COVID-19, work & motherhoodDec 10, 2020
Written by Liliana Tenney, DrPH, MPH, associate director for outreach at the Center for Health, Work & Environment and senior instructor at the Colorado School of Public Health.
Every day in this pandemic seems like Groundhog Day, and yet, I try my utmost to live with gratitude. I am thankful that our family has stayed healthy, that we are employed, that we have access to the great outdoors and to fresh air. But the reality is, the last eight months as a working mother have been just plain hard.
Should we send our kids back to school? How safe is daycare? How am I going to work from home today? Should we see friends or family for the holidays given the risks that come with germ sharing in our pod and school? These are the questions that my husband and I, our friends, and millions of other working parents are asking themselves in the era of COVID.
Before COVID, I was getting newly acquainted with the worries that come with parenting. With a three-year-old and a five-month-old, I live and breathe the nonstop stressors that come with motherhood; finding (and managing) childcare that also meets our full-time work schedules; the dread of receiving the call to pick up your sick kid early which inevitably means you can’t make it through the workday as you had planned; and all the while, feeling guilty for spending so much time away from your children while at work.
This was already the reality for working mothers. Enter COVID and a wave of complexity and mixed emotions. Schools closed, work changed, and support networks distanced. Increased time at home and no social plans has, on one hand, made for extra bonding time with our families, and on the other hand, amplified the greater need for space and self-care. Daycare remained open for essential workers, while those who could afford them turned to private tutor pods. The world of parenting and work quickly became a giant puzzle of how to keep families employed and healthy, elevating work-family conflict and bearing the most burden on working mothers. And as a result, we are already starting to see the impacts.
Estimates show that more than two million women have left the labor force since the pandemic hit—the percent of working American women is the lowest it has been since 1988. School closures, virtual schooling, unemployment rates, and competing work-family demands are disproportionately forcing mothers out of the workforce. Studies have found that working mothers—more so than fathers—cut their own hours or took leave from work during the early days of the pandemic.
As our Center responds to the needs of employers to keep businesses running and workers safe through COVID, I reflect almost daily on the challenges working mothers face. Even the most progressive business practices to support them cannot fully alleviate the daily stressors and inequalities facing parents today. These effects have always existed but are exacerbated by COVID—all of which elevate the need for employers and policymakers to step up in new ways.
These issues highlight the reality that today, like every other day in history, women face significant challenges in deciding when and how to “do it all.” COVID is shedding light on these issues and forcing us to think about what the future holds for gender roles, childcare options, and the American workforce. Even pre-COVID, childcare duties fell primarily on women (BLS 2019). Now, with remote work and kids at home, the ability to balance responsibilities has become even harder. For employees that cannot telework, options for childcare are even fewer in a country where childcare providers and schools still do not meet the needs of working parents concerning hours, cost, and availability. Mothers of color and those working low-income jobs struggle most to afford high-quality childcare, shining a spotlight on how these issues have caused even more racial and class disparities.
In reality, the decisions working mothers face today are not much different than they were when my mother raised me. COVID has taken those decisions of how to manage family, childcare, schools, community, partnerships, and complicated them tenfold. As my three-year-old daughter reminded me the other day, “Mama, this virus is lasting a really long time.”
She is right. It is here for who knows how long, and the effects will last even longer. Yet, all the while, my husband and I remain grateful for the fact that we have choices and that we are supported by organizations that value the health of their employees and families during this time.
I am constantly inspired by what I read, hear from friends, and am experiencing in my own family. I want to help find solutions that last past COVID to ensure we can advance as women in the workforce. So, let us figure out solutions that not only address working mothers but focus on systematic changes—to childcare, the wage gap, work arrangements, and paid leave—for both working mothers and fathers.
These changes may mean that mothers who want to work can work. We need to learn from one another’s experiences. We need to connect and find creative ways to balance the challenges of work and caretaking. We need to be supported and empowered to delegate duties to partners at home to share the burden. We need to figure out how we, as businesses, families, and communities can prevent a setback to the progress women have made over the decades.
Liliana Tenney reads with her daughters at
home in-between meetings.
What employers can do:
- Provide paid leave (sick and family)
- Support telework & flexible schedules
- Provide manager training to meet the unique needs of working parents – job duties, schedules, empathy and emotional support
- Address equity: wage gaps, organizational justice, job recruitment/placement
What families can do:
- Balance schedules between working parents – have each caregiver take shifts with kids at home during workdays and meeting blocks
- Forgive yourself for allowing increased screen time
- Connect (prioritize time) with your loved ones – many of us are living and working with partners in the house. Schedule a walk together to talk about non-work and non-kids things.
- Practice self-care – we are better parents when we take care of our needs first and foremost. Make the time!
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Average hours per day parents spent caring for and helping household children as their main activity. Retrieved 12/1/20 from https://www.bls.gov/charts/american-time-use/activity-by-parent.htm
Tedeschi E. The Mystery of How Many Mothers Have Left Work Because of School Closings. New York Times. October 29, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/29/upshot/mothers-leaving-jobs-pandemic.html
Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/10/22/fewer-mothers-and-fathers-in-u-s-are-working-due-to-covid-19-downturn-those-at-work-have-cut-hours/