Experts Predict a Dire Fall for Working Moms

The decisions moms make in the coming months will impact their families and women at large for decades.

working mom stressed
working mom stressed

Working moms brace for a fall full of hard choices about how to spend their limited time.


Madison Brady* had it all planned. A teacher with a Ph.D. in special education, she was going to transition to consulting, writing and project work this fall, right around the time she gave birth to her fourth child. Her other three children would be back at school and daycare, so she’d have time to continue building her new career while home with her newborn.

Now, with all three kids under foot, she squeezes in her consulting work during their quiet time, around 5 to 10 hours per week. She was recently offered her dream gig, working with an early literacy organization. She turned it down.

“Teaching full time and trying to manage them in the spring was impossible, so I felt like it was best to just step back and focus on the problems in front of me,” she explains. “It kind of seems unfair to me that my husband gets to work a 10-hour day with no interruptions, and I’m the one, because I make less money because of the field I’m in, that had to give it up.”

Giving up is the overarching theme when you talk to working moms right now. Giving up on limiting screen time or snacks for their kids. Giving up on virtual learning. Giving up on keeping their homes clean. Giving up on friends. On work deadlines. Their career.

It’s a theme set to accelerate this fall, as school districts announce plans for part-time attendance, or even fully virtual learning. What seemed like a temporary hurdle for working parents in March when schools shut down is a new normal in a country that can’t seem to control the spread of a deadly virus. And while policymakers might not have purposefully set out to sabotage working moms, the impact of their ambivalence looking forward will derail our careers and disadvantage our children in ways that will resonate for decades to come.

And experts warn it will only “get worse,” as we hurtle towards a “disaster” scenario that combines reopened workplaces with closed or partially closed schools, permanently shuttered daycare centers and an increased demand for private sitters that places any hope of quality childcare out of reach for all but the most privileged of families.

School Uncertainty

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Wednesday that the city’s 1.1 million public school students will attend school 1 to 3 days per week, and learn from home virtually on the remaining weekdays. It’s a safety measure that will likely be embraced by many other school districts across the country, leaving working parents scrambling to arrange childcare—or stop working—on the days their children aren’t at school.

Just how effective school closures have been at curbing the spread of the coronavirus is an open question. Studies in Japan and China have found that people under age 18 are between one-third and one-half as likely as adults to contract the virus. So far, early data from the European countries that have reopened schools suggest the risk to the wider community is small, at least when local infection rates are low. Two large childcare providers who have been caring for, collectively, tens of thousands of children since March, the YMCA of the USA and New York City’s Department of Education, told NPR that they have no reports of coronavirus clusters or outbreaks.

But some states, including Texas, North Carolina and Oregon, have seen outbreaks at daycare centers—and it’s unclear what factors might have made them more prone to infections than others. Texas reinstated safety mandates for childcare centers that had been repealed in mid-June, after cases began to skyrocket. Were teachers wearing masks? Were classes smaller, and isolated? Staggered pickup and dropoff times? We don’t know, because no federal entity is tracking that information. We don’t even know, on a national scale, how many cases there are at daycare centers, whether they are isolated or clusters (which indicates spread), and whether they are impacting staff more heavily than kids.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” says Brown University economist Emily Oster, who started maintaining a spreadsheet on COVID-19 cases at daycares, after she went looking for information and couldn’t find it anywhere. “I held off doing this data collection for a long time thinking, surely, someone else will start doing this and do it better. And then they didn’t, and didn’t, and didn’t, and I finally pulled the trigger. But it’s really frustrating that this is how we got to this. It seems like most places are planning to open schools, and yet they really haven’t collected the data that would help them do it safely.”

Not to mention, many working parents will have no choice but to seek out childcare on the days their kids aren’t in school. “I think the downside is actually you might end up with more exposure to more people than if you just have school open,” says Julie Kashen, a senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation.

Vanishing Daycares and Paltry Paid Leave

That’s if parents can find childcare at all. An April report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 50 percent of childcare centers had closed. While some of those have reopened as parents have returned to their job sites (or just needed uninterrupted time to tackle the work part of working from home), experts predict many will stay permanently shuttered. (A new report from NAEYC is expected out next week.)

“Take their already precarious financial positions, and then add reduced enrollments and increased costs necessary to keep children, families and staff safe, and we are seeing a childcare system on the verge of collapse,” says Lauren Hogan, the managing director of policy and professional advancement at NAEYC, who is overseeing work on the survey. “They are doing their best to be there for children and families who need them, but they are barely hanging on, and without substantial stabilization funds in the next package, huge swaths of programs simply won’t make it.”

Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced the Childcare Is Essential Act, which would provide $50 billion to stabilize the childcare industry, but Congress will need to act to make that a reality, Kashen says. “I worry even if Congress acts, it won’t be enough. We need $9.6 billion a month to address the needs of essential workers and keep the sector alive, not to mention a significant investment for the future of childcare.”

Some moms have been able to access paid leave to stay home with their kids after their school or daycare shut down, as provided in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, but a lack of publicity, combined with numerous carve-outs that mostly excluded workers at both large and small companies, meant the benefit had less overall impact than intended. The leave is capped at 12 weeks per year, so parents who utilized it in the spring might not have enough time left to cover additional school closures, says Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at nonpartisan think tank New America, who says the fall is a “clusterbomb waiting to happen.”

“There’s definitely an effort to extend it, but whether any or all of the needed expansions will be included in a package that can garner bipartisan support is a different question,” she says.

Rising Unemployment

Women, and particularly Black and Latina women, have already lost a disproportionate share of jobs since the start of the pandemic, but experts warn of a continuing exodus from the workforce, particularly as employers lose patience with the accommodations they’ve granted working parents over the past few months.

“There’s going to be an erosion of that willingness to provide flexibility at work, and as employers call parents back to work, and the childcare and homecare needs remain, we’re going to see increased attrition—either forced, when women are pushed out of the workforce because they’re not being seen as meeting their productivity goals—or voluntary, because they can’t manage the pressure of all of the unpaid work on top of their paid responsibilities,” says Mara Bolis, associate director of Women’s Economic Rights, Gender Justice & Inclusion Hub, for Oxfam America.

Krysta Manning, a dentist in Louisville, Kentucky, already anticipates that her mom employees will cut back their hours in the fall. “I will absolutely work with them, but it could leave me without key members of my team working full time,” she says. For her own kids, she had been planning on hiring an au pair until the Trump administration banned J1 visa authorizations until 2021. If public school isn’t full-time in the fall, she’ll explore private schools in her area—an option she knows many of her working mom friends can’t afford. Instead, she says, some plan to quit.

For single moms and many low-income workers, however, quitting isn’t an option. Bolis says she’s heard from farmworkers who used a baby monitor to stay in touch with their children during the day. For those parents, it’s not simply a matter of hiring a sitter or taking a leave of absence. “It’s going to be a choice between poverty or neglect.”

Clarisha Dumas is one of the Black mothers pushed out of the workforce by the pandemic. When Pittsburgh-area schools closed in March, she notified her employer, a mortgage loan servicer, that she would need to stay home to supervise online learning for her 7-year-old son, who has an IEP. His previous daycare was full and couldn’t accept any more children. After about a month, her employer asked her to sign a letter of “voluntary resignation.” She refused, and was terminated. She has been carefully saving her unemployment paychecks, anticipating that schools will remain closed in the fall and that she will be unable to work yet again.

“I don’t trust that if I send him to daycare, if it’s still open, that one, he won’t be at risk for the coronavirus, and two, that they’ll even do his schoolwork with him, because it’s just daycare. They’re not meant to be his teachers for eight hours a day,” she explains. “I feel like I’m obligated to stay home and help him, but at the same time, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do that. I don’t want to be in a position where I can’t pay my bills. If these [stimulus payments] stop, I don’t know what else to do.”

Gains Lost

These decisions won’t just put a strain on individual families. In the aggregate, it will be a devastating blow to women’s advancement overall. Seventy-one percent of moms with children under 18 are now in the labor force, up from 47 percent in 1975. And while women still earn just 81 cents on the dollar as compared to men, the wage gap has narrowed considerably over the years.

Those gains are now at risk of reversing, economists warn. Women’s wages tend to grow more slowly as they take and are given fewer opportunities for promotions and higher wages.

“The impact of the difficult choices women have made and will continue to make because of the lack of childcare due to the pandemic will likely impact these women’s labor market outcomes for decades,” says Betsey Stevenson, Ph.D., a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan.

And while dads are now doing more childcare and housework than before the pandemic, it hasn’t been enough to significantly reduce working moms’ drastically increased workload at home.

Bolis worries that the pandemic will have repercussions that reverberate far beyond this generation of working moms, as more children see dads go to work and moms stay home. “All of this could lead to family dynamics hardening in a way that locks future generations into gender inequality on a much different pathway than the way we were headed.”

*Name has been changed

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