Motherhood and Labor in the Pandemic

Ursula McTaggart

Posted March 8, 2021

PANDEMIC IS AN opening for revolutionary thinking. It has forced us to realize that the things we take for granted — getting up and driving in to work, sending children off to school on the bus, walking the aisles of the grocery store, or packing ourselves into crowded bleachers — can change dramatically overnight.

Even the most basic activities can, in a moment, turn 180 degrees, and we can learn to do them differently.

This is an opportunity to see school and childcare, two staples of our society, anew. We could remake them radically so that when we conquer this pandemic, we have stronger, better and more equal public schools and daycare structures.

Unfortunately, our society hasn’t done that. Instead, what we’ve done is ask women of young children to bear the burden of childcare and remote schooling in this disaster. In the process, we have widened economic and social gender inequalities.

We have walked back the gains that feminism had made throughout the 20th century, sending women out of the workforce and back into unpaid household labor and childcare.

In other cases, we have asked fully employed women to become teachers and daycare providers at the same time that they do their paid jobs.

We have told women not that they can “have it all” but that they have to “do it all.” And there’s even more to do — wiping down groceries with Clorox wipes, supervising hand washing for 20 seconds, and washing loads of masks for in-person schoolers.

Who’s Exaggerating?

Working fathers, too, have been involved in this dual work and childcare crisis, but evidence suggests that women are carrying an unfair share of the burden. In a Morning Consult poll for The New York Times conducted in April 2020, 80% of women interviewed said they did the majority of the homeschooling work in their household, and 70% said they did the majority of housework as well.

Men dispute these claims, apparently. Forty-five percent of men in the same study maintained that they did the majority of the remote schooling. But as New York Times writer Claire Cain Miller pointedly remarks, men’s reports are unreliable.

A 2015 study of inequities in parenting found that both men and women over­estimated their increased work loads after having a baby. However, women’s work loads increased much more than men’s did, as reflected in their time diaries.

In this particular study, men believed they were performing 15 hours of increased housework a week, whereas their time diaries reflected a five-hour weekly decrease in housework. When childcare and housework labor were combined, men believed that their load had increased by 30 hours a week, while time diaries indicated a 12.5 hour increase.

Women, like men, believed that their total work had increased by 30 hours when it had in fact, according to the diary, increased by 21 hours a week. When paid work hours were factored in, men in the study recorded 69 total weekly hours of work, and women performed 77 hours.

Although both men and women exaggerate the amount of work they do, according to this study, men exaggerate more. And women do more, when it comes to childcare and housework. For mixed-gender couples, the pandemic replays this transition to parenthood and its concomitant demands for more labor. And women again find themselves doing more of the work while receiving little of the credit.

Not only that, but the pandemic has asked women to perform feats of multitasking that are often literally impossible. Working women have always had to work “second shift,” doing the majority of the child care and household labor in most families in addition to their fulltime jobs. Now, how­ever, what was simply unbearable has become literally untenable. Working women’s lives are tearing at the seams.

Impossible Choices

For women who are “essential workers,” laboring in health care, grocery stores, delivery or other fields that never “locked down” between March and May, school closures meant that children were at home, and childcare options were limited.

Working women like this had to choose between sending children to daycare centers at the height of a pandemic, where they hoped daycare providers would also be able to supervise homeschool activities; leaving children at home unattended; risking the health of older relatives by asking them to provide childcare (and also supervise education); relying on co-parents to do the vast majority of the childcare and homeschooling work; or dropping out of the work force altogether.

Many women in this situation chose to quit their jobs. Eighty percent of those who have left the workforce in the pandemic have been women. And among them Latinas have been affected disproportionately. In September alone, 865,000 women left; 35% were Latina.

Beyond essential workers, whose children had no school to attend while they left the house daily for work, women in other types of jobs have suffered differently.

Women who work in service, restaurant, entertainment or hospitality industries often faced layoffs, financial hardship, and potentially risky returns to work as lockdowns eased. At the peak of the layoff-related unemployment crisis in April, 2020, more women were effected by the mass layoffs than men, with a 15.5% unemployment rate compared to men’s 13.3%.

In the midst of their financial and career catastrophes, many of these women have been handed the daily responsibility of supervising their children’s online education and providing childcare that might have otherwise taken place outside the home.

