Besides, I like a chiller vibe. I always have. As kids, my brothers and I were set loose in the forest behind our house to climb trees, but I’d find a patch of moss, soft as carpet, and lie down to read instead. I try to sleep at least eight hours a night. I take several breaks a day to dance and move my body and let it work out the stuff my brain can’t. I like being able to drop whatever I’m doing to comfort my daughters, to hold their hands as we watch Into the Spider-Verse for the hundredth time. I make sure my husband takes all his annual personal days; we roll nothing over. I work hard and do not want to work harder. I’m less concerned with getting ahead than I am with all of us getting by. Downward mobility was an inevitable fact of my life; the pandemic has merely increased its velocity. I am fortunate to have a place to move down from.

*This article appears in the February 1, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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