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Being A Working Mom Is Hard. The Pandemic Made It Even Harder.

In this Tuesday, March 17, 2020 photo Kim Borton, left, works from home while her children Logan Borton, center, age 6 and Katie Borton, age 7, as they work on an art project in Beaverton, Ore. (Craig Mitchelldyer/AP Photo)
In this Tuesday, March 17, 2020 photo Kim Borton, left, works from home while her children Logan Borton, center, age 6 and Katie Borton, age 7, as they work on an art project in Beaverton, Ore. (Craig Mitchelldyer/AP Photo)

We know that mothers are often disproportionately responsible for housework and childcare. And that’s even more challenging if you’re working. Now, the pandemic has made parents working from home and children attending online classes the new norm. So how has it affected the lives working moms?


Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. Her research examines inequalities in education and family life. (@JessicaCalarco)

Dani McClain, reporter covering race and reproductive health. Contributing writer at The Nation. Type Media Center fellow. Author of “We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood.” (@drmcclain)

Romina Pacheco, mother of an 11 year old and a 2 and a half year old. She works as a consultant for an educational non-profit agency. (@RomiAPacheco)

Interview Highlights

On the typical day of a working mom during the pandemic

Romina Pacheco: “It’s pretty much managing what’s in front of me in the moment. So starting with depending on the mood my children will come with. I have a toddler, a 2 year old and an 11 year old who is going into sixth grade. So it really starts by taking care of them, hoping that everything in their basic needs at the very least is covered before 9 a.m., when I normally have to start my first professional meetings over Zoom, so it’s really trying to take care of everything. And in some ways say a prayer that you know, the 2-year-old is not having a meltdown. When I have to log on and be a professional. Then, I go on to do my work the best I can through the working hours. Of course, having kids at home 24/7 is a challenge to that, so many times it’s not possible to complete my work during working hours. So it means making dinner, taking care of children and the house and the home and everything that needs to happen to make the house more or less function. And then once they’re in bed, continue to do my work in the middle of the night.”

On the mental and emotional impact of burnout — as a mother, and a professional

Romina Pacheco: “[That’s something that’s] been really emotional for me through this whole process. And it’s the feeling that I’m not doing a good job in any area of my existence. You know, I’m not being a good mom because I’m not really 100 percent there. Or, you know, at least I feel that way. To support my daughter [with] school, for instance. It was a struggle for her to have to do distance learning. You know, she wasn’t used to it, and she missed things, and it was a struggle, just to put it simply. I tried to support her this way. But I know that I did some things that I could have done better if I had had more time, if I had more the emotional capacity in the moment, you know, to do it. But I was being pulled in so many different directions that it was very challenging for me to help her in the way that she deserved and that she needed in the moment. Right. So it was like splitting myself to help her a little bit and then having the toddler, you know, crying for whatever toddlers cry and have meltdowns about, you know, through the day. And then thinking about, oh, my goodness, I haven’t finished, you know, that report or I have that meeting in five minutes that I’m late already to… It’s not sustainable for anybody. I didn’t say this, but a couple of months ago I actually felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And I said, I can’t do this anymore, I have to reach out for help. And I did find myself doing that because it’s just not possible to sustain this kind of lifestyle much longer.”

On the drastic increase in workload faced by working moms

Jessica Calarco: “Pre-pandemic, I was doing research following a group of about 250 moms with young kids from pregnancy through the first few years of their kids lives, checking in every 6 months with surveys and interviews about the challenges they were facing and decisions they were making about things like vaccines and screen time and when to go back to work. And when the pandemic hit, we were still doing interviews, still doing surveys, and it became clear that all of these changes were taking a huge toll on moms and their families and especially on families with working moms. Among the working moms in our study, 88 percent say that they’re more stressed now than before the pandemic, compared to only about 66 percent of moms who were not working pre-pandemic. Moms who are working now are also twice as likely as stay at home moms to be getting less sleep than they were pre-pandemic. And working moms are about 15 percent more likely than stay-at-home moms to say that the pandemic is leading to things like more frustration with their kids and more frustration with their spouses. And it seems that those differences between working moms and stay-at-home moms are driven by the fact that moms, and especially working moms, have taken on a substantial increase in the childcare responsibilities. Now that things like schools and child care facilities are closed, 55 percent of the moms in our study say they’re spending a great deal more time with their kids now, during the pandemic, compared to only about 20 percent of stay-at-home moms.”

