AStart Due to the 2020 lockdown, our 3-year-old needed almost constant supervision. My third grader, in public school, generally had about an hour’s worth of unchallenging remote lessons a day. In exchange for some rent relief, our downstairs tenant, a single freelancer, offered to share a bubble and provide 20 hours of child care per week.
My husband has a demanding job and earns more than I do. He works hard to be inclusive. We tried to split the time for daily child care as evenly as possible. Our relationship was not perfect. There were subtle inequalities that are common to many straight couples.
In the basement, he had even set up his home office years prior to the pandemic. He was practically shielded from the sounds and whimpering of his unhappy children. I had a small office for my public-radio work upstairs, next to the kids’ bedroom. My preschooler would knock on the door, or storm in if I forgot to lock the door, regardless of who was supposed to be there. Sometimes he’d ask for a hug and other times he’d just want to cry. She must have heard me at least once, while I was on live air.
Before COVID-19, I managed the children’s schedules and planned their activities. Because I work in schools reporting, I have some understanding of why I was chosen to research after-school programs and summer camps. I also had to prepare spreadsheets for parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings.
During the pandemic, my husband took on additional household chores, such as perfecting his sourdough and kombucha skills. I was responsible for the grocery shopping, meal planning, and most cooking. One time, I panicked because we ran out of dark-green veggies. But running to the grocery shop for one item seemed like an unacceptable risk.
My biggest problem was that I was a mom and felt like I was carrying a heavy mental load. The fear, uncertainty, and doubt that came with COVID-19 required constant recalculations of risk and fresh backup plans—additional emotional labor. Do I send the children to school or daycare? Order takeout or do I cook? My groceries should be wiped down. Is it acceptable to visit Grandma wearing masks? Is it okay for my group to text me with masks on? Are my friends mad at me for not responding quickly enough? Is that tickle in my throat COVID, or is it just a mood? Whom should i trust: the CDC, President Obama or my Facebook friends?
This suggests that the public-health aspect of this program was important. Moms are particularly affected by crisis. Of the many papers I’ve read in my research, one that stuck was “Dad, Wash Your Hands.” Through interviews conducted with college students and members of their households, Janani Umamaheswar and Catherine Tan found that “gender differences in attitudes toward risk are influenced by the unique and strenuous care-work responsibilities generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which are borne primarily by women—and from which men are exempt.”
Other studies of pandemic responses showed gender differences. While men were more likely to suffer severe COVID outcomes, they were also less likely to wear masks. The vaccines were not available immediately after they became available.
My experience shows that women are more alert to risk than men and are more concerned about their health. Our anxiety levels are high. We are more likely than men, to seek medical assistance. We are highly represented in front-line healthcare work as well as other caring professions.
Studies have indicated that many women are socialized to have a clearer picture of friendship and kinship networks—which matters during a pandemic when the disease is a social predator, spreading through close contact with other people.
In short, during the early months of the pandemic, women were often more worried about the coronavirus—and did more of the work to keep themselves and others safe. In a vicious circle, this made them more concerned and tired. The above mentioned factors were more common in men than in women.
It is important to note that the majority of social-science research I refer to here is confined to heterosexual cisgender norms. Research suggests that single parents, as well as heterosexual couples, are more likely to be affected by the pandemic’s emotional and practical effects.
Jessica CalarcoIndiana University sociologist Judith Polak conducts qualitative research, which involves asking mothers about their well being. She began to ask mothers about their experiences during the pandemic. She was most concerned about mothers who were in the workforce but took on more of the household burden.
Aside from the stresses of career and employment for working moms, she told me, “they’re also getting slammed in terms of their mental health, in terms of their relationships, in terms of their ability to remain patient with their partners and their kids.”
Calarco’s paper found that nearly 40 percent of mothers who have young children felt more frustrated by their partners during pandemic. This was especially true when the fathers didn’t help as much with caregiving or were dismissive of their partner’s concerns about the coronavirus.
“Mothers blame themselves for these conflicts,” the paper found, “and feel responsible for reducing them, including by leaving the workforce, beginning use of antidepressants, or ignoring their own concerns about COVID-19.”
