Family

A Day in America Without Child Care

We asked parents all around the country to record how one weekday unfolded for them, hour by hour.

A mom frustrated as her daughter and son run around the living room.
fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus

As the COVID-19 pandemic shuts down day cares and schools, countless parents have been left with no child care at all. Some are trying to do their jobs remotely, while also changing diapers and helping bored teens figure out online courses and brainstorming games to distract toddlers. Some essential workers are still going in every day, while exhausted family members take on child care duties or school-age kids find ways to entertain themselves. So we picked a single weekday—last Thursday—and asked a bunch of parents all around the country to record how that stretch of time unfolded for them without child care, hour by hour. Here’s the combined timeline of their days.

5:30 a.m.

Rachel, San Francisco, consultant: My husband, a surgical resident, sneaks out into the darkness to the hospital.

6:15 a.m.

Aviva, Brunswick, Maine, English and film professor: I wake up and stress-check news before anyone else wakes up. I do this under the covers because my 9-year-old daughter is in our bed.

7 a.m.

Catherine, Hays, Kansas, playwright: I wake up before the kids to get some writing done. I don’t write. I read about the coronavirus instead.

Emily, Maplewood, New Jersey, creative director: I hear one of the twins yell from his room “Don’t wake up.” OK thanks.

Karla, Denver, account manager: My husband and I chat about the changing job climate in the travel industry and how many people could be let go. Our 5-year-old hears us and breaks into her best Elsa version of “Let It Go.”

Amanda, North Pole, Alaska, stay-at-home mom: Eight-year-old, 9-year-old, 12-year-old, and 13-year-old are drawing up snow fort plans. They start working on sugar-cube-and-glue models of forts. It’s 20 degrees outside, so I’ll let them go build the winner before lunch.

7:26 a.m.

April, Los Angeles, works in advertising: Woke up downstairs because we were “camping” in the living room.

7:40 a.m.

Aviva, Brunswick, Maine, English and film professor: I make the first of my five daily calls to my parents in NYC. They have both contracted the virus and are quarantining themselves in their apartment. I have no words for how scary and difficult this has been. 

7:45 a.m.

Allison, Indianapolis, works in commercial lending: The rest of the household is still asleep except for my 19-year-old son. His sleep schedule is off—he has been up all night. This is his spring break from IUPUI, but we now know he is not going back to campus for classes for the rest of the semester.

Cris, San Francisco, middle school English teacher: I tell the kids we’ll have toast with lots of butter for breakfast. I then realize I coronavirus-stress-ate the rest of the bread late last night.

8:40 a.m.

April, Los Angeles, works in advertising: We are being paranoid and take our temperatures every day. My daughter’s temp reading is 99.5. What’s with the slight rise this morning?

9 a.m.

Aviva, Brunswick, Maine, English and film professor: My daughter comes in and announces she has completed her work for the day. There are 12 hours until bedtime.

Paul, Richmond, California, computer programmer: Writing code feels like the easiest thing in the world when you can concentrate and like pushing a shopping cart up a hill when you can’t. My daughter hovers at my shoulder and every minute or so holds out her latest design from a drawing app. “Look at this, Daddy. Look at this, Daddy.”

9:15 a.m.

Emily, Maplewood, New Jersey, creative director: I start yoga in the family room. One of the boys is on the iPad and screams that he’s pooped in his pants. Why? Because he didn’t want to abandon the iPad so his brother could get it. I clean up the poopy pants.

Rachel, San Francisco, consultant: I pull out all my daughter’s favorite toys—from the wooden dog to the Baby Shark musical book—to try to respond to emails. I lose all confidence in day care’s reports that she “is very good at independent play,” as it seems I am barely allowed to break eye contact.

9:30 a.m.

Estela, Philadelphia, home health aide: My daughters wake up. One of them wants toasted bread with garlic for breakfast. The other one says, “I don’t like that, I want a waffle, toast with nutella, an apple, and a glass of milk.” I say, “Wow, you want a lot of things.”

