While working mothers struggle to stay afloat amidst distance learning and daycare closures, their careers are sinking—the long-term effects could be devastating.

By Melissa Mills
August 06, 2020
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Nearly 5 million Americans have been infected by the coronavirus, more than 150,000 lives have been lost, and the hits just keep coming. Since the start of the pandemic, moms have taken on the impossible task of juggling child care, household responsibilities, and work—and they're doing it more than their partners. During the pandemic, a New York Times poll found that 70 percent of women say they're responsible for housework, 66 percent say they're in charge of child care, and, overall, women are doing less paid work than men. Throw the shutdown of daycare centers and remote or hybrid learning into the mix and you've got a full-blown child care crisis. The result? Mothers are having to choose between caring for their children and their careers.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 72.3 percent of women with children under age 18 are working or looking for work, with the majority of moms—regardless of the age of their kids—in full-time positions. But many Americans have been laid off or fired since the start of the pandemic, with millions filing for unemployment each month. With child care costs rising and an uncertain future when it comes to sending kids back to school, figuring out how to make a hybrid schedule—with kids learning from home part of the week—work, or even homeschooling, moms are the ones truly affected.

Yes, men are doing more with the kids and around the house in recent days, but the mental load of parenthood still falls primarily on women. In many households, there's still an unequal distribution of labor. In a pandemic, it's all unsustainable.

When schools closed early in the pandemic, some parents—primarily moms—even reduced hours at work, took leave, or got creative to provide a short-term solution for remote learning and child care in general. Now that summer breaks are ending and plans to safely reopen schools are up in the air, mothers who temporarily took a break from paid labor to care for the kids are having to consider their long-term plans.

"Economists worry that many who leave the labor force—especially mothers, older workers, minorities, and many who were outside the labor force and had only recently gotten jobs—will return to the sidelines for good," Axios reports.

For women of color, low-income, and single moms, the effects are especially great. A recent Washington Post survey of 2,557 working parents during the pandemic found that women of color, women without college degrees, and women in low-income households are losing more hours at work to care for their children. These moms are more likely to have to spend more of their income on child care, opt for more affordable, but lower-quality child care, or leave their jobs completely to care for their kids.

This child care crisis is wreaking havoc on the economy—and the results could last for decades. “The work of recovering from it will not end just because we have a vaccine,” Betsey Stevenson, a labor economist at the University of Michigan and former member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Politico. “We are making choices right now about where we will be as an economy in 20 years, in 30 years, based on what we do with these kids.”

While the child care dilemma is not new, the pandemic is positioning families to have financial difficulties in the future. “When you talk about upward mobility,” Stevenson told Politico, “this puts families on just a completely different trajectory that’s not about losing two or three years of income; it’s about being on a lower earnings trajectory for the rest of your life.”

Women who leave the workforce already have trouble reentering—and for those who do, salaries are 7 percent lower on average. The pandemic is shining a light on the gender employment gap, but the bad news is that women—and especially women of color—will still pay the price for years to come.

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