It’s May, and everybody American from sea to shining sea is tired of the pandemic. And I mean everybody: from the maskless crazy-eyed meat aisle shoppers who refused to make any adjustments whatsoever to their own lives—and yet complained about adjustments others were making like a frat boy whining that another guy wore a condom—to the zealous germaphobes who have replaced their pre-pandemic personalities with passionate application of epidemiological assumptions that make no scientific sense.
But nobody, from what I can see, is more tired of the pandemic than mothers. They’ve spent the last 14 months being jerked around by a hodgepodge of government ineptitude and overreach, confusing health messaging leading to institutional fumbling, and the general shrug and “you’ll figure it out” back-burnering of their needs by employers. But we will not experience a full economic recovery until the needs of mothers are no longer our last priority. Paid family leave is overdue and necessary, but it isn’t enough.
The COVID-19 pandemic added more things for parents to “just figure out” to the already impossible list. Now, instead of “just figuring out” who will watch the kids while they’re at work outside of the home on a consistent schedule, they had to just figure out how to provide full-time childcare while doing their full-time jobs on a schedule that changed at the whims of government orders and institutional policies. In two-parent households, mothers, of course, felt the brunt of this. What did we think would happen? We still call it “babysitting” when men watch their own children.
April’s disappointing jobs report led to a week of partisan finger-pointing. Predictably, conservatives blamed the welfare state, claiming that a “worker shortage” was due to unemployment benefits being too luxurious. People on the left pushed back, pointing out that if unemployment benefits are competitive with wages, maybe employers should be required to pay workers more.
President Joe Biden warned against cutting benefits while so many unemployed people are still so vulnerable, but many Republican-led states nevertheless announced plans to end pandemic-era unemployment enhancements. Workers who were remote full-time when the pandemic hit are being called back to the office.
But here’s something that the wealthy geriatrics who make all of the decisions are once again missing: Parents to whom most caregiving responsibilities fall—most often, mothers—can’t go back to work right now, in large part because school and daycare schedules are still all over the place. Child care was expensive but indispensable before the pandemic; many households cannot work to meet an indispensable need that is also both expensive and unreliable.
When people who are on the fence about having kids bring up their concerns with people who do have children, especially people who are members of an older generation, they eventually get advice along the lines of “It’s hard, but, you just figure it out!” and then the advice-giver kind of shrugs. You’ll just figure out how to pay for prenatal care and childbirth; you’ll just figure out how to make friends with other parents; you’ll just figure out day care and preschool and kindergarten and college and how to afford a down payment on a house somehow, even though you’re still paying off your own student loans. You just figure it out.
Sometimes, it seems like that aggressively unhelpful advice is guiding public policy. There are more than 50 million school-aged children in the U.S. Somebody needs to take care of them—it’s illegal to leave children under a certain age home alone. Taking away unemployment benefits will not eliminate that need. Telling employees that they now must return to the office full-time will not take care of that need. Put just about anything up against “caring for children,” and “caring for children” will win.
It’s no wonder that all of April’s job gains went to men, and an estimated 165,000 women left the workforce. The kids won’t take care of themselves, no matter how hard politicians and employers ignore the needs of mothers.
It’s ridiculous for anybody to be puzzled by an economic recovery failing to materialize when schools and day care centers are still operating under a hybrid model. One mother in Oakland, California, describes the task of managing her kids’ hybrid schedules as a time-consuming exercise on its own. Her children attend virtual classes from 8-11 am every day, and do in-person school for 2.5 hours per day, twice a week. She and her husband are both able to work from home for their full-time jobs, but taxiing their kids to and from school for that short amount of time cuts into both of their productivity.
“I am thankful that they have this in their lives now but have no idea how parents with jobs outside the home could be expected to take this amount of time off each day,” she says. “I am not managing, and I have every possible benefit and privilege. I am deeply worried and concerned for the women and children in our city and our country and it honestly feels like we have been forgotten.”
Parents have also had to plan around impossibly complicated school and day care pandemic rules. One woman in North Carolina suddenly found both of her pre-school-age kids back home when their day care center closed from last May to last October.
When the center opened back up, a single positive test or a symptomatic family member could close it back down for weeks, sending parents scrambling once more. For the first six weeks of the prolonged closure, she and her husband, who both work full time, had no additional help. She’d routinely turn her camera off on Zoom calls so she could breastfeed her infant daughter while she was conducting interviews.
When that proved unsustainable, her in-laws started driving two hours round trip three days a week so they could take the girls on an hour-long walk, although they didn’t have many places to take them, since all of the parks were closed. “Bullshit,” the woman remarked. She would try to do as much work as she could while the girls were out of the house, but when they were around, there wasn’t much she or her husband could do to convince two very small children to leave their mother alone so she could work. Kids don’t seem to understand gendered division of childrearing labor, it seems.