On how single working moms are faring during the pandemic

Jessica Calarco: “Single moms, certainly pre-pandemic and now, are dealing with a tremendous amount of stress, having to negotiate, and oftentimes they’re the ones who are most reliant on extended family members in order to help provide care. There’s actually research pre-pandemic showing that married working moms and single working moms don’t actually spend a different amount of time on child care. And actually married mothers spend more than working moms, spend more time on housework than single working moms do, in part because of different standards and things like that. But certainly that’s in part because single parents are often heavily reliant on extended family in order to be able to manage the logistics of providing care for their kids or dealing with unexpected things that come up at work. And that’s been especially challenging during the pandemic, especially for moms who are worried about putting their extended family members at risk if they regularly rely on grandma for child care, for example — that, for some of the moms that we’ve talked to, has been a really difficult choice. I mean, some of the parents that we’ve talked to, even mothers who are married and do have a partner, are continuing to rely on grandparent care just because it’s the only way for them to be able to make ends meet in terms of just getting everything done.”

On the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on black and brown working moms

Dani McClain: “The Washington Post ran this story in March or April, and they used data from a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey that showed that just 20 percent of black employees and 16 percent of Latinx employees had the ability to work from home. And that’s compared to 37 percent of Asian-American and 30 percent of white workers. So when we think about who are essential workers — and then, of course, there’s a class component as well, so only four percent of people who didn’t graduate from high school can work remotely, and that’s compared to 52 percent of those with a college degree or higher — so when we think about who’s been on the frontlines as essential workers, if that means working in food service or health care, sanitation, child care, these are largely black and brown people who have had to figure out, who is going to keep my kid while I go to work? And so as Professor Calarco pointed out, single parents have often already worked out these kind of extended kinship networks or depending on extended family. And yet the pressures of a pandemic and maybe not being able to access elders in our family because we are worried about being asymptomatic and accidentally infecting them with the virus, this has created new complications that folks are trying to sort through.”

On how the pandemic might lead to more family-friendly workplace policies

Jessica Calarco: “I think we will need more flexibility moving forward as mothers, especially, transition back into the workplace, because like you said, I don’t think this will be a ‘flip a switch, back to business as usual’ kind of a situation. And we’ve seen that many jobs in our economy can be done from home, and certainly women have often been at the forefront of pushing for more flexibility, more workplace policies that would allow time off as needed. And certainly, mothers have been laid off because they, especially low-income mothers, are often at risk of being laid off if they have to take a day off to stay home with their child when they’re sick or they risk having their work hours reduced if their boss doesn’t see them as reliable enough to be put on the schedule or offer enough hours. And so thinking about what are the policies — not just what can individual employers do, but what are the federal-level policies or state-level policies that we can put in place to ensure that workers are guaranteed the flexibility that they need and especially working moms to be able to balance having a job and supporting their families, especially for single parents who may not have other sources of incomes and making sure that they are able to make ends meet for the long term.”

From The Reading List

The New York Times: In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.” — “Last week, I received an email from my children’s principal, sharing some of the first details about plans to reopen New York City schools this fall. The message explained that the city’s Department of Education, following federal guidelines, will require each student to have 65 square feet of classroom space. Not everyone will be allowed in the building at once. The upshot is that my children will be able to physically attend school one out of every three weeks.”

The Nation: I Never Felt Like a ‘Single’ Parent. Then the Coronavirus Hit.” — “In late February, I listened to New York Times science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. warn about the threat posed by the coronavirus on the podcast The Daily. Hearing McNeil’s warnings shook me. I started buying more food and supplies than usual at the grocery store. I started stressing out and strategizing on my group chats. I started imagining how canceled preschool would isolate my only child, who’s 3.”

The Washington Post: The pandemic didn’t create working moms’ struggle. But it made it impossible to ignore.” — “An old cartoon from 1976 has been circulating on social media recently, titled ‘My Wife Doesn’t Work.’ In 20 panels, it follows the daily routine of a stay-at-home mom: At 7 a.m., she’s packing lunches; at 11 a.m., she’s running errands; at 2 and 3 and 5 p.m., she’s sweeping, ironing and dishwashing while a toddler tugs on her skirt. The titular panel comes at 1 p.m. when we drop in on her husband chatting with a colleague. ‘My wife doesn’t work,’ he explains. The joke has one of two interpretations: either he has no idea how much work it takes to run a house because he’s not around to see this labor, or he’s aware of it but doesn’t count it as ‘work.’ Maybe both.”

The Conversation: Dads are more involved in parenting, yes, but moms still put in more work” — “On Jan. 21, in a collective demonstration of historic proportions, millions of women marched in Washington, D.C. and other cities around the world in support of key policy issues such as reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work and support for balancing work and family.”

Vox: “The unbearable grief of Black mothers” — “When one of us loses a child, all of us feel that hurt; vicarious trauma is an integral aspect of Black motherhood. My grandmother raised children in the legacy of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was kidnapped, beaten, mutilated, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River in 1955. My mother grew up in the shadow of Till and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings, where four Black young girls were killed and many others injured in what was the third bombing in 11 days in 1963. And in a sick twist of fate, I’ve had to carry them all — including the fears of my children becoming the next Trayvon, Tamir, or Aiyana.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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