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Who's watching the kids? As vaccine and school progress stalls, working moms are on the brink

“The experience of work from home is very different for people with young children than for people without,” said one economist.
Image: Waitress disinfects a table in a restaurant in Oklahoma
Women’s labor force participation rate plunged from 57.8 percent in February 2020 to 55.7 percent last month.Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images file

As progress toward mass vaccinations and reopening schools remains elusive, the toll on families — and on working mothers in particular — is mounting.

Roughly 2.5 million women have left the workforce over the course of the pandemic, compared to 1.8 million men. Vice President Kamala Harris called women being forced to drop out of the labor force a “national emergency” in a virtual meeting with advocacy groups on Thursday, saying, “Our economy cannot fully recover unless women can participate fully.” Decades’ worth of women’s advancement in the workplace is under threat, she warned.

In a town hall on CNN this week, President Joe Biden said teachers should be prioritized for Covid-19 vaccinations as part of the process to get schools fully reopened. But with shortages plaguing rollouts nationwide and a patchwork of state disbursement plans, this has been a slow process, and the reopening data reflects this: According to an analysis of school districts around the country by tech firm Burbio, just over 2 in 5 children currently attend schools that offer “traditional” everyday learning. Nearly one-third are attending schools that only offer virtual instruction.

“Parents are more likely now to say it’s more difficult to handle child care. Over time, this has gotten more challenging.”

Although this problem isn’t new, it is intensifying as a result both of the long-running duration of the pandemic and the open-ended nature of the disruption. Policymakers are growing increasingly concerned about the macroeconomic ramifications: At the European Central Bank Forum on Central Banking, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell characterized women’s prolonged absence from the labor market as a top economic risk the nation faces.

“This is all compounding, and it is snowballing because kids are not in school, allowing parents to be back at work,” said Chris Mullen, executive director of The Workforce Institute at UKG.

The women holding it together say it’s an uphill battle. “As a mom, you’re used to juggling things... my brain — it’s a circus up there," said Twyla Cheatwood, a mother of two in Beaufort, North Carolina. “I’m constantly doing something and thinking, what’s the next step?”

Cheatwood has been juggling more than usual since the pandemic shut down schools and workplaces nearly a year ago. In addition to her full-time job as a biologist, her 8 year old is in fully remote school. Since her husband suffers from an autoimmune disease, she is reluctant to risk potential exposure by putting her 3 year old back in day care. “I'm not willing to put my desire for peace and quiet and an office ahead of my family’s safety,” she said.

“It’s been difficult. The hardest part of it is trying to find that balance between knowing you want to do a good job, and having to balance that with the absolute need to take care of your family,” she said. “You’ve got guilt on both sides of this.”

It’s not her imagination: Things really are getting tougher. More working parents say it’s becoming more difficult to manage both their careers and child care, according to an October survey by the Pew Research Center. Pew found that 52 percent of respondents — and 57 percent of mothers — said handling child care is difficult, including 18 percent of mothers who characterized it as “very difficult,” an increase of 5 percentage points from the early days of the pandemic.

“Over the course of the pandemic, parents are more likely now to say it’s more difficult to handle child care,” said Ruth Igielnik, a senior researcher at Pew. “Over time, this has gotten more challenging.”

Human resource experts and researchers have been studying how working from home over the course of the pandemic has impacted employees’ productivity. They have come to sometimes diverging conclusions, as do workers in response to surveys: Some report increased efficiency, while others put in long hours, often late into the night, to stay abreast of their workloads.

The bifurcation clearly seems to be driven by employees’ child care and home-schooling obligations, or lack thereof. “The experience of work from home is very different for people with young children than for people without,” said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor.

“One thing that might get overlooked is they have kids in school who are probably doing remote learning, so they may be taking on that educator role in addition to their work and their regular home life,” said Melissa White, HR knowledge adviser at the Society for Human Resource Management. “That can impact their performance or their willingness to continue working.”

Conversations with parents bear this out. “It’s been challenging, especially with having to do virtual school with my 6 year old. She’s not that skilled in using the computer yet, so I have to sit with her through a lot of her virtual activities,” said Alicia Archdeacon, an accountant and single mother of two in Rock Tavern, New York. “I set up a lot of reminders in Outlook so I don't miss anything.”

Archdeacon said her managers have been supportive of her need for flexible hours, but the trade-off means working until midnight on a regular basis. While burning the candle at both ends, she worries about staying healthy. “Being a single mom and having to do everything by myself, if I got sick, it would just be very hard.”

More moms are finding themselves stretched too thin to continue: Women’s labor force participation rate plunged from 57.8 percent in February 2020 to 55.7 percent last month.

“I think it’s alarming. I believe that we should be paying attention to that number,” Mullen said. “I think mental-health burnout is starting to hit,” he said. “We think we can do all this balancing, and it’s not easy.”

Meanwhile, parents are left to cope as best as they can. “Seeing how this isn’t coming to an end and I felt like I needed a change in scenery, I did the one thing I could. I rearranged my room,” Cheatwood said.

She carved out a corner of her bedroom to set up a home office, which gives her at least a glimpse of the outside world, she said. “I knew things would be busy, so I put my back to the door and gave myself a window.”