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We need to talk about unpaid labor on Labor Day

Because in 2020 moms are doing a lot more of it.

labor-day

[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 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 recent 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 United States feel closer to their children now than they did before the coronavirus pandemic, according to research from Harvard. Meanwhile, pregnant women and moms with young children are reporting 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, tells 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 social media commenters were quick to point out that women and BIPOC were not adequately represented.

As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on August 31, "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.

Last year'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. According to the World Economic Forum's 2020 if we don't make some big changes it's going to take a century to achieve gender parity, and more than 200 years to reach full economy parity.

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.]

In This Article

    Tips parents need to know about poor air quality and caring for kids with asthma

    There are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

    When wildfires struck the West Coast in September 2020, there was a lot for parents to worry about. For parents of children with asthma, though, the danger could be even greater. "There are more than 400 toxins that are present in wildfire smoke. That can activate the immune system in ways that aren't helpful by both causing an inflammatory response and distracting the immune system from fighting infection," says Amy Oro, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health. "When smoke enters into the lungs, it causes irritation and muscle spasms of the smooth muscle that is around the small breathing tubes in the lungs. This can lead to difficulty with breathing and wheezing. It's really difficult on the lungs."

    With the added concern of COVID-19 and the effect it can have on breathing, many parents feel unsure about how to keep their children protected. The good news is that there are steps parents can take to keep their children as healthy as possible.

    Here are tips parents need to know about how to deal with poor air quality when your child has asthma.

    Minimize smoke exposure.

    Especially when the air quality index reaches dangerous levels, it's best to stay indoors as much as possible. You can find out your area's AQI at AirNow.gov. An under 50 rating is the safest, but between 100-150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as children with asthma. "If you're being told to stay indoors, listen. If you can, keep the windows and doors closed," Oro says.

    Do your best to filter the air.

    According to Oro, a HEPA filter is your best bet to effectively clean pollutants from the air. Many homes are equipped with a built-in HEPA filter in their air conditioning systems, but you can also get a canister filter. Oro says her family (her husband and children all suffer from asthma) also made use of a hack from the New York Times and built their own filter by duct taping a HEPA furnace filter to the front of a box fan. "It was pretty disgusting what we accumulated in the first 20 hours in our fan," she says.

    Avoid letting your child play outside or overly exert themselves in open air.

    "Unfortunately, cloth masks don't do very much [to protect you from the smoke pollution]," Oro says. "You really need an N95 mask, and most of those have been allocated toward essential workers." To keep at-risk children safer, Oro recommends avoiding brisk exercise outdoors. Instead, set up an indoor obstacle course or challenge your family to jumping jacks periodically to keep everyone moving safely.

    Know the difference between smoke exposure and COVID-19.

    "COVID-19 can have a lot of the same symptoms—dry cough, sore throat, shortness of breath and chest pain could overlap. But what COVID and other viruses generally cause are fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea and body aches. Those would tell you it's not just smoke exposure," Oro says. When a child has been exposed to smoke, they often complain of a "scrape" in their throat, burning eyes, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain or wheezing. If the child has asthma, parents should watch for a flare of symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing or a tight sensation in their chest.

    Unfortunately, not much is known about long-term exposure to wildfire smoke on a healthy or compromised immune system, but elevated levels of air pollution have been associated with increased COVID-19 rates. That's because whenever there's an issue with your immune system, it distracts your immune system from fighting infections and you have a harder time fighting off viruses. Limiting your exposure to wildfire smoke is your best bet to keep immune systems strong.

    Have a plan in place if you think your child is suffering from smoke exposure.

    Whatever type of medication your child takes for asthma, make sure you have it on-hand and that your child is keeping up with regular doses. Contact your child's pediatrician, especially if your area has a hazardous air quality—they may want to adjust your child's medication schedule or dosage to prevent an attack. Oro also recommends that, if your child has asthma, it might be helpful to have a stethoscope or even a pulse oximeter at home to help diagnose issues with your pediatrician through telehealth.

    Most importantly, don't panic.

    In some cases, social distancing and distance learning due to COVID may be helping to keep sensitive groups like children with asthma safer. Oro says wildfires in past years have generally resulted in more ER visits for children, but the most recent fires haven't seen the same results. "A lot of what we've seen is that the smoke really adversely affects adults, especially older adults over 65," Oro says. "Children tend to be really resilient."

    This article was sponsored by Stanford Children's Health. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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