[Editor’s note: While this article is about heterosexual relationships, we support the continuation of efforts that support all families, including parents in same-sex and gender non-conforming relationships. We also acknowledge that single parents work exceptionally hard to ensure that their children have the best outcomes and that the absence of a father or partner does not automatically preclude children from healthy and happy lives. We stand behind all families.]
Labor Day began in the 1800s because factory workers were tired of working 70 hours a week. Here we are 200 years later and surveys still show that mothers report working nearly 100 hours a week, and don’t get days off. And it’s just getting worse.
Before the pandemic moms were tired and burned out. Now, we’re desperate. According to the 2020 World Economic Forum the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in women around the world losing paid work hours while taking on more unpaid work.
Studies show the pandemic has resulted in moms working fewer hours in paid roles while dads have only reduced their hours by a statistically insignificant amount. We know millennial mothers are almost three times more likely than millennial fathers to report being unable to work due to a day care or school closure.
“Considering women already shouldered a greater burden for child care prior to the pandemic, it’s unsurprising the demands are now even greater,” says Gema Zamarro, senior economist at the University of Southern California’s Center for Economic and Social Research. “While men are more likely to die from infection by COVID-19, overall the pandemic has had a disproportionately detrimental impact on the mental health of women, particularly those with kids.”
Why the work of parenting is even more unequal during a pandemic
Today’s mothers are spending more time doing paid work than previous generations did, but we’re also spending more time on childcare. Today’s fathers, too, are spending more time on childcare than previous generations, but there is a big difference in how moms and dads in heterosexual partnerships spend time with their kids.
This can be seen in the aftermath of COVID-19: In a 2020 study that looked at dual‐earner, heterosexual married couples with children, researchers found “the greater childcare and family demands brought on by day care and school closures throughout the pandemic appear to have caused a major reduction in work hours for mothers.” Dads aren’t seeing reduced work hours but are seeing the benefit of more time with their kids. Nearly 70% of fathers in the United States felt closer to their children during the pandemic than they did before the pandemic, according to research from Harvard. Meanwhile, pregnant women and moms with young children reported 3 to 5 times more anxiety and depression symptoms.
Why are dads happier now while moms are more stressed? It’s in part because mothers are more likely to be doing unpaid care work while spending time with the children—the bathing, the cleaning, the feeding—while research finds that fathers’ time with kids is more often spent on play and leisure activities.
If you’re a dad, it might seem like having a spouse who does most of the household labor is a good deal (and a growing body of research does prove that fathers are happier parents than mothers) but the research also shows that dads want to be more than the fun, weekend guy because while care work is incredibly undervalued and unequal it can also incredibly fulfilling (if the carer is also allowed to rest).
Mom doing all the drudge work and handing out snacks while dad is at the office (or locked in his home office) sounds like an outdated notion, and that’s because it is. When researchers at Boston College surveyed professional fathers in 2015, they found fewer than 5% of the fathers saw themselves as just a financial provider. The survey found most fathers believed they should share their children’s caregiving equally with their spouses (but only about 30% said they were actually doing that).
So why aren’t dads as impacted as moms by COVID-19?
Researchers can’t point to exactly one reason why so much of the unpaid labor has fallen on moms during the pandemic because there are several reasons why this is happening.
The wage gap means that women often make less than their male partners so it’s pretty natural for couples to forfeit mom’s hours instead of dads in times of crisis. There’s also the fact that employers can be less understanding toward fathers who have childcare responsibilities and that traditional gender roles in our culture encourage kids to be more willing to interrupt mom than dad.
All of the above issues are exacerbated by a lack of childcare, flexible work and, importantly, paid family leave in the United States.
It is not a coincidence that Nordic countries where paternity leave and flexible work are the norm are also the countries with the lowest pay gap and most involved fathers. When dads get paternity leave they feel more capable as parents and build a relationship with their kids that doesn’t seem secondary to the child’s relationship with mom, removing her from the “default” role when it comes to unpaid work.
And Nordic countries with female leaders have been able to recognize and mitigate the gendered impact of COVID-19. As Grete Herlofson, secretary-general of The Norwegian Women’s Public Health Association, told The Christian Science Monitor, under conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Norway was able to incorporate protections for women into pandemic planning.
“Being a gender-equal country, we were able to see that the pandemic hit women harder than men,” says Herlofson. “More men died, but more women lost their jobs, more women had major domestic challenges. … And we were able to have a discussion on that issue.”
This is a contrast to what happened in the U.S. When the Trump administration’s Coronavirus Task Force was revealed in January 2020, social media commenters were quick to point out that women and BIPOC were not adequately represented.
As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in August 2020, “women have been on the front lines of the response, as health care workers, teachers, essential staff and as carers in their families and communities” and while women are overrepresented in the health care sector, fewer than a third are in decision-making roles.
Women are underrepresented in decision making and over-worked at home and it’s time for change.
2019’s State of the World’s Fathers’ report by Promundo found that if men did at least 50 minutes of unpaid care work per day, women’s workloads would be reduced by half.
The authors of the Promundo report urge lawmakers, companies and individuals to support men to do more care work in the hopes that the unpaid workload of mothers could be reduced by half by 2030.
If lawmakers and employers don’t support dads to be the fathers they want to be, moms and the next generation will suffer.
It’s been 200 years since factory workers fought for fairer treatment. We can’t let mothers wait another 200.
[A version of this post was originally published August 28, 2019. It has been updated.]