April, Los Angeles, works in advertising: My daughter joins me in our daily ad-ops morning huddle and says “Hi” to the team while showing them her latest YouTube discovery. Today it’s Nyan Cat.

A little girl with a strip of cardboard over her eyes.
“My daughter joins me in our daily ad-ops morning huddle and says ‘Hi’ to the team while showing them her latest YouTube discovery.”
April Joy Castillo

10 a.m.

Catherine, Hays, Kansas, playwright: The state of Kansas has already canceled school for the year, so we’re jumping right into home-schooling. It’s a bit ad hoc. I ask the girls to write an essay comparing the movie Pocahontas with the actual history.

Paul, Richmond, California, computer programmer: We pull up the Google Doc where my daughter is composing an assigned report on cats, and right away the writer’s block begins. She rolls her eyes, slouches in the chair, gets distracted searching for images, leaps out of her chair every time anyone says something. Of course I’m doing the same thing, reloading the news every few minutes. “Daddy,” she says, “you’re touching your face.”

11 a.m.

Emily, Maplewood, New Jersey, creative director: I sit down in my office, close the door, and unbutton the uncomfortable pants I mistakenly decided to put on so I wouldn’t be in pajamas all day.

Aviva, Brunswick, Maine, English and film professor: Trying to grade the papers my students handed in before spring break. I’m writing comments like, “Not in MLA format” or “Add a comma here” and thinking to myself, “Who cares?” My son is trying to lift all 45 pounds of our dog up to his screen so his classmates can see her. Meanwhile, my husband is trying to create a “math scavenger hunt” for our daughter, who is super bored. I both appreciate and resent how good he is at crisis parenting.

11:30 a.m.

Karla, Denver, account manager: While I’m on a call with the VP of a supplier, my 5-year-old decides to ignore my sign that says, “Do not enter Mommy is on a call” and come in to ask for help putting on her shirt. We have resorted to paying our fifth grader $5 a day to help keep the 5-year-old more focused and busier. I consider docking her $1 for this interruption.

Cris, San Francisco, middle school English teacher: I am not in the mood to cook. We eat yogurt with maple syrup, canned pineapple, and tortillas.

Sarah, Portland, Oregon, high school history teacher: My 3-year-old daughter loves imaginative play and now wants to play school. She has me play the teacher and her brother plays her friend Jason (also known as her husband; they got married awhile back). While I used to love seeing how much she adores her school and friends, it now makes me heart ache a little bit.

Noon

Amanda, North Pole, Alaska, stay-at-home mom: I try to comfort my 16-year-old, who is upset that she thinks prom will be canceled and the guy she’s crushing on asked her.

Liz, Seattle, works at a radio station: We didn’t really discuss who would be on child care duty this afternoon, but my husband is on a marathon call. Mac and cheese it is. Plus a smoothie.

Cris, San Francisco, middle school English teacher: I change my daughter’s diaper before her nap. She goes through her ritual of pointing out that we all have a butt, that her brother has a pee-nus, and that she does not have a pee-nus. I ask her what she has, and she yells VAGINA!

12:45 p.m.

Emily, Maplewood, New Jersey, creative director: We eat lunch and have a dance party. The boys “go crazy,” which basically means run around like maniacs and jump on each other.

1 p.m.

Karla, Denver, account manager: I am analyzing a contract while hearing my 5-year-old sing “ice cream ice cream cherry on top, who’s your boyfriend I forgot” while jump-roping. I try not to cringe too much when I hear her stop singing because it is very likely she hit something in our house with the jump-rope.

Catherine, Hays, Kansas, playwright: We go for a hike on the trails beside our local natural history museum. No one is there. It’s a windy, clear day, and the creek is full of frogs of every size. My daughter, who adores all things amphibian and reptilian, delights in trying to catch them. We actually laugh.

