The pandemic-related challenges of caring for and schooling children at home while trying to stay focused on work have stretched months longer than originally expected. Many couples are feeling the strain, especially as the “we’re all in this together” mentality in the workplace fades, if it was ever real at all.
“The same people [at my job] who say, ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint, so be sure to practice self-care’ will also text us after-hours or on weekends about stuff that can wait,” says Theresa, a married mother of a 6-year-old who works for the government in the San Francisco Bay Area and asked to remain anonymous. “There’s a ton of lip service paid to taking care of ourselves and our families during the pandemic, but that’s all it is. The lack of boundaries around personal time seem to have gotten worse since we all work from home now.”
While parents of all genders might be struggling to balance the demands of work and home, recent research shows how deeply the pandemic has affected working women, and women of color and disabled women even more so. Of the more than one million adults who left the workforce in September, 80 percent were women, according to analysis of the latest US Bureau of Labor Statistics by the National Women’s Law Center. A study published by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company last month found that as many as two million women — or one in four — said they’re considering taking a leave of absence or quitting their jobs altogether due to COVID-related challenges.
Although women sacrificing careers to prioritize family isn’t a new phenomenon, this year’s study shows a stark contrast to results from the previous five years, which suggested women were making small but steady gains in representation in the workforce.
Women in the 2020 survey cited a lack of flexibility in the workplace, anxiety over layoffs, and burnout as the biggest issues prompting thoughts of dropping out of the workforce. Since the pandemic hit last year, they also said they feel pressure to always be “on,” or be available to work at all hours, on top of increased childcare and household duties. That increase appears to be considerable: The study also found mothers were three times as likely to be responsible for taking care of the home and kids than fathers. Women were 1.5 times as likely as fathers to say they spend an extra three or four hours a day taking care of the home and children, which adds up to 20 hours a week, the equivalent of a part-time job.
The Specific Trouble for Moms and Black Women
The recent research shines a light on the subtle biases mothers already faced in the workplace, as well as the tendency for childcare and housekeeping duties to more heavily fall on women. Past studies have noted managers are more likely to assume women will be less committed to their work than fathers and women who don’t have children. As a result, mothers are twice as likely as fathers to worry that their job performance will be judged negatively because of their childcare responsibilities, the LeanIn/McKinsey researchers found. They’re 1.5 times as likely to report feeling uncomfortable discussing work-life challenges and almost three times as likely as fathers to say they were uncomfortable even talking about being parents.
“We know that even on a good day, women tend to be held to different performance standards than men,” says Rachel Thomas, Lean In CEO and co-founder. “So I think during COVID-19, as we’re rewriting the playbook and dealing with challenges we never thought of before, the stakes can be pretty high at work. And as women, you have to prove yourself again and again.”
Workplace difficulties are magnified for Black women, particularly during a pandemic in which Black Americans are more likely than whites to have loved ones who are sick or have died from COVID-19.
“Just managing the stress of COVID, and during 2020, when we’re talking about race in ways that are exhausting for women of color to hear and talk about day in and day out, can be overwhelming,” says clinical psychologist and mother of two Katrina Roundfield, Ph.D.
“Bringing their whole selves to work after seeing on the news that another Black person has been murdered [by police] is a lot to deal with,” Roundfield says. “It’s a lot to manage a household in a pandemic, show up at work and perform while also holding the stress of being Black in America. That’s a lot of cumulative stress and disadvantage all at once that makes it more difficult for Black women, as well as other women of color, to sustain the home.”
Interwoven with these explicit and subtle biases are childcare needs, a major factor cited by the one in three mothers considering “downshifting” work by cutting back on hours, finding a less demanding job or leaving altogether, the study found. More than three-quarters of women surveyed said childcare was one of their top three challenges during COVID-19, while only a little over half of fathers said the same.
Although some moms might be happy to leave a high-pressure job to stay home with the kids, for others it is a crushing blow, emotionally as well as professionally. The transition can be stressful and damaging to relationships, even if couples easily can make ends meet with the loss of the second income.
Should She Stay Home, or Should You?
The first thing you should do if you and your partner are considering becoming a single-income family is, of course, recognize the gravity of the decision and discuss it at length, rather than assume Mom will stay home.
Be open-minded when deciding who should give up working and discuss how the decision will affect your family in the long term. There are many things to consider. Maybe your wife makes a lot more money than you do but she’s still breastfeeding or the kids are at the toddler stage where they want to be near Mom constantly. Maybe she makes less money right now but has more potential for future growth in her job than you do, so you should be the one to quit. Women have a harder time re-entering the workforce after an absence than men do, so if you think you’ll need to go back to being a two-income family when the kids get a little older, it’s good to keep that in mind.
If it does make more sense for Mom to give up her job, remember that taking care of a home and children is a 24/7 job, says psychotherapist and father of two Matt Traube, MFT.
