We knew the childcare crisis was coming—it took a pandemic for lawmakers to listen

This year has brought so much stress and sadness, but it's also brought an opportunity to reimagine education and childcare.

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Remember 2017? It was the year of #MeToo, the year Beyoncé released the first photo of her twins, and the year Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement.

It was also the year childcare researchers began ringing the alarm bell about women's declining workforce participation rates—fewer women were working overall and more were working part-time. Women were 8% times more likely than men to cite "problems with childcare" as the reason for working part-time instead of full-time. Nothing was done to reverse this trend.

Then in 2018, mothers pointed out that the disconnect between school schedules and work schedules was hurting families, and nothing was done to resolve this gap in care. It was also the first year of Motherly's annual State of Motherhood Survey—the year mothers told us that society wasn't doing a good job supporting them and that investments in childcare would be a great place to start.

In 2019, we were still waiting. Meanwhile, Motherly was reporting on how parents in the United States were paying more for childcare than ever before.

Now, in 2020, and researchers and news headlines are stating the obvious: This year is going to set working mothers back decades.


Politicians didn't need to see the future—much less the current pandemic—to see this coming. They just needed to listen to mothers and review the data. But they didn't. We need to hold them accountable for ignoring the canary in the coal mine.

"Considering women already shouldered a greater burden for childcare prior to the pandemic, it's unsurprising the demands are now even greater," says University of Arkansas professor Gema Zamarro, who teaches in the Department of Education Reform and co-authored new research on Gender Differences in the Impact of COVID-19.

According to Zamarro's research (and many other studies) childcare duties, job losses and mental distress have disproportionately affected women since the coronavirus pandemic began. This tracks with Motherly's own data, from our annual State of Motherhood survey, which, in May, found the majority of mothers (74%) felt mentally worse since the pandemic began.

As Zamarro explains: "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."

Caitlyn Collins is an assistant professor of sociology in Arts & Sciences and co-author of a new study published in the journal Gender, Work and Organization in July. Collins and her coauthors found that in the first months of the pandemic mothers' work hours fell four to five times as much as fathers'.

"Even among households in which both parents are able to work from home and are directly exposed to childcare and housework demands, mothers are scaling back to meet these responsibilities to a greater extent than fathers. Ultimately, our analyses reveal that gender inequality in parents' work hours has worsened during the pandemic," Collins says.

But the trends that led to this imbalance predate the pandemic and are a reflection of how poorly existing childcare infrastructure and work culture have served parents. When school ends at 3 pm and someone has to leave work early, that someone is usually mom, and bosses don't like that.

"Scaling back work is part of a downward spiral that often leads to labor force exits — especially in cases where employers are inflexible with schedules or penalize employees unable to meet work expectations in the face of growing care demands," Collins and her co-authors, Liana Christin Landivar, Leah Ruppanner and William Scarborough wrote in their study.

Taryn Morrissey is an associate professor of Public Administration and Policy at American University's School of Public Affairs. She worries that mothers are cutting their work hours or dropping out of the workforce right now in an effort to relieve household stress in the short term, but that "it also takes a toll on their current and future economic security."

"The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed parents' delicate, very difficult and unsustainable balancing act," she writes, noting that "the hours employers demand and public school schedules have always been incompatible."

That incompatibility—the after-school care gap—was one of the warning signs many politicians missed or didn't care to examine.

This year has brought so much stress and sadness, but it's also brought an opportunity to reimagine education and childcare. Mothers have been asking for help for years, and if help doesn't come, economic recovery may not either. For far too long legislators have turned a blind eye to the essential nature of childcare and how lack of access to it and investment in it perpetuates inequality.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed two bills providing a much-needed $60 billion to the childcare industry, but political watchers say it's unlikely they will pass the Senate.

It's time for lawmakers of all parties to care as much about the childcare industry as they do about Delta airlines. Because families can't wait much longer.

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