It's impossible for parents, employers and lawmakers to ignore the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic disrupted every facet of everyday life and it highlighted how a work culture that fails to recognize the humanity of employees makes humanity vulnerable.
There are holes in our social fabric, holes that mothers fall through every day—these are the holes that are letting COVID-19 through and the virus is making them even bigger.
A new survey of 1,000 moms conducted by HeyMama and InHerSight finds 3 in 5 working moms say they are less productive while working from home during COVID-19, and 2 in 5 say they are doing more work. This means many moms are working longer and longer hours to make up for all the interruptions.
Moms are asking for more flexibility to deal with this, but as a recent case in California shows, they don't always get it. But we need it, especially now. According to Motherly's annual State of Motherhood survey, one of the things mothers want most post-pandemic is flexibility at work.
"Flexibility has always been really important to women in general and moms specifically, as they try to balance work and life and make the best decisions for their families," Ursula Mead, CEOand cofounder of InHerSight, says. "Throw in a pandemic and a lot of our day-to-day needs from regular, non-stressful times become that much more acute and critical."
Childcare is critical and also non-existent for many moms right now. The pandemic caused many childcare centers to close and many will not reopen. It's estimated between 20% and 50% of childcare spots will be lost due to the pandemic shut down. Many day care centers simply aren't able to reopen, and those that are need to accept fewer children to adhere to social distancing recommendations.
Now, months after sending employees home and setting up remote work, some companies are calling workers back to the office, a move that is likely to widen the wage gap for mothers says Meredith Bodgas, the editor-in-chief of Working Mother. She writes: "[B]usinesses are reopening and demanding parents return to their workplace instead of continuing to work from home with kids, leaving parents with little choice but to stay home to care for their children."
Motherly reader Rachel knows what that's like. "I had to leave my job temporarily to stay with my daughter," she explained."It's not easy, but not a lot of choices!"
The stats back up what Bodgas is saying and what Rachel experienced.
Worldwide, almost 300 million kids are out of school and millions more are out of day care due to COVID-19 precautions. Parents are stressed, especially moms, who are 10 times more likely than dads to miss work in situations like these.
In our society working mothers are often expected to parent as if they don't work and work as if they don't have the responsibilities of a parent, so when schools and childcare centers close mothers shoulder the burden of society's impossible standards. "I am working 40+ hours a week from home, teaching fifth grade online, while caring for a 4-year-old and an 18-month-old." says Motherly reader Elaine. "My husband is an essential worker and still has to go in three days a week, so I am on my own most days."
Motherly's third annual State of Motherhood survey found the lack of childcare due to COVID-19 is a top source of stress for mothers in the United States right now. It's stressful because of the day-to-day struggles of trying to work while a child asks you for snacks or homework help, but also because this moment in history is likely to harm our earning potential.
It's unfair, but women still earn less than men, and the gap gets worse after parenthood (and it is even worse for Black moms). Despite the fact that women are more likely to get a post-secondary education, and despite the fact that we make up 56% of the population on college campuses (according to the National Center for Education Statistics) we are still being paid less and perceived as less committed to work due to our responsibility to our children (even if we don't even have any yet).
The double whammy of eroding day care spots and the expectation that workers return to the office is forcing some mothers to quit their jobs.
Studies suggest that even if women like Rachel are able to return to work in the future, these gaps are going to hurt their lifetime earnings and their career potential.
Continuing to offer remote work is part of the solution here. Instead of calling employees back to the office before the nation has its childcare infrastructure back up and running, companies should consider extending remote work and flexible hours and even offering them permanently,
For example, Motherly has always been fully remote and thrives with a fully remote workforce, and more companies are following Motherly's lead during the COVID-19 crisis. Twitter and other leading companies are allowing employees to keep working from home even when the threat of COVID-19 wanes.
This is important because as Motherly's third annual State of Motherhood survey found, what mothers want most from employers in a post-COVID world is want more flexibility for themselves or their partners.
But remote work without childcare is still hard and not an option for everyone.
Another recent study suggests productivity suffers by 2% when parents work from home without childcare. We need childcare whether we're in the office or at the dining room table. We need to call on our lawmakers to ensure that day cares can not only reopen, but that the entire industry can be better (and more affordable) than it was before.
We need to demand affordable childcare in America, because that is the only way to prevent the wage gap from widening and to ensure that parents who don't have the luxury of working remotely, like teachers, cashiers and everyone else who doesn't sit at a keyboard all day can also get back to work.
The system has been broken for too long, as Elliot Haspel, the author of Crawling Behind: America's Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It. writes: "despite charging fees so high it makes many parents want to weep, most childcare providers operate on margins of less than 1%, and the average daycare center teacher makes around $11 an hour, with limited if any benefits. In fact, more than half of early childhood practitioners qualify for public assistance. This is, of course, a ridiculous state of affairs. It was ridiculous before COVID-19 ever appeared, and now, unfortunately, it's gone past ridiculous to take the shape of a true crisis."
We need childcare to be affordable for parents and not exploit the labor of (mostly female and disproportionately Black) childcare workers.
Way before COVID-19 2 out of 3 families were struggling to find care that meets their standards. Childcare needs to be part of America's plan for economic recovery, for the sake of our children's futures and their mother's future earnings.
[A version of this post was originally published March 6, 2020. It has been updated.]