I’m writing this during my new work hours, which are between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, or 3:30 a.m. and 12 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays.
Wednesdays ― well, who the hell knows what happens on Wednesdays?
During the hours formerly known as my workday, I have a new job: home school teacher. This requires at least an hour a day of figuring out which of five places I’m supposed to look for the activities my oldest son is supposed to complete. Plus troubleshooting technology and determining the concepts he’s actually supposed to be learning, and then uploading proof to show his second grade teacher he actually did it.
At least once a week, I spend another hour trying to figure out whether there’s some test at the end of the year he’ll have to pass to get promoted to third grade, and then give up. I hunt down internal documents at oil companies for a living, and I cannot for the life of me figure out where my kid’s elementary school keeps basic information about its “innovative distance learning program.”
This is all, of course, old news by now. If you know a working parent, and you probably do, you’ve heard them stress about fitting everything in and keeping it all together. At the risk of inviting a legion of Twitter gents to swarm my mentions with “dads too!” comments, it’s entirely unsurprising that the pandemic is hitting working moms harder than working dads. Sorry, guys, but it’s gonna take more than a pandemic to kill the gender gap.
For several years now, studies of heterosexual couples in academia have shown that when both parents get parental leave upon the birth of a child, the father’s productivity soars while the mother’s tanks.
A similar imbalance is emerging amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, tweeted recently that she’d received barely any submissions from women since March. David Samuels, co-editor at Comparative Political Studies, said he’d seen an uptick in submissions … all from men.
It’s not just academics, of course. Married American mothers were spending almost twice as much time on child care and household chores as married American fathers before the pandemic ― even if they were the primary breadwinners.
Now that gap appears to be widening. In a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, more women than men reported being concerned about coronavirus exposure because they couldn’t afford to stay home and miss work. A larger number of women also reported being part-time workers, a chronic issue for working mothers as it typically means lower pay and less stability that is only made worse in times of economic downturn.
Another study, out of Northwestern University, noted that while in previous recessions men have experienced higher job losses, the pandemic is operating differently. Slightly more women than men work in the sectors hardest hit: retail, restaurant work, hotels and hospitality.
The study reports that women are slightly less likely to work in telecommuting-friendly jobs, too, which puts them at a higher risk for layoffs. And because working fathers still outearn their spouses in 69% of heterosexual married couples, in a time of economic uncertainty the natural tendency is to prioritize the job bringing in the most income ― but even then, gender still often trumps money.
Working dads are also definitely losing jobs or income and struggling to work around kids and parent around work, but all data points to moms struggling more. In part that’s because working moms are often taking on other roles, too: caring for elders, managing the household, and shouldering the bulk of the family’s emotional labor.
Then add to it pandemic-specific duties: procurer of food and cleaning supplies, toilet-paper hunter, barber, translator of CDC directives, mask-maker, Zoom-meeting coordinator, appointment rescheduler, physical education instructor, lunch lady, psychologist, customer service agent and hotel concierge to guests who are never happy but can never check out.
For those with the privilege to have hired it out in the past, any support in the form of babysitters, housecleaners and lawn maintenance is now gone, too. For women who don’t have the “luxury” of working from home right now ― well, you’re just screwed.
Women run 80% of single-parent households, which means taking on all of the above and more solo.
For Mother’s Day last year, I created this calculator to tally up the financial worth of women’s unpaid labor. Now I’ve updated it to reflect the additional work mothers have absorbed during the pandemic. Share your number on social media using #MoneyNotFlowers or tell us what the calculator is missing via email@example.com.
(The calculator is embedded below, but if you can’t see it, you can go to the site here.)
It’s not all bad news, though: In some families, parents who travel a lot or work long hours are getting their first look at what 24/7 caregiving looks like and all of the tasks required to keep a household running. Working people everywhere are getting used to their colleagues’ kids interrupting meetings or calls, irrespective of gender. That in and of itself is huge, given the tendency in the American workplace to pretend people’s kids don’t exist during work hours.
And that Northwestern study pointed to a few potential silver linings here on the gender equality front. Women hold 78% of jobs in hospitals, 70% in pharmacies and 51% in grocery stores, for example, forcing many male partners into becoming the primary caregiver during the pandemic. The researchers even posit it could be a reverse Rosie the Riveter moment — Danny the Daddy? —wherein some men opt to stay in the caregiver role post-pandemic, just as some women stayed in the workforce after World War II.
One way to balance out caregiving is, of course, to place value on it in the first place. In a society that only really values labor that is paid for, Mother’s Day cards and political speeches aside, it’s been difficult to convince fathers to volunteer for unpaid and invisible work, even if it’s necessary and valuable.
With tens of millions of Americans out of work, though, it might be time to put an actual value on parenting and revive another idea from history: parent pensions.
In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt held the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, at which reformers agreed that some sort of funding was needed to enable working mothers to keep their children with them, rather than giving them up to various institutions. At the time, orphanages included more children with living parents who just couldn’t afford to keep them than actual orphans.
Shortly after the national conference, several states began passing legislation that appropriated funds for “mothers’ pensions.” The idea was to provide a modest income to poor mothers without a breadwinning husband in order to enable them to stay at home with their children.
These programs were actually launched and fully operational in some states — first in Illinois and then in 41 other states — for a decade (from 1910 to 1920). Of course, this being America, the programs were never really funded appropriately and were often discriminatory — many women of color were not eligible, and some states argued that because Black women could support themselves, they didn’t need a pension.
Eventually the pension programs morphed into a consolidated federal Aid to Dependent Children program as part of the Social Security Act of 1935. Renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, it was replaced by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which may as well have been called the “Welfare Queens Reform Act.”
Whereas mothers’ pensions started as a way to enable mothers to spend time caregiving without falling into desperate poverty, the welfare system that grew out of it has forgotten all about the idea that caregiving has value, that it is productive labor that benefits society.
If we were to take the idea back to its roots, as a less-gendered parents’ pension, perhaps as part of a stimulus response to the pandemic, it could serve much of the same function as a universal basic income policy, providing a social safety net as the economy transitions away from some industries and toward new ones, and we emerge from an unprecedented public health catastrophe.
Pensions or no, putting an actual dollar value to all the work women have typically absorbed helps to highlight just how valuable it is.
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