Working mothers have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. Recent studies show that mothers are more likely to be managing their children’s remote schooling, are interrupted more when working from home, and have reduced their paid work hours or quit jobs to cope with their additional responsibilities (Carlson, Petts, and Pepin 2020; Collins, Landivar, Ruppanner, and Scarborough 2020). An analysis by the National Women’s Law Center shows that over 800,000 women left the work force between August and September 2020, compared to 216,000 men.
As qualitative sociologists, we wanted to investigate the gender, family, and work dynamics that were shaping this situation. In June and July 2020, with a Quick Response Grant from the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, we conducted in-depth virtual interviews with 33 parents (23 women, 10 men) in the Boulder/Denver area. The interviewees were mostly highly educated, married, heterosexual professionals with children under 18. We coupled the interviews with a national online survey that received 300 responses.
The working mothers we interviewed felt overwhelmed by remote schooling and lack of childcare, and voiced frustration, anger, stress, and sadness. Many were concerned about their careers and some discussed tensions in their marriages. Yet nearly a third of the working mothers reported that their families were managing the additional labor more equitably. The interviews revealed that that the differences between working mothers who reported being substantially more burdened and those whose households seemed to be managing more equitably hinged on parents’ job flexibility, particularly for men in heterosexual households.
Most working mothers in our sample said their husbands were very involved in childcare and housework, yet when schools closed, these mothers found themselves handling more of these tasks. This seemed to happen for two reasons. First, in this emergency, couples often prioritized the higher paying job, and this is typically the man’s job. Husbands’ jobs were also usually perceived as more demanding in the sense of needing to work for longer periods of time without interruption. Second, some working mothers prior to the pandemic were working less than their husbands, often 25-30 hours per week. This was often because mothers wanted to spend more time with their children as well as because of the high cost of childcare. We found few working fathers who had made such a choice. In fact, several of the eight heterosexual men we interviewed called their jobs “more than full time.” They described a pre-pandemic division of labor in which their wives handled most child-related tasks, and thus, not much changed during the pandemic except for the addition of remote schooling.
For a minority of working mothers, the household division of labor seemed more equitable. They reported greater satisfaction with how childcare and school related tasks were being shared (or in a few cases, done primarily by husbands or partners). These households tended to share one or more of several characteristics: the working mothers were more likely to be breadwinners or have jobs that they and their partners considered more demanding; husbands were unemployed; children were older and more self-sufficient; husbands’ workplaces were sympathetic to childcare needs; and in some cases, there was an existing commitment to gender equity in the household. Nevertheless, many of the working mothers who felt that their division of labor was more equitable said that they still did more of the emotional labor and school related tasks, both before and during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, working mothers in the US were already disadvantaged by lack of family friendly workplace policies, the gender wage gap, and expensive childcare. The pandemic took away school and childcare, exposing the arrangements within households that childcare had previously alleviated.
In most of our interviewees’ households, the amount of unpaid labor has increased, but the gendered division of labor has not shifted greatly. The pandemic has amplified the inequities that already existed, including mothers doing more childcare. The scholarship on disasters and epidemics shows that such events tend to magnify pre-existing inequalities, and this seems to be the case with the current pandemic as well.
Research shows (Gerson 2011) that without structural changes, individual commitments to equity cannot necessarily be carried out. Many working mothers in our study were aware of the dynamics in their households but felt unable to resolve inequalities related to husbands earning higher wages and having less flexible jobs. As one interviewee said: “It’s not that he is not used to doing that type of work or he thinks that he is above that…I truly think that he thinks that he is participating and making that effort…I don’t believe that he is thinking that [its] my role… but that’s how it plays out.”
Rachel Rinaldo is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research interests include gender, culture, religion, development and globalization, and qualitative methods, with a focus on Southeast Asia.
Ian M. Whalen is a 4th year Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research interests include Gender, Men and Masculinities, and Virtual Methodologies.