“For men to deeply sympathize with the position their partners are in is crucial,” Traube says. “They’re not just giving up time now. They could literally be giving up a future career, so you have to be incredibly supportive about that. Imagine if all the men were told, ‘Hey, you have to stay at home now and it will negatively impact your career forever.’ I think they’d be up in arms.”
Traube emphasizes the importance of not saying any phrases the subtext of which is “This is just what you’re supposed to do now.” Instead, men must do the work to hear their partner and understand that it doesn’t feel fair, he says. Even if Dad is making more money and it logically makes sense for Mom to stay at home, it doesn’t mean everyone will be happy with the decision.
How Fathers Can Truly Show Their Support
“There are a lot of hidden costs of motherhood that are difficult for men, and for a lot of people in general to notice,” says Roundfield. “Those costs are physical, emotional, and cognitive labor.”
Men can be less attuned to the subtle work women typically do to keep the household going. Making sure the milk is replaced. Organizing the kids’ clothes because they’re getting too small or the season is changing. And on and on.
Men often don’t consider these little things as part of the total of tasks that need to be done. So when you’re discussing jobs, part of the discussion should be a thorough accounting of what actually needs to happen to keep the family running, because men and women might have very different perceptions.
The LeanIn.org and McKinsey study results illustrate that gap in perception about how household duties are split between parents: Although more than 70 percent of fathers think they’re splitting household duties equally, only 44 percent of mothers agreed the split was fair. But it’s worth noting that it’s difficult to discern what’s really happening just looking at self-reported data, notes Aaron Gouveia, a married father of three and the author of Raising Boys to Be Good Men: A Parent’s Guide to Bringing Up Happy Sons in a World Filled with Toxic Masculinity.
When research like this comes out, Gouveia says that members of the dads’ groups he’s in sometimes ask, “Hey, why are we taking the women’s number as fact here?”
“It’s a little unfair, but it comes back to that second shift thing, where women take on the brunt of the emotional labor,” he says. “Even if women are not doing childcare that second, they’re thinking about a doctor’s appointment next week, or when one of the kids’ Halloween costumes needs to be finished. When asked how much time they spend on household duties or childcare, they’re counting that.”
“It’s a generalization,” Gouveia adds, “but dads tend to be more in the moment, about play and hands on.”
If men don’t have a realistic picture of what’s required of stay-at-home parents and think staying home with kids is a cakewalk, make them do it for a few days by themselves, Traube suggests.
Years ago, Gouveia’s wife left a high-powered job in banking due to health issues, so Gouveia became the breadwinner for the family. Before COVID hit, he was leaving the house before 6 a.m. and not getting home from his job in public relations until 7:30 p.m., when the kids were in bed. Now that he’s working from home, he says he’s had an epiphany about all his wife managed to do without his help.
“Now that I’m home all day, I see firsthand everything she’s doing; it’s such hard work,” he says. “I let her know I see all that, and now that I’m not just home to eat and sleep, I can help. I don’t want to say COVID is a good thing, but it has given me perspective, and I hope she feels more appreciated and more supported now.”
Remember: We’re All in This Together
It’s important not to look at this trend in women dropping out of the workforce as merely something bad that’s happening to them, Thomas notes. Moving backwards in terms of equity and inclusiveness is unhelpful for all parents and all workers.
“I think this situation is bad for women but bad for men, too,” Thomas says. “If you want to be a stay-at-home father, our culture should celebrate that as a natural thing to do. But I don’t think that’s the case for many work-at-home or stay-at-home fathers. I think if we can break apart some of those stereotypes, it would allow everybody of all genders to make whatever decisions feel most natural and make the most sense for them.”
Gouveia agrees: “Men don’t face much discrimination, but there is some,” he says. “Dads aren’t supposed to take any time off for childcare; when you can’t take that call because you leave early for your kid’s soccer practice, it’s not received well.”
After taking paid paternity leave after his third child was born, Gouveia says coworkers joked, “How was vacation? It’s awesome you got to sit around and collect a paycheck for six weeks.”
“I was like, ‘You clearly don’t have children.’ Learning to bond with them and having a new baby is more work than work,” he says.
Families would benefit if parents could do what’s best without worrying about rigid gender norms, Roundfield says. “No matter who steps up in a family, it should absolutely be seen as a respectable thing to do. It should be considered on a case by case basis rather than defaulting to stereotypes.”
A potential positive of the pandemic, as Gouveia touched on, is that it’s forcing a conversation about what needs to change in how we think about work and caregiving in the future.
“I’m always looking for silver linings, and it’s so hard to find in the pandemic,” Thomas says. “But as families cope with work, kids online learning at home, and no childcare support, I’m hoping that it drives some of the difficult conversations about what’s equitable and not equitable in the home.”