The pressures of parenting in a pandemic are pushing hundreds of thousands of women around the country out of work or into burnout.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images

Women across the country are burning out. And no one is coming to the rescue.

This week, millions of women struggled to manage their paying jobs while also doing the unpaid work of homeschooling, and about half of the nation’s children did not go to school in person. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, fresh from a hospital stay for COVID-19 and back in his government-funded, well-staffed home, killed any plans for more pandemic relief ahead of the election.

“I cried on the phone with my dad recently just talking about how impossible this is,” Marissa Maciel, a mother of two living in Northern California, told HuffPost in a lengthy email this week. “I have a partner at least, and a remote (mostly) job, and I am so stressed.”

Like millions of other women across the country, Maciel said she is exhausted — struggling to work from home, while helping her children, one in elementary school and one in middle school, with remote learning. “We’ve basically become assistant teachers,” said Maciel, who is an administrator in higher education. “If I’m not helping with school or working on work, I’m doing chores.” There is somehow more laundry than ever before, she noted.

From the start, the economic fallout of the pandemic has hit women harder than men. Women lost more jobs than men because industries dominated by women were the ones most impacted by the downturn — think hotels, restaurants, the travel sector, hair salons. One in five child care workers, almost all women, lost their jobs. Black and Latina women have suffered from the economic downturn the most.

Then came the school closures. And many caretakers, primarily women, could not leave home to work, or even look for new jobs, because they had kids at home from school.

“I expected it to be really bad,” Michael Madowitz, an economist at the progressive Center for American Progress who has been tracking women’s struggles in the workforce since the start of the pandemic. “It’s worse than I was ready for.”

Unlike in every previous recession, the unemployment rate for women is higher than it is for men. In September, 865,000 women left the labor force, compared to 216,000 men, according to the Labor Department. That’s the highest number in history, with the exception of March, when lockdowns forced millions of men and women out of work. The percentage of women in the workforce, 55.6%, is as low now as it was in 1986.

“It was beyond exhausting. I was barely functioning on four to five hours of sleep. It got very stressful.”

- Daniella Knight, explaining why she quit her job

“Life has gotten so much harder at levels we couldn’t imagine,” said Daniella Knight, a Latina mother of three young children in Alexandria, Virginia, who shared her story Tuesday afternoon on a call with reporters hosted by the Center for American Progress.

Even before COVID-19, Knight was familiar with the competing pressures of work and family. She was forced to quit a job, years ago, when she was pregnant with her first child because her boss refused to be flexible about her doctor’s appointments. After her second and third children were born, she was able to take only two weeks of paid leave.

Still, she and her husband got by, working different shifts during the day to avoid spending money on child care they couldn’t afford. She had two part-time jobs — by day at a property management company, at night as a pediatric sleep specialist.

With the pandemic, they were both working from home, struggling to help their children with remote school. Knight had to come into the office at the property firm at night to make it all work.

“It was beyond exhausting. I was barely functioning on four to five hours of sleep,” said Knight, who is a member of the activist group Moms Rising. “It got very stressful.”

When her kids’ school district announced that classes would be virtual again this September, she quit working. “It was not sustainable.”

Daniella Knight and her family.
Daniella Knight and her family.
Courtesy Daniella Knight

Madowitz believes this “child care shock” is what is driving women out of work now. Because women are the majority of the ones doing the care work at home, they’re the ones hurting from the virtual schooling, the erratic hybrid schedules, the child care center closures, etc.

“This should be totally surprising to five people,” Madowitz said, ruefully.

Meanwhile, women, still clinging to their paying jobs while taking on the overwhelming task of homeschooling their children, are on the edge of burnout. One in four professional women are considering leaving their jobs or downshifting their careers, according to a report released last week by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org, the women’s advocacy group.

And women are facing the same old gender bias that’s hurt mothers in the workforce for decades. Twice as many mothers say they’re afraid they’ll be penalized at work for having to handle child care issues at home, according to the survey, which polled 40,000 employees from 47 companies, and also conducted deeper conversations with 49 women.

“You hear the same things over and over,” said Rachel Thomas, co-founder and president at Lean In. They report feeling exhausted, like they’re failing at everything, she said.

“Women are being pushed to the brink,” Thomas said. And it’s not just because of increased responsibilities at home, but because of a longstanding bias: Women are typically judged more harshly at work, perceived as less committed and held to higher standards, she said.

“It’s not business as usual and so a lot of the biases or pressures that women experience in the workplace are heightened right now and women are feeling it,” Thomas said.

By the twisted logic of the COVID-19 economy, Stephanie, a 39-year-old mother of two living in Pittsburgh, is “lucky.” First, she still has a job, working as a senior manager at a behavioral health facility. And, she’s able to go to the office and leave her 11-year-old daughter at home to do remote learning, while her 19-year-old son is home.

Stephanie, who asked that we not publish her last name to avoid retaliation at work, would prefer working from home to keep an eye on her daughter, but she believes she’ll be judged harshly by her superiors.

The last time she asked to work remotely, her boss warned her that she’d better actually do work. “It was off-putting,” she said. “I’ve never again asked to work from home.”

Worse, the policy at her office is that if you work from home, there must be someone else there dealing with child care. At the start of the pandemic, her employer had everyone sign a contract committing to this rule. It was crafted by the men in charge. “I just feel these decisions have been made without really taking into account how this is affecting mothers or men with children,” she said.

Maciel, the mother in North California, said there are still a lot of people at work who expect her to do her job exactly as she had before. So she crafted an auto-reply for her email to reset expectations.

“Due to the COVID-19 response in America I am working 100% remotely while also providing 100% support to my family, including remote education. I will respond to emails as soon as possible,” it reads.

It wasn’t an easy move.

“To come out and say, ‘This is horrible: I need patience with deadlines, and the workload has to ease up,’ feels like a betrayal to myself. But it’s a pandemic! Nobody had a plan for this,” she said.

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