Dear Pepper: Sisterly Love | The New Yorker

Dear Pepper is a monthly advice-column comic by Liana Finck. If you have questions for Pepper about how to act in difficult situations, please direct them to dearpepperquestions@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for brevity and clarity.

Dear Pepper,

My sister is pretty amazing. She’s a graduate student in a dual-degree program, is married, and has a baby turning one very soon. She works hard to take care of the little one, be supportive of her husband, and keep the house mostly in order—all while also pursuing her studies online, full time.

My brother-in-law is a great guy who usually does his fair share of the housework and child care—but his job has been putting him through the wringer lately.

On top of that, they recently moved to his home town to be closer to his family, with the plan that his retired mother would be able to provide significant support watching the baby during the day.

The pandemic, and his parents’ apathy toward public health (and frequent trips to Florida), have thrown a serious wrench into that plan. Now my sister is working herself to the bone balancing everything—and, despite his best efforts, my busy brother-in-law can’t help enough to really give her the break she needs.

I wish I knew how to help her in this situation. I can’t force his parents to behave more responsibly, nor would that wasp’s nest be worth poking at this time of year. I’m a new employee, so I’m not allowed personal leave yet, and I can’t drive up every weekend. Our parents live too far away now to help. With the holidays approaching, she’ll have exams to study for on top of numerous family obligations.

Can you think of any way I can help? I’m racking my brain, but I can’t seem to find something meaningful to do from afar.

Sincerely,
Floundering Sister

Dear Sister,

This is where, if I️ were a real advice columnist and not a tongue-tied dog, I️ would sum up the particularly impossible struggles faced by working (or formerly working) moms during this terrible pandemic.

I️ can’t, though, so please accept this assortment of random nuts and bolts.

Maybe one of them will fit.

How would your sister feel about day care, taking into consideration its potential risks and rewards? Might she and her husband be able to afford a babysitter—perhaps you or your parents could pitch in to help pay for one? Is there any way she’d feel comfortable letting her parents-in-law help out, after all? Maybe your sister could drop the baby off at the in-laws’ house, rather than having them come over? Or set ground rules for outdoor excursions? Does your sister know anyone (friend, family, or for hire) who would be willing to drop everything and move into her household COVID pod to help with the kid? Does she have space?

If the answer to all these questions is no, as I suspect it is—because all the contingencies that I’ve laid out imply huge privilege, of one form or another—then I’m afraid your sister has an impossible situation on her hands. She will have to suck it up, like so many people with young children or old parents, bear the lasting consequences to her career, and await a vaccine.

If this answer sounds deeply unsatisfying, dense, and unfair, that’s because it’s not the real answer. The real answer is that what your sister is up against is insidious sexism, at a grand scale. Why, when something comes up, do women’s careers tend to be so much more flexible than men’s? Why do women take time off or quit their jobs in a child-care emergency so much more often than their husbands do?

Sexism takes many forms in this country—including a lack of decent and affordable child care; the tendency of women to wind up in less stable, less powerful, and lower-paying jobs; and a general assumption that children are more their mother’s responsibilities than their father’s.

It’s time for these things to change. Help make that happen. That’s my answer.

My best,
Pepper

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