More than one mother pointed this out. Their husbands are “involved” and “try” to keep their children away from their mothers, but children—especially very young children—do not exactly respect their preferred parent’s work schedules. In a country where many companies still only give new fathers two weeks’ paternity leave, if that, it’s not hard to see why many children of nuclear families—even in families with “very involved” fathers—see their mothers as their primary caregivers.
Without a coherent federal message in 2020, day care centers and schools made up their own rules, many of which didn’t stand up to scientific muster even in the early days of the pandemic. The vestiges of that initial confusion remain. Long after it was clear that the virus spread through poorly circulated air, child care facilities were still emphasizing extra sanitary processes for surfaces.
One national chain of day care centers required the entire center to close down for more than a week if a member of a student’s family tested positive for COVID, which meant that parents that worked outside of the home suddenly had no options for what to do with their kids. The essential workers we spent all those nights clapping for spent a lot of time scrambling to meet their families’ basic needs. (We still haven’t figured out how to do that, by the way.)
In some places, parents and teachers were forced to go back to in-person learning under a model that mandated shutdown if anybody in the community received a positive COVID test result, which meant that parents couldn’t reliably make plans even one day in advance, much less commit to a work schedule that was made weeks in advance.
Frustratingly, many white collar employers don’t seem to grasp just how much childcare responsibilities fall on working mothers who suddenly didn’t have a place to put their children during the workday. One mother in Chicago says that throughout the pandemic, she’s felt internal pressure at her law firm to pretend that her responsibilities to care for her two young sons don’t exist.
Mothers with childcare responsibilities intensified by the pandemic are seen as “undependable,” as though some magical robot nanny should have materialized at the onset of the pandemic to assure that female attorneys were able to devote their full attention to 10 straight hours of back-to-back Zoom calls.
The assumption is that there’s always somebody there to take care of the inconvenient task of running a household. Bosses assume that behind every employee, man or woman, there’s a traditional 1950s wife doing the work of housekeeper, babysitter, and personal assistant.
One mother has worked for her company for years, but has still found that her workplace lacks empathy for or even awareness of her situation during the pandemic. “Our office was very in person focused before, so if someone was home with sick kids, you cut them slack for the day. That slack is gone. You have a teething baby who was up all night? Suck it up buttercup and make sure you are on mute so your baby isn’t too distracting,” she says.
When we spoke, she had just taken her first sick day in over a year. Even though she’s “out,” she’s still responding to work-related emails and Slack messages. The assumption now seems to be that because people have been working from home, whenever they are at home, they are also available to do work. When their children are also home, they are performing the work of two full-time salaried positions, for the same salary they were receiving before the pandemic, if that.
Many mothers, unsurprisingly, eagerly look forward to returning to the office, because it means an end to the double duty.
A lot of schools are now back to in-person learning, which has given some mothers and primary caretakers a bit of relief. But that relief isn’t permanent; many schools are about to let kids out for the summer and into a world where normal summer childcare options are still limited.
Day camps, summer camps, and other places to put the kids during the workday aren’t fully up and running, which means parents are facing even more months of minor headaches that could become major headaches if we experience another surge in infections and attendant closings wherein parents are expected to absorb whatever extra work the “abundance of caution” heaps on them.
To make things more complicated, there is currently no vaccine approved for use in children between the ages of 2 to 11. FDA officials plan to request approval for the Pfizer vaccine for use in that population in September, but, until then, parents of young children are—once again—just going to have to figure it out.
Does it seem like a stretch to assume that some of the mothers who dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic might wait until they are pretty sure they’re not going to be leaned on as full-time on-call unpaid childcare workers before they take a full time job?
The Biden administration has made some suggestions that will help make life less impossible for families, and, specifically, for caregivers. But Republican obstructionism and the attention-seeking behavior of a few tedious Democratic senators threatens to kneecap those proposed reforms. Unless we make child care more affordable and take steps to ensure that somebody will be able to take care of kids without losing their job, there is no full economic recovery to be had. Mothers are tapped out. No more work can be extracted from them. We have reached the limit of moms.
I’m not suggesting that schools and day care centers should not be taking measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead, this past year and change has illustrated that child care that is affordable and reliable is essential for a functioning economy.
Updating schools and day care centers to new safety standards as quickly as possible—and prioritizing the health and safety of school and day care employees—so that they can safely open should be at the top of our list of priorities moving forward. Easy-to-understand and easy-to-follow guidance for parents with children ages 2 to 11 should be a messaging priority. Now that we know that outdoor spaces aren’t hospitable to the spread of the pandemic, parks, and playgrounds should be open.
Guaranteeing parents emergency time off when schools or daycares are closed should be a priority moving forward. Forecasters can save their surprise for next month’s jobs report until employers and policy makers have managed to figure that one out.
In the meantime, perhaps to make a point, the president could sign an executive order making it temporarily illegal for fathers to tell their children to “go ask your mother.”