It's time to maintain

What happens when the societal infra breaks underneath us

Art: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tamakatzura Tamatori attacked by the octopus

I’ve been trying to write this post about how difficult life has become now that all structured childcare is gone, but trying to make the mental space to write something, anything, during a time when both children are home and both parents are working is like trying to write while playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole (where the moles are very cute but very loud.)

In a fantastic piece (with an enormously ugly NYT newsletter URL), Amanda Taub calls this situation “the infrastructure of no.” In the infrastructure of no, one parent has to say no to work and the other has to say no to being with the kids. One parent becomes the default parent

Even when parents try to divide things more equally, the parent whose career was already geared toward picking up unexpected care burdens is likely to be quicker to accrue tiny punctures during the pandemic.

And even tiny punctures can have big consequences. Writing takes time and concentration, so a writer who gets interrupted for an hour in the middle of her work day has lost half a day, not just an hour. Many computer programmers I know find that a single meeting can disrupt their mental flow, cratering a day’s productivity. For a journalist, having to put down a timely piece for half a day is functionally equivalent to never starting it at all. And as Alessandra Minello, a social demographer at the University of Florence, wrote in an article in Nature, academic work “is basically incompatible with tending to children.”

Our Infrastructure of No

Every day, without daycare and a nanny, or even our parents allowed to come over for a few hours, my husband and I play the childcare infrastructure game in increments of 30 minutes, morning to night. 

I wrote before that

My day is a frenzied blend of trying to work, parenting during a pandemic, cooking three times a day for four people, cleaning the neverending kipple of Melissa and Doug activity kits off the floor, and trying to order groceries two weeks ahead on Instacart and formula two months ahead on Amazon.

But think how hard this game is to play,  is truly impossible to understand unless you also have kids. Alternatively, you can set an alarm clock to go off at random increments of time between 30 seconds to 3 minutes, for every hour of the day.  Every time it goes off, you have to get up and do a random activity, such as cleaning Tinker Bell stickers off a hardwood floor, just for example.

Before, our household infrastructure looked like this: 

But now, here’s what it might look like for us on any given day:

These schedules change depending on when our kids wake up, what kind of attention they need, and who has what meetings when. Instead of our childcare situation being like a smoothly-oiled machine, it’s now a leaky sieve where we try to catch bits of time between work obligations to make sure our children, both of who are different ages and have different needs, get enough attention. 

And, even though my husband and I both play the default parent game with equal passion (if not enthusiasm, after 70+ days of 24-hour caring for our children), I’m usually the one who loses, for the same reason that all women across time have lost the game: the game has always been women’s work.  Amanda writes, 

I speak from personal experience. My husband and I have divided the days in half; I work during the mornings while he takes the afternoons. But during just the last three hours of my “work time” this morning, my girls came in eight different times to ask me a question or show off a tiny accomplishment. They are adorable; I am proud of their coloring and delighted by their hugs. But each of those interruptions shattered my concentration, setting me back far more than the handful of minutes they stayed before their dad came in to scoop them up. I started work on this newsletter days ago. I am now trying to finish it with a tiny person hanging on me, begging me to pretend we are both kittens. Kittens don’t type, apparently.

It’s a Women’s World

It’s typically women who have always been the world’s invisible architects, supporting the infrastructure to care for small humans so the rest of the world’s work can get done, standing in the background, doing the day-to-day work of feeding them, washing their clothes, and wiping the last of the organic avocado-pear off their chins while the men built skyscrapers and got all the praise.  And it’s always women who are expected to step back by society

And now, when coronavirus has laid bare all the kinks and inequalities in our economic systems, women with children are drowning

Women’s jobs — concentrated in service industries — are particularly vulnerable in the coronavirus economy; there’s evidence that women are being laid off or furloughed at a significantly higher rate than men. But there is another threat to women’s paid labor that can be harder to see: With kids at home, and families forced to take on significantly more domestic labor, women are opting out of the workforce.

Nearly all of the women interviewed for this story — who had either stopped working because of the virus, or were planning to — said the hiatus was temporary. Once schools and day-care centers reopen, they say, they plan to go back.

The idea that women have always had to make these choices is not new in history. 

Take, for example, the theme of the hidden mother in Victorian photographs. The idea was that you want pictures of the kids, but kids can’t stand still for photographs. It takes forever to take a picture in the 1890s, so to get them to stand still, the mom would be disguised as carpet or piece of furniture, holding the kids in the photo. 

It’s not exactly clear why the mom didn’t want to be in the photo, or wasn’t encouraged to do so, but, either way, the pictures came out beautifully, while the person completing all the labor to make them so remained hidden from view. 

The infrastructure is there, but it’s always invisible to the outside world. (Unless the infrastructure is a large mom-shaped throw pillow.)

Just as it’s been invisible in the hidden mother, it’s been invisible in our GDP, as well. The work of caring for a home and raising children is not counted among the measures that make up GDP. It’s considered unpaid household labor,

Like most economic statisticians of the day, Meade and Stone focused almost entirely on measuring the value of goods and services that were actually bought and sold.