Many fathers were helpful, however. Study after study found that people who could work from home did more domestic work, particularly in the beginning. One study found that children were cared for by more men during the pandemic than before, but they didn’t do more housework. A New York Times A poll found that more women attended remote schools.
“The division of work has become more equal. Women are still able to do the same. [still] doing more than men,” Daniel Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Utah, told me. “And I know that that sounds like ‘How is that possible?’ But if you think about it in terms of what men were doing before, even a marginal increase in their labor is going to result in more equality.” The paradox is that the number of hours women are putting in has gone up more in absolute terms, even as men are putting in relatively more hours than before. These inequalities held true for many mothers I met.
Jeannie, a rural Oklahoma woman that I call Jeannie (A pseudonym was used because she, like many others I interviewed, requested anonymity to discuss sensitive family issues) She was raising five children with her ex-husband. They are Cherokee Nation members. Her ex-husband worked six days a weeks at a chicken-feed factory, and he was often working long hours. Although he was still living at the house, he and Jeannie communicated via text. He was safe to leave the children with and helped financially. She was unable to get him to cook dinner, supervise school, shop for groceries, clean the house, or drive the girls to gymnastics. It took her more than an hour to do this.
“He was supposed to step up. I told him, ‘You’re going to have to help me. I canNot do it all.’ And he said okay,” she told me. “And he did not. I don’t think he knows how.”
Her ex also admitted to this. “She definitely was overwhelmed,” he told me. “I didn’t help her as much as I should. We got into many arguments about this. She was calling my job an escape, so I didn’t have to help.”
Across the country, in Deanwood—a predominantly Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C.—Patricia Stamper’s husband, Pete, was hands on with his kids when he was around. He worked longer hours than Patricia, just like George. She was responsible for most of the cleaning and cooking.
Dara Kass was an emergency-room doctor, while Michael worked at home in New York. The au pair was their full-time, 24/7 help and occasionally her parents were also available. She told me that she took on more of the mental load, including the decision making about activities, the family’s health, and remote learning. Dara said that Michael did step up, and the example she had was telling: She gave him a lot of credit for buying the family’s Hanukkah gifts for the first time in their 15-year marriage.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “And it’s not that he wouldn’t have before. It’s like, when is he ever home to get the packages, and when is he ever home to wrap the presents, and when is he ever home to make the list and double-check it?”
SResearch Patricia’s example shows that women who earn more than their husbands actually make more, which is what it seems to be. More The domestic work. The average woman still works more at home, even if her husband is not working and their wives are employed.
Women who are powerful and accomplished at work sometimes feel the need to take on the lioness’s share of care and oversight of their children at home. Psychologists sometimes call this “maternal gatekeeping” or “perfectionism,” but Calarco’s explanation rings more true to me. “There are these deep patriarchal norms that exist in society,” she told me. “And they tell women, oftentimes for the economic benefit and power of men, that they should be the ones who are devoting their whole selves to their children and to family.”
Not only are you bringing home the bacon and frying it up, you’re then washing the pan, disinfecting the kitchen, putting the kids to bed, and doing the laundry. My friend Emily calls it “momchismo.”
2020 women were struggling to cope with a mountain of extra work and responsibility. There was conflict over who would be doing the work, loss or social support, general uncertainty, grief, helplessness, and conflict. They also reported significant increases in anxiety, loneliness and depression. One survey found that nearly half of mothers with children who are home for remote education reported their mental health was worsening, while only 30% of fathers said the same. (It is possible that these numbers may reflect a bias in reporting, since many men are socialized not to talk about their mental well-being.
Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist and an author specializing in women’s mental health, told me that the pandemic brought a huge increase in clinical depression and anxiety among her patients. Symptoms were more severe—anxious people were having panic attacks, and depressed people had thoughts of suicide. Lakshmin explained that this was due to one main factor: the mental load.
During the pandemic, some women drank more. Younger women in their 30s experienced a sharp increase in the incidence of alcoholic liver disease. Some reported increased drug use, while others reported weight gain. According to an Israeli survey, mothers’ reports of clinical insomnia, which correlated with reported anxiety about the pandemic, doubled. All of these effects affected children: A study revealed that rising caregiver depression was the main predictor for parents not caring enough about their children.
