When schools and daycares started closing down during the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, experts warned that working moms would end up shouldering a disproportionate share of childcare duties as a result. Now that we’re several months into the pandemic, we’re getting a clearer picture of what it means for our careers—and it’s not good.
Millennial moms are three times as likely as Millennial dads to report being unable to work due to childcare or school closures, according to a new analysis by the Center for American Progress.
Rasheed Malik, a senior policy analyst, and Taryn Morrissey, a senior fellow, analyzed data collected in the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, taken April through mid-July. During that time period, 33 percent of out-of-work Millennial moms (defined as those born between 1981 and 1996) cited school or childcare closures as the main reason they weren’t working. Only 11 percent of Millennial dads said it was why they weren’t working.
The analysis provides further evidence that moms—not dads—are primarily the ones choosing to scale back their work during a pandemic that’s forced families to make difficult decisions about childcare, homeschooling and more. That’s even the case for Millennials, who, as a generation, tend to pride themselves on egalitarian beliefs.
After all, Millennial dads are far more likely than their predecessors to take on a big role at home. They are more likely to take paternity leave, treat fatherhood as a central component of their identity and spend more time with their kids than their own fathers. One recent study even found that dads are doing a bigger share of housework and childcare than pre-pandemic—but it hasn’t been enough to offset the massive workload falling on working moms in the wake of school and daycare closures.
“While many fathers have increased their time doing childcare, so have women—so it seems that the ratio hasn’t changed all that much for many families,” explains Jill Yavorsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina. “Couples tend to fall back on traditional gender norms when both partners are around. This is partly due to the ways that heterosexual couples originally set up their parenting, right from the start. Mothers are generally the only ones that take leave after the birth of a child and the ones expected to step back from their careers (or reduce their work hours), and thus, they tend to gain greater familiarity and expertise with that child—in ways that shape how later childrearing unfolds for years to come.”
Other recent surveys have confirmed that moms are scaling back their careers to cope with added childcare burdens. A study published in the academic journal Gender, Work & Organization revealed that mothers have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers in heterosexual couples where both the mother and father were continuously employed and have children under 13, reports The New York Times.
Relief, unfortunately, doesn’t look likely. Many school districts are continuing with at-home virtual learning this school year. Almost half of daycares across the US could permanently close without financial assistance. And Congress has yet to pass any legislation that might ease working parents’ woes this fall, such as financial assistance for working families, a bailout for the childcare industry or extended paid leave benefits.
That leaves it up to individual families to work out a solution for childcare—an outcome that tends to disadvantage working moms, especially because gender inequality in the labor market means that men are often still the breadwinner in two-parent working families.
“When couples face challenges in balancing all of their work and family priorities (which is certainly the case during this pandemic), they will likely choose Dad’s job and income to protect if they make more money,” Dr. Yavorsky points out. “This, of course, becomes a vicious cycle, where women will be expected to reduce their employment hours and income gaps between partners will expand even further.”
That vicious cycle could be “catastrophic” for the moms who choose to forgo work right now, and, as a result, women’s advancement as a whole, economists warn. As Betsey Stevens, Ph.D., a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan, told Working Mother in July, “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.”