This is the desk that’s dividing the internet. You might look at this picture and decide it is evidence of the craven immorality of the neoliberal agenda. Or you might look on it as a welcome sign of a society catching up with the reality that many parents have jobs outside the home.
The great “cotdesking” debate currently convulsing some corners of social media started in January, when a library user in the state of Virginia tweeted a photograph of a clever innovation he had spotted at his local branch in Henrico county, Richmond: a desk designed for working parents.
The picture, which quickly went viral, shows a normal wooden desk attached to a small gated playpen, where adults who want to use the library’s computers can safely deposit a wobbler or toddler, buying themselves that rare and precious thing: ten minutes’ headspace.
The playpen has a padded wipe-clean floor and features like a little maze, a mirror and some interactive learning panels.
The website Curbed reported that the desks came about after library staff noticed parents were having a hard time using the computer while trying to hang onto a squirming toddler. "We kept seeing this problem with parents using the computer," said Patty Conway, the community relations coordinator for the library.
“If they have a small child, they’d have to hold them on their knee and really struggle to balance their childcare needs with their needs to use the computer.”
So the library staff went off and commissioned a local architect to look for a solution. The architects did some research and discovered that “no furniture existed on the market that fit the description”. So they created what a colleague of mine instantly (and brilliantly) dubbed “the cotdesk”.
Who could possibly object to such a practical and inclusive innovation, you might ask?
You probably wouldn't ask if you've even been on Instagram, the social media site where one person's post about a cute thing they spotted is another's opportunity for outraged fury or passive aggressive one-upmanship.
“This isn’t real, right? It’s a joke. It has to be a joke,” one user wrote under a post about the desk captioned: “Finally, a desk for working parents.”
“The ridiculousness of American capitalism in one picture,” declared another.
The outrage came thick and fast. “Why not just bung the kid in a cage and be done with it?”
“Lolll this was designed by someone who hates parents/children or both [crying laughing emoji].”
“Training kids to be workaholics.”
“You forgot to add the father’s desk to show how they share this labour. Or is he off in a quiet room only doing one job and getting paid twice as much? Add the second parent [loudspeaker emoji].”
Others were sceptical about how practical it is: “Oh yeah she’s 100 percent getting work done.” “The person who came up with this doesn’t have children or doesn’t work in an office.”
Clearly, this desk is not meant to be used for eight hours a day. But in the right context – such as a library, college or airport, say – it’s an ingenious solution for parents of young children who have forms to fill in, emails to send, jobs to apply for, tax returns to complete or other work to do that isn’t easily completed on a phone, or in a home with no wifi.
I worked in freelance jobs as a journalist and television producer when my now-teens were babies and toddlers, which meant that I never had subsidised maternity leave, and often paid babysitters more by the hour than I was making. A publicly-available cotdesk where I could have kept my children safe and entertained for 20 minutes while I did edits or emailed off a pitch would have been life-changing. (I’d have loved one in my house too.)
The last two years have highlighted how Victorian our pre-pandemic approach to work and parenthood was. The prevailing attitude to children in workplaces was that they had to be out of sight, out of mind and ideally never so much as alluded to in conversation with your boss. Mothers I know with jobs in very traditional office environments would have sooner stuck pins in their fingernails than utter aloud the career-killing words: “I have to leave and collect my child”.
The same was true of many men – though it is a sign of society’s double standards that when a man did call time on a meeting because they had caring responsibilities, they were frequently hailed as a courageous mould-breaker, while a woman doing the same thing knew she was likely to be written off as an uncommitted slacker.
Then March 2020 happened. Suddenly the elephant in the room was no longer a member of the proboscidean family, but the ebullient four-year-old who isn’t prepared to wait until after your departmental catch-up to know if they can have a biscuit.
Overnight, the curtain came up on everyone else’s caring responsibilities. Finally, we were able to stop pretending that we alone, singularly on the face of the planet, were the only ones not winging it.
The extent to which the pandemic will have permanently altered our working lives has yet to be determined. But if nothing else, it has meant we can stop treating the fact that many of us have children or older parents as a shameful secret.
One day there might even be a role for the cotdesk in a traditional office – not as a message to employees that their professional responsibilities must come before their parenting ones, but as a pragmatic recognition of the fact that sometimes, despite your herculean efforts, those two worlds collide.
A desk, no matter how innovative, isn’t going to solve all of the problems that working parents face. But as a visual signal and gesture of solidarity to those of us trying to do it all, often all at the same time, I suspect many would welcome it.
As Ali Faruk, the man whose tweet about the work-and-play station went viral, put it: "I think it's kind of sad that people think this is revolutionary. This is something that everyone should have access to."