When schools shut down last spring, parents (mostly mothers) began frantically sharing lists — color-coded schedules, lesson plans and links to educational activities to keep children occupied and stimulated. It was an immediate, tacit acknowledgment that help was not on the way. They knew it would be up to them, alone, to figure out how to do at least three full-time jobs at once — parent, teacher and the job they were paid to do.
They were right. Help, for the most part, never arrived.
Nearly a year later, mothers need support more than ever — in the form of government policies, employer assistance or, closer to home, partners who share in more of the work. They also need it for the future, to ensure that they are never left stranded like this again. It’s not just mothers who need support, of course — fathers, grandparents and those caring for sick or aging relatives do, too. But mothers have shouldered the extra load.
“Instead of a structural solution and policies, we’ve relied on the unpaid labor of women, who are at a breaking point,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, chief executive of MomsRising, a policy and activist group.
Many of the lists and schedules of last spring have been replaced by new routines, whether it’s waking up before dawn to work or trading child care duties with a spouse or neighbor. But having a routine to survive the days doesn’t mean mothers are OK.
“People talk about how moms can lift a car off their children, but even though you can do it, it doesn’t mean you didn’t do damage to your body when lifting the car,” said Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan who advises policymakers on issues affecting women and families. “2020 was like lifting a car off your kids; 2021 is going to have to be ‘How are those women able to heal?’”
How employers could help
Many employers responded to the pandemic by allowing people to work flexible hours from home or to rearrange their shifts by using nights, weekends and every minute they aren’t caring for children. But as the pandemic continued, it became clear that this solution was not sustainable.
“Take the employed mom, who has managed to keep her job but is about to lose her mind,” Stevenson said. “We’ve seen people have been immensely productive at home, but it’s been coming at an enormous cost to their mental health and overall sanity. If you’re a company that’s made it through this pretty well, now is the time to make sure you don’t have a bunch of employees burning out.”
— Offer part-time schedules or unpaid leaves. In the United States, it’s unusual for white-collar employers to offer part-time schedules — and they pay disproportionately less when they do. But European countries with laws requiring that workers be able to go part time have been better able to keep women in the workforce.
— Pay for child care. At this point in the pandemic, mothers don’t just need time; they need money. They could use it in the way that best suits their family — for child care, tutoring or to support themselves during an unpaid leave. But few companies have paid for child care.
— Don’t penalize people for caregiving. When it comes time for employee evaluations, managers should keep in mind how much additional work — and stress — people have been dealing with. (This goes for non-parents, too.) Additionally, hiring managers should not discard résumés with pandemic-era gaps, and consider rehiring the employees who left for caregiving reasons.
— Don’t go back to “normal” office life. Long hours of face time and unpredictable schedules hurt parents and others even before this crisis. A lesson of this period has been discovering that people are happier, healthier and more productive when they have control over where and when they work — especially parents. There are benefits to offices, but employers could adopt hybrid schedules, allowing people to work some days at home and some days at the office.
How government could help
The United States is the only rich country without paid family leave, and one of few without subsidized child care. If it had those policies in place pre-pandemic, parents’ lives during lockdown would have been much easier.
In Sweden, for example, new parents get 16 months of paid leave to use until their child is 8, so some have been drawing on it during the pandemic. Parents also have four months of paid leave to take care of sick children up to age 12, which the government allowed people to use when schools were closed during the pandemic. In many European countries, child care centers are publicly funded, so there was no doubt they would still be available when it was safe to reopen.
— Extend coronavirus paid leave. President Joe Biden’s coronavirus relief package — which still needs congressional approval — includes more than three months of paid sick and family leave, including to care for children or older adults, available through September. Nearly all American workers would be eligible.
— Send money to parents. In addition to stimulus checks, the Biden administration has proposed additional help for families with young children — including a tax credit of up to $8,000 for families to spend on child care. The child tax credit, which nearly all parents collect, would also temporarily increase — to $3,000 for children under 18 and $3,600 for children under 6, up from $2,000 per child. And parents of the 27 million children in the poorest families, who don’t currently qualify for the full credit, would be able to collect it.
— Offer tax credits to businesses that retain or rehire mothers. A shocking number of mothers, disproportionately those who are Black or brown, have given up jobs to take care of children during the pandemic. It would help them — and benefit employers, too — if companies hired them back. Tax credits could provide more incentive to do so.
— Give Social Security credits for unpaid caregivers. Career pauses shrink women’s retirement savings and Social Security benefits. The government could provide tax credits and Social Security credits for unpaid caregivers that could provide relief for mothers unexpectedly pushed out of the workforce during the pandemic.
— Open schools. In many American communities, bars, restaurants and gyms have opened first. Prioritizing schools — which Biden called on Congress to spend $130 billion to do — would require getting infections under control, testing and tracing to monitor outbreaks and investing money for schools to add safety measures. The money would be used for things like improving ventilation; hiring janitors, nurses and counselors; and operating summer schools.
— Make the solutions permanent. The child care crisis during the pandemic has revealed the extent to which mothers were barely hanging on in normal times. Some lawmakers have proposed bills that would provide paid family leave and subsidized child care for the long term.
“These were already big problems, and now they’re crises, especially for women of color and women who are paid low wages,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is a sponsor of several of the bills. “We know all of this will help, and we need Congress to prioritize women for once and get it done.”
How individuals could help
Women have always done more of the child care and housework. They’ve also done more of the invisible labor, particularly when it comes to worrying about and planning for their children’s health and education. But the pandemic has made it undeniable that raising children is, and always has been, a community endeavor — and mothers need their communities now more than ever.
“We are only going to survive this by recruiting non-mothers to our cause,” said Katherine Goldstein, creator and host of the Double Shift podcast about a new generation of working mothers. “The people most burdened at the moment can’t always even stop and figure out what they need.”
— Men, do your part. While mothers and fathers have both increased the amount of time they spend on child care during the pandemic, the share they each do hasn’t changed all that much. There are concrete ways men could do more: Work in the common area of the home and give the separate home office, if you have one, to the woman. Take over an entire child-related task, like coordinating pediatric care, communicating with the school or planning a virtual birthday party. Get the children out of the house.
Goldstein’s advice for women: “Whatever the biggest gendered problem is in your life, make it a man’s problem. When men start to feel these disruptions and stressors the same way women do, that’s when we’ll start seeing real systemic change for the better.”
— Friends, do your part. If you don’t have children at home, think of ways to help those who do. Set up a meal train. Offer to take children for a distanced park walk or read to them on Zoom. Mail an activity kit. (Just make sure it’s one that doesn’t require much adult involvement.)
— Community, do your part. Some places have started programs to connect child care providers or tutors with families that can’t afford to hire them. Local governments could also help parents by creating more family activities outdoors, where it’s safer — designating pedestrian streets, keeping playgrounds open, or hosting library story times or gymnastics classes in parks.
— When it’s all over, give mothers a break. Mothers have heard the reminders to make time for themselves, but it’s laughably impossible for most mothers to get enough of a respite right now — and as Stevenson said, “There’s no bath that can do it.” Perhaps a post-pandemic government-funded spa week for mothers is too much to ask. But in a post-COVID world, mothers would also benefit from a night in an empty house, a connection with a good therapist or a child-free day off with friends.