Perspective | This country is a risky place to be a parent, and the pandemic reminded me of that

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Absolutely, I’d answer, but that’s not us. We are partners. We have our own salaries. And we are both women. She’d laugh.

Eventually, we arrived at an answer. We would try for a baby after a year or so of marriage, with just a few preconditions: We would keep two salaries so we could afford a two-bedroom place. Both of us would need paid leave through our jobs; we’d have to be able to afford (good!) child care, maybe even a nanny-share; and we’d need to have friends and family nearby so we wouldn’t feel alone if something went wrong.

The bar was high, but we wanted to make responsible decisions about our future family.

The standard parents are held to in this country — that they should buck up and get by without the help of paid leave, subsidized child care, and continuous public health insurance, or they shouldn’t have had kids — is something we’ve both fought against throughout our careers. We knew we could never be fully insulated from crisis, and that’s an unrealistic bar to meet to responsibly have children. For our own sake, we wanted to be prepared financially and in jobs that would support us, especially through those early years.

Assuming we felt stable enough to not resent the whole thing, we agreed, we’d some day try for a baby.

By March, we’d finished all the major plans for our August 2020 wedding in a national forest outside Salt Lake City, near where I’d grown up and most of my family lives. Then covid-19 changed our lives overnight. After two weeks of working from home in our studio, we’d had enough.

We were soon on a plane with our two cats, on our way to my dad’s house in Utah, for as long as the shutdown lasted. It looked like that might be May or June, so we packed a pair of shorts and a couple of tank tops in case we were still there when the weather warmed up, just in case.

Time moved on, things got worse, and we canceled our wedding, not wanting to expose anyone to risk. And by May, we knew we couldn’t move back to that tiny studio.

So in June, instead of spending our money on a big wedding, we bought a three-bedroom house just outside St. George, with a view of the red cliffs of Snow Canyon from our front window. With the permission of our employers — one based in D.C. and the other in New Jersey — we are working remotely for the foreseeable future. We are immensely privileged and relatively stable — with our work, our incomes and our family support.

And yet the parenting question has opened up again. Can we really still do what we’d planned? Will we be ready to have a baby in a year? With an erratic economy and the barely existent child-care system crumbling? As a same-sex couple who just moved to the worst state when it comes to child-care deserts? And what if things get even worse? Are we sure this is what we want? (And how does one even safely obtain sperm during a pandemic?!)

Non-parents like us are paying attention to what it’s like to be a parent right now, and we don’t like what we see. Families who were already on their contingency child-care plans before the pandemic, stringing together affordable care with some combination of professionals, friends and family, are now on plans B, C and D, or they’re stepping back from work as a result.

My brother and sister-in-law divide the work day into two four-hour shifts, taking turns working with their 18-month-old baby, taking calls with him on their hips, feeding him lunch during Zoom calls, stepping away from their laptops to handle tantrums. I coo to my nephew over FaceTime, and when we hang up, I sigh with gratitude that that’s not my life right now.

I think I’m justified in my concern. A 2019 The New York Times/YouGov survey found that 28 percent of parents said that day care and preschool expenses were a “very significant financial strain” and 20 percent said they went into debt to manage those expenses. A ranking of 35 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries from least to most family-friendly put the United States in 34th place, ahead only of Mexico.

When it comes to the question of whether to have a baby, affordable, high-quality child care is just the tip of the iceberg. After I proposed to the love of my life back in October, we stayed at Duke’s to celebrate our engagement. Then little by little our friends and family, chosen and biological, joined us to congratulate us and wish us well. We drank champagne and ate barbecue sandwiches and grinned from ear to ear as we reminisced with our friends about how we’d met, started dating and fell in love.

That night represented everything we were trying to build together: a community, a family, with the best of those we were born to and those we chose. They were the ones we’d rely on as we embarked on the parenting journey some day, those who had raised us, and those who would soon be having babies we’d want to help raise, too.

Now, they’re across the country in a city we left, some with babies we thought we’d know beyond occasional video calls, some with babies due any day now. Even if we were there, we remind ourselves, we couldn’t see them that often. We’d have to distance. We couldn’t hold their new babies or let them hold ours, not yet, and not for the foreseeable future.

We were each other’s child-care plan. All those conversations we had about whether and when to become parents revolved around a future that is no longer ours.

Now, thanks to this pandemic, we aren’t sure where we stand.

Haley Swenson is a writer and researcher and the deputy director of the Better Life Lab, a work, gender, and social policy program at the nonpartisan think tank New America.



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