Paul, Richmond, California, computer programmer: After lunch, my daughter and I take a bike ride. Magnolias and cherry trees are flowering. “Are these the best workdays you’ve ever had?” she asks. How do you explain to her that they could be, if all these duties weren’t impossibly combined? On the way back, she wants to talk about which of her stuffed animals are most vulnerable to coronavirus. She reminds me that some of the animals are much older than others.

1:15 p.m.

Allison, Indianapolis, works in commercial lending: My 15-year-old announces that he saw on Instagram that school is closed until May 1. I am not surprised but ugh. Makes it hard to concentrate on this BRAND NEW JOB I’M TRYING TO DO MY BEST AT WHILE WORKING FROM MY DINING ROOM.

Rachel, San Francisco, consultant: I break out the markers for the first time in my daughter’s life. We don’t have paper so I let her draw on an Amazon box.

A child drawing on an Amazon box.
“We don’t have paper so I let her draw on an Amazon box.”
Rachel Sam

2 p.m.

Paul, Richmond, California, computer programmer: My daughter does a 15-minute lesson and quits. I can’t force her to keep going and I can’t give a good speech on why it matters. Why does she have to learn equivalent fractions? Why do I have to write computer programs? The whole household is suffering a crisis of legitimacy.

3 p.m.

Catherine, Hays, Kansas, playwright: I give the girls over to screen time and make a trip to the grocery store. The atmosphere is more odd than panicked. There’s no ground beef, frozen vegetables, or toilet paper, but there’s asparagus for days.

3:15 p.m.

Cris, San Francisco, middle school English teacher: I’m on the phone with my boss when my 4-year-old wakes up from his nap and yells about how he’s taking a poop. He calls me over minutes later to explain how some poop came out but there’s more poop that still needs to come out. Meanwhile my younger daughter says MESS! every time she sees a section of our home that needs to be cleaned, which is our whole home right now.

Liz, Seattle, works at a radio station: I finally brush my teeth.

6 p.m.

Aviva, Brunswick, Maine, English and film professor: We cave in and order pizza for dinner. We are very, very, very careful about washing our hands after touching the box.

Liz, Seattle, works at a radio station: Part of our new routine is to let the dishes pile up in the sink through the day, then scramble to figure out a dinner plan around 6 or 7. It’s really working for us. Tonight we ordered takeout from a burger place a few blocks away. Then I panic-Googled whether takeout is safe.

Rachel, San Francisco, consulting: My husband comes home from the hospital, but we have a new rule that he must shower before touching us, so I blast music so our daughter doesn’t hear him, otherwise she’d run to him. When I can finally hand her over, I just stare into space for 10–15 minutes. It feels really nice.

Sarah, Portland, Oregon, high school history teacher: We finish dinner and the kids fade. My daughter is looking sick. We take her temperature: 103.5 degrees. My husband and I start to fret about the possibility that she could have coronavirus. We had a video appointment with a pediatrician yesterday. He said it wasn’t worth bringing her in to test because she would then be at risk of contracting other diseases. My daughter has all the symptoms, though: fever, dry cough, chills. I went to the grocery store yesterday … what if I unknowingly passed it on? 

7 p.m.

Cris, San Francisco, middle school English teacher: To break for five minutes between dinner and bath time, my wife uses the Calm app on the couch to listen to the sound of falling rain. About 90 seconds in, the kids rush over and our daughter hits her in the face.

Estela, Philadelphia, home health aide: I eat a fast dinner, an arepa. Then I leave for work. At home, my husband makes dinner for the girls—rice, eggs, salchicha. I take care of a 99-year-old man, so I’m being very careful to wash my hands a lot. My older daughter would sometimes come visit him to say hello, or to help me out on weekends if I needed to eat lunch or something, but now she can’t do that because we’re trying not to let too many people come into his apartment.

8 p.m.

Steven, New York, tax law professor: We play bingo with a college buddy of mine. I send her a photo of a bingo card and patch her in by video. My wife ends up winning and our son comes in second, followed by a team of stuffed animals that was also playing.