The continued need for childcare and homeschool supervision affects women’s abilities to apply for new jobs — many mothers in these situations feel that they are needed at home, whether they can afford it financially or not.

Even women who have maintained steady, fulltime employment from home throughout the pandemic have confronted the reality that household labor is rarely divided equally between men and women. Many families with two working parents who now work from home — or families with only one working parent in the household — must juggle the demands of fulltime jobs with absent or reduced childcare and homeschool demands.

Babies and toddlers cannot be left unattended by a television while parents work on Zoom. Young school-age children — kinder­garteners through fourth or fifth graders — require near constant supervision of their online work.

Even older children and teenagers can’t simply teach themselves with online videos and worksheets. Teachers’ physical presence is vital for children’s learning, and when that presence is limited to Zoom, it means that parents must frequently step in as advisors and surrogate teachers.

Firsthand Experience

These are the statistics. But the collected stories of working moms convey the reality more profoundly. Journalists have done the hard work of collecting these stories, and you can read many in The New York Times and The New Yorker, or listen to them on NPR. To those meaningful and diverse collections, I can only add my own limited experience.

I was five months into an unwanted and unexpected divorce when the college where I teach announced that it would move online, first temporarily and later for the whole semester. Within days my children’s schools, where they were in third grade and kindergarten, followed suit.

As we entered lockdown, the help that I had been relying on, especially in the midst of the divorce, from my parents, family friends, and an aftercare program all vanished. And it quickly became apparent that there were not enough hours in the day to be both a homeschool teacher and a college professor. I was a single adult with two children and what felt like multiple fulltime jobs.

I have heard many stories of how parents handled this transition, and I know that those in couples struggled as well. Some couples split childcare and work duties, taking care of children from 7-3 and then working from 3-11 while their partner did the opposite. Others took days or weeks off work to manage homeschool.

One friend must sit with her first-grade son on her lap for his Zoom calls, or he refuses to participate. She had to schedule all of her Zoom teaching in the evenings.

My solution was to allow my children to watch many hours of TV a day while I taught Zoom classes, planned future classes, and graded papers. Then I harassed my kids into doing their homework urgently, in limited time, and with little patience.

When my third grader told me he had done all of his assigned work, I trusted him — only to realize later that he had turned in very little of the work. One day, while I struggled to manage my own lesson plans upstairs, I yelled for him to sign onto his Zoom downstairs; I came down 10 minutes later to find him, on Zoom, wrapped in a blanket with only underwear underneath.

In the two days during the work week and the one weekend day that my kids went to their father’s house, I worked incessantly on my teaching, and was nonetheless constantly behind. I felt daily gratitude that I already had tenure — while I worked long days on Saturdays to grade papers and prep for the next week, the book project I had been working on back in September went untouched.

By August, my children’s school district announced that I could choose either all-virtual or all-in person school for them. My job, however, told me that I would be returning to teaching fulltime in person, and I would need a doctor’s note for anything else.

Although I didn’t feel that in-person school was safe for the kids, I signed them up, and we all went back to school, masked, five days a week.

COVID Strikes

For nearly three months, all went smoothly. No more than a handful of cases were reported at my college, and none at my children’s schools; we had each been tested for COVID regularly, anytime we have a minor cold.

Then, in the weeks before Thanksgiving, cases in both locations began climbing. When my kids’ dad had them tested in the hopes of taking them to visit his mother for Thanksgiving, they both came back positive for COVID.

Completely asymptomatic, they breezed through the virus and passed it to their dad, who became ill but not dangerously so. I managed to escape, perhaps because I am participating in Pfizer’s vaccine trial and may be vaccinated. Fortunately, they did not visit or endanger any grandparents or anyone outside the immediate family. We believe that one of them was infected at school and passed it to the other.

I don’t yet know the impacts that COVID may have on my children’s health long-term. I do know that their time at school endangered them and those around them. My conservative small town continues to push in-person school too hard and is unwilling to shut down the schools in the face of the late autumn surge.

Yet my friends in more urban settings have never sent their children back to school since March, even when cases were more manageable in the early fall. That was perhaps a mistake as well.

What Are the Priorities?

I am not advocating for in-person school at all costs. Nor am I discounting the terrible cost that teachers and the community may face from opening schools. We should not put school opening over human lives.

