Mary McNamara: The coronavirus has already flattened one thing — the line between work and family

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Remember BBC Dad? You know, Robert E. Kelly, that poli-sci professor in South Korea who in 2017 was being interviewed remotely about the impeachment of then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye when his adorable 4-year-old daughter marched into his office with her baby brother hilariously rolling behind her?

Remember how stricken their mother, Jung-a Kim, looked as she dashed in to haul them out? Remember how the video dominated news cycles for days, briefly sparking conversations about balancing work and family? Nevertheless, since in this country conversations about the difficulty of balancing work and family are ongoing and thus far fairly fruitless, BBC Dad was seen by most as a blooper supreme that made everyone on the planet laugh.

No one's laughing now. In the universal coronavirus-mandated stay-at-home office, you're lucky if one of the 12 co-workers on your Zoom meeting gives you the heads-up before your own 4-year-old empties the fishbowl onto the floor behind you.

Nowadays, every interview, Skype session and conference call is prefaced by the parental warnings -- participants listing the number and ages of the children who are currently supposed to be doing schoolwork/watching TV/napping/being amused by another family member but, realistically, could interrupt at any moment. Just so everyone's aware.

Those of us fortunate to remain well during the COVID-19 pandemic have learned many new things about people we thought we already knew pretty well. Like, we are all stress-baking way too much. And refusing to acknowledge that no matter how young you are, overhead lighting is not your friend. (Seriously. I cannot stress the benefits of indirect lighting enough.)

Those of us fortunate to remain employed in ways that require regular tele-contact have learned other things as well. Longtime co-workers are suddenly revealed to have a wide range of pets, for example, or an alarming number of snake plants; others have, shall we say, unexpected taste in art or a nearly endless collection of hooded sweatshirts (okay, that's me -- but honestly, you all should have known).


Most important, it has also been revealed that many of us have children. Children who are not, as it turns out, theoretical or compartmentalizable. Children who exist as actual humans, outside the confines of adorable pictures -- and are capable of disrupting work in ways far less manageable than the occasional request to leave early so as not to miss a parent/teacher conference.

Here they are, these children, now banned from daycare, school and college, suddenly -- and no doubt to some, shockingly -- displaying measurable physical dimensions, and immeasurable physical needs, including a near-constant desire to be fed while showing you a really funny TikTok right now. Children, even the older ones, who need to express their frustration, especially now, in a highly unscheduled way. Children who just want show you the latest missive from their university and demand that you promise college will resume in the fall. Or tell you the dog got out again and should they get him? Or show you this very cool ginormous bug they just found, only wait ... it was right there a second ago, where did it go?

Children who need to do all of these things and more even and especially if their mother or father is currently in a Zoom meeting.

Suddenly the BBC Dad video seems less like a blooper and more like an unexpected tear in the Potemkin village we have built at the border of work and family. You know, the one that "proves" everything is just fine -- nothing to see here, parents are perfectly capable of juggling two full-time jobs on their own! -- so American businesses can pretend that there is no need for things like on-site daycare, flex time, telecommuting or extended parental leave. You know, the kinds of resources that virtually every other first-world nation has had for decades?


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