Catherine, Hays, Kansas, playwright: I could work, but I don’t. It’s hard to summon the energy when all the theaters in the country are shuttered anyway.

8:30 p.m.

Emily, Maplewood, New Jersey, creative director: Bedtime. I answer lots of questions including “But how loooonnnggg do we have to be in this house?”

Aviva, Brunswick, Maine, English and film professor: We watch the original Freaky Friday on the couch. I fall asleep after 20 minutes.

9 p.m.

Amanda, North Pole, Alaska, stay-at-home mom: All eight kids are in bed. Lights out in 30 minutes.

Steven, New York, tax law professor: Simpsons!

Cris, San Francisco, middle school English teacher: I continue working. I’m a seventh grade English teacher and I’m thinking about my “other children” too. I open up the student responses from their Google survey today. “My dog is making me happy.” “I’m sad/worried because I can’t see my grandma. I’m happy because I have my brother and sister. I’m not really laughing, not yet.”

9:30 p.m.

Liz, Seattle, works at a radio station: I cave, and tell my son he can sleep in our bed tonight. That means I’ll be in the guest bed.

10 p.m.

Emily, Maplewood, New Jersey, creative director: I pour a glass of wine and log back onto work. I attempt to discuss important things with my wife, look at bikes for the kids online, email my parents to convince them to be diligent about washing their hands and not going out.

Estela, Philadelphia, home health aide: The man I work for needs 24-hour care and I’m sleeping over tonight. He stays up late. He loves baseball so much, but he doesn’t have any games to enjoy right now. So he watches Shark Tank. I’ll get home in the morning in time to make the girls breakfast.

Midnight

Allison, Indianapolis, works in commercial lending: Finally in bed and ready to sleep.

Emily, Maplewood, New Jersey, creative director: Go to bed. And repeat.

Allison L.*, Indianapolis. Four boys, ages 20, 19, 15, and 12. She’s a single mom and works in commercial lending.

Amanda J.*, North Pole, Alaska. Eight kids (seven adopted and one biological), ages 16, 14, 13, 13, 11, 11, 9, and 8. She’s a stay-at-home mom; her husband, Kevin*, is active-duty military.

April Joy Castillo, Los Angeles. Daughter, age 3. She works as a campaign manager for Pluto TV; her husband, Carlo Espiritu, works for RingDNA.

Aviva Briefel, Brunswick, Maine. Daughter, age 9, and son, age 11. She’s a professor of English and cinema studies at Bowdoin College; her husband, David, is an associate professor of history at Bowdoin.

Catherine Trieschmann, Hays, Kansas. Two daughters, ages 12 and 9. She’s a playwright; her husband, Carl, is head of a university philosophy department.

Cris Garza, San Francisco. Daughter, age 1½, and son, age 4½. He’s a seventh grade English teacher; his wife, Ann-Ariel, works in urban planning.

Emily Kehe, Maplewood, New Jersey. Twin boys, age 4. She and her wife, Kate, are both creative directors.

Karla B., Denver. Two daughters, ages 11 and 5. She works as an account manager; her husband, Jeff, is a global contract manager.

Liz Jones, Seattle. Son, age 9. She works at a radio station; her husband, Anthony, works at an alternative weekly.

Estela C.*, Philadelphia. Two daughters who live with her, ages 15 and 11. She works as a home health aide; her husband, Ricardo*, does maintenance work.

Paul Kerschen, Richmond, California. Daughter, age 8. He’s a computer programmer; his wife, Jessie, is a technical writer.

Rachel Sam, San Francisco. Daughter, age 14 months. She works at a consulting firm; her husband is a surgical resident.

Sarah Egan, Portland, Oregon. Daughter, age 3, and son, age 11 months. She is a high school history teacher; her husband, Selby, is an immigration attorney.

Steven Dean, New York. Son, age 11. He teaches tax law and hosts The Tax Maven podcast; his wife is an art history professor.

*These names have been changed at the family’s request to protect their privacy.