But a problem quickly emerged, thanks to the experiences and observations of a 23-year-old woman named Phyllis Deane. She was hired by Meade and Stone in 1941 to apply their method in a few British colonies. In present-day Malawi and Zambia, Deane realised that it was an error to exclude unpaid household labour from GDP.

Later on, in 1983, economist Arlie Hochschild embedded with a cohort of airline stewardesses who had just gotten hired at Delta and were going through orientation and training to learn about how they viewed emotional labor. She studied the company as much as possible, including attending training classes at Delta’s Training Center in Atlanta. After completing her observations, studies, and work with other airlines, as well as conducting studies, she wrote a book called “The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling.”

What she found is that, although the stewardesses were expected to always smile, they were not economically compensated for their real work, which was  making passengers feel comfortable, safe, and catering to all their whims on airplanes

The whole book is extremely worth a read but what came out to me was this infrastructure of caring is extremely important in a modern knowledge economy, regardless of whether you have children or not, and extremely undercompensated, because it’s invisible, and in America, completely unsupported by any official means

It has become agonizingly clear to parents of young children that the economy cannot fully reopen without child care. Yet a significant number of child care providers have not been able to survive the lockdown.

The sector was already fragile: Unlike public education, the child care industry operates almost entirely on private tuition payments, and most providers are barely profitable. With closings because of the coronavirus, many cannot continue to pay landlords or teachers.

It’s time to maintain

Caring for small humans is important to humanity, and yet it is completely unrecognized in the economy, much the same way that glue work is unrecognized at companies, because both are examples of maintenance. 

Maintenance is the “getting shit done” work that’s not so glamorous, as this group of women in science writes

We have also noticed that women are more likely to be doing work that is focused on “getting shit done”–  the operational work and supporting decision-makers, for example – rather than writing scientific papers or grants.

All the while we are disproportionately supporting students and filling service or pastoral roles in our institutions; a continuation of a troubling trend of women doing the “invisible work in academia” even in the absence of a pandemic. At the same time, we see that the opportunistic but not necessarily qualified researchers who are applying for newly available Covid-19 funding are overwhelmingly male; this is not only skewed in favour of men and often fails to acknowledge junior women involved, but also represents a misallocation of funds.

For many women, the final straw is the inequality they face in domestic work, childcare, and responsibility for ageing parents and community members. There is ample evidence that women faculty spend significantly more time doing household chores and looking after children than their male counterparts. Now, with almost all of us working from home and schools closed around the world, the burden of these responsibilities – particularly childcare – falls heavily on women.

This infrastructure also extends to the modern post-industrial tech workplace, where, usually women are the ones performing all the same roles they perform at home under the label of emotional labor: the glue work.

Glue work - maintenance - includes things like reaching out to people to include them in meetings they otherwise wouldn’t have been part of, initiating automatic testing, writing documentation, and helping to onboard team members. Unfortunately, glue work, like domestic work, is usually extremely undervalued in companies, and is seen as secondary to shipping code. 

All the work listed above is important and valuable. And all of it belongs in an analytics team. It really shouldn’t be glue work - it is the work. The alternative is wasting time on analyses that aren’t aligned with business priorities, team members getting stuck, accumulating technical debt, losing trust from stakeholders, and maintaining painful manual processes. I lead analytics teams, and I want my team to be rewarded for glue work so we can all be more successful - and spend more time on work that will make the company more successful.

And that’s why, a month ago,  Marc Andereessen didn’t write, “it’s time to maintain.” Because maintenance is much, much harder, and you get much, much less credit for it, and you don’t get to write fun posts and headlines. 

Like I said in an earlier critique of the piece

Because the things we need to build to combat all these problems are not little things. They are Big Things and Big Things need to be hit with a Big Stick.

Take, for example, masks. It’s absolutely fantastic that there are thousands of people across the country making their own and enough to send to hospitals. They are building. But what’s devastating is that we even have to do this at all, and all because mask factories were relocated overseas 20 years ago. 

Even when materials come in these days, state governments end up having to fight over them. Why? Because of the way our federal government is set up, where it can commandeer equipment from state governments and hospitals who desperately need it, in bidding wars.

Sure, we should build mask factories. And maybe delivery drones. And...skyscrapers? 

But what I really want to build is an infrastructure where, if there is a pandemic, the bottom doesn’t fall out of half of the workforce, and to support and put at the forefront the workforce that actually does the maintaining of our society while we do the building. 

But first, I gotta go do this call and then pick up some more toys. 

What I’m reading lately:

  1. Poolside.fm is just such a perfect dose of summer nostalgia

  2. Stitchfix data science is doing online public lectures

  3. “What do you mean by do the math?”

  4. HBO trying to do manual curation instead of algorithms? It’s almost like Normcore wrote about it before.


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The Author:
I’m a data scientist. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.