It was also due to a lack of child-care options, and too much unstructured work. “[Mothers] really described the loss of their typical support network and a lot of challenges around the breakdown of routines,” said the clinical psychologist Leslie Roos at the University of Manitoba, who has small children of her own. “Relatives, other moms, going to the playground—all of that went away.”
One woman I had the pleasure of meeting was a West Coast nonprofit communications specialist. She was raising a son who had autism and ADHD. She also adopted a foster kid. She had severe mood swings, and she cried often. Kass in New York took Ambien early in her life to help her sleep and turn off her brain. In St. Louis, another mother I met was raising eight children, while she worked at a homeless shelter. She also smoked marijuana and made positive affirmations. Jeannie, from Oklahoma, has struggled with anxiety for many years. She tried different psychiatric drugs during the pandemic and gained weight and had suicidal thoughts.
“It’s easy to say, ‘I need help,’ but I don’t know where to go,” Jeannie told me. “School counselors tell me where to take my children, but for adults, it’s not easily available. And I don’t have time for that. So … I put myself on the back burner.”
Some mothers managed to find the silver lining. One key seemed to be that they weren’t in the workforce. The University of Chicago conducted interviews with nearly 600 caregivers of toddlers who were low-income from May to July 2020. They asked respondents, among other things, how often they felt depressed, how often they found themselves yelling at their child, and how often they were having positive interactions with their children—such as “hugging or cuddling” or “playing a game”—relative to before the pandemic. The team anticipated worsening mental health and dysfunction in family functioning. They found them, generally speaking. The stress level was high and depression was common. Parents also became more impatient with their kids. 9 percent of the sample were different. Parents who lost a job and were able to make up the difference through pandemic aid money had fewer negative effects on their mental health.
“Even during this pandemic, where you have this big kind of shock of an unexpected increase in time [spent caregiving], parents really seem to find the value in this,” Ariel Kalil, one of the paper’s co-authors, told me. “There are rewards.”
TThe overall verdict is clear: Most mothers did more domestic labor during the pandemic than fathers did and more than they themselves had done before—even as many continued to work for wages. They were also more concerned about COVID. It took a heavy toll on them, economically, mentally, and physically—and on their children. Many blamed themselves.
As I sat in my own chaotic house, trading work meetings and trying to decide what to cook for dinner. I was reading story after story about how mothers are disproportionately burdened. I exclaimed. Where. Are. The. Dads?
The rational-actor theory might predict that a family with two earners would, in times of great economic uncertainty, adjust the division of unpaid and paid labor to keep both of them working if it is possible. And most two-parent households in the United States rely on both parents’ incomes to get by. Leaving the workforce or cutting back on hours, even temporarily, has lasting costs—affecting not just immediate household income but future career prospects and retirement savings.
Emotionally, you might expect that husbands would do everything possible to prevent their partner becoming anxious, drunken or depressed. You’d at least expect dads to do what was necessary to keep their offspring from being yelled at by moms at the end of their rope.
Yet, this rarely happens. Families didn’t function as rational economic units. They reverted too often to patriarchal, old-fashioned ways. Dads weren’t pulling their weight often enough; all too frequently, moms picked up the slack.
Employers could have and should done more. Even the federal government could and should do more. The call that never came from is what I keep coming back at. Inside the house. Most heterosexual couples tacitly agreed to sacrifice mothers’ earnings and mental health to the pandemic: a decision as shortsighted as pulling down the timbers of your own house to use as fuel in a snowstorm.
Where do we go from there? Five years ago, the #MeToo campaign asked women to confront the men they love. It was uncomfortable. Real consequences were seen in relationships, and not only in the public sphere.
While we should press for social and government change, you cannot go far without public policy. Mothers and primary caregivers need to confront these inequalities with their partners or men. Men, if this essay identifies you, it is your turn to initiate the conversation.
For one thing, when we’re doing too much at home, we have no time or energy to fight for larger political change. It’s a vital need.
This article is excerpted from Anya Kamenetz’s forthcoming book, The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now.