We should, however, prioritize school openings over all other economic activities, beyond basic food and medical care. We should open schools long before we open bars and restaurants. And we should have the social support to do so.

The pandemic has highlighted what teachers have always known — we need them, and we need them in person. Online education, while possible, is vastly inferior. It favors those who are self-motivated, prepared, and resourced.

We need children, especially young children, in classrooms and not online. This should have been our nationwide priority. We should have put all of our collective resources, both financial and intellectual, into safely returning children to school and daycare.

This could have been the moment for teachers to demand and for state governments or local administrations to grant drastic reductions in class sizes — classes of 15 or less not just for now but forever.

We could have devoted public funds to hiring legions of teachers, paying them well enough to lure them into the field from other careers, and finding new spaces to house small clusters of teachers and students, outside when possible and inside, masked, when not.

Many well-paid, well-educated teachers with small clusters of students is the exact right way to educate the population, pandemic or no. We could choose to think radically differently in this pandemic, to put education first. In doing so, we would give working mothers the opportunity to return to their paid jobs and trust their children to skilled educators.

Or, on a similar note, we could have used this opportunity to think about the deep value of childcare and education in our society. Without childcare, in the form of daycares, schools or stay-at-home parents, we cannot engage our work force in other tasks. They will forever be getting cups of milk, opening bags of fruit snacks, and settling sibling disputes, not to mention sounding out words and counting by fives.

These are not silly tasks — this is the stuff of caretaking. And caretaking deserves compensation, not as unskilled labor or expected unpaid contributions to a family but as real, productive, often unalienated labor. This is the labor of building our own future community — the most important and most skilled labor we have.

The Brunt of the Pandemic

Mothers are feeling the brunt of the pandemic because a patriarchal society has always handed them the labor of care­taking and declared it meaningless. This is our chance, as a society, to demand compensation for the labor that takes place within households.

When my children throw things at me while I teach my Zoom classes — on one occasion hitting me in the forehead mid-sentence — this is a moment when it becomes apparent that I have not one job but two. The reality of my life as a working mom is visible in a way that it hasn’t been before.

Symbolically, perhaps, that is useful. It humanizes me to my students — we are more than our workplace selves, and we should embrace that. But practically speaking, it means an erosion of the many workarounds that working moms have devised in the past decades to prop up their professional lives. And it leaves women balanced precariously on the edge of reversing decades of gains in workplace equality.

This isn’t a criticism of teachers’ unions, which operate in a pragmatic world. They did not have offers of better pay and smaller class sizes to work with. They were often entering poorly maintained buildings without enough access to soap or hand sanitizer to make teaching or learning safe. It was, in many cases, the right call to maintain virtual learning for the safety of teachers and students.

It is our larger social response that has been disjointed and unimaginative. When school and daycare are truly unsafe, then we should fight for workers to have fully paid childcare leave. If schools returned in hybrid format, we could supplement that with reduced work weeks — at the same, federally subsidized pay — for workers.

Reduced work weeks are part of the socialist dream of less alienated labor and human-centric living, not production- and efficiency-centric culture.

The pandemic offers us the opportunity to think about the value of human lives, within and outside of family settings, rather than the economic requirements of production. And that value of life isn’t simply about staying alive, but about thriving, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I think that the U.S. left, as a whole, has erred on the side of physical safety in considering the needs of elementary age children and advocated the homeschool option too unthinkingly. Collectively, we need to understand that this situation is not just “hard” for working mothers but that it fundamentally endangers women’s ability to chase already elusive workplace equality.

This is our chance to demand, vociferously and urgently, the funds and resources to implement small class sizes for in-person, distanced learning. When right-wing pundits shout about the economy, we should be shouting just as hard about the centrality of education and caregiving to our social well-being.

Schools are easy to close because there are no small business owners decrying their loss of income. But it should be the responsibility of the left to think not only about physical safety but about overall social good in this pandemic — and, in doing so, to put political energy toward safe, well-funded school openings, with across the board cuts to class sizes that could outlast pandemic.

This is the moment when the world changes. We should be there to grab it and mold it into the shape that will benefit teachers, parents, and children in the future.

The was originally published in Against the Current No. 210, March/April 2021