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For moms, balancing pandemic parenting and work is like trying to solve an 'explosive Rubik's Cube'

A mother takes her children to school wearing face masks. (Getty Images)
A mother takes her children to school wearing face masks. (Getty Images)

For Courtney Bise of Richmond, Virginia, balancing parenting, marriage, work and self-care was difficult long before the pandemic.

“It now seems like having to solve a potentially explosive Rubik’s Cube one-handed, and not to mention your 7-year-old hovering over you, asking ‘What’s the plan?’ ” Bise says.

Back in early 2020, women reached a milestone: They outnumbered men in many measures of the job market. Then COVID-19 hit, forcing women to bear the brunt of job losses and responsibility for child care.

Shannon Guzman lives in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her husband is in the military. Without family around to help her, she says managing care for her 3-year-old son as she tries to hold down a job is a challenge.

Guzman’s son has already been exposed to omicron twice in the last month and she needed to take five days off of work each time. That’s how long the care center requires him to stay home — and she’s anticipating more exposures.

“I don’t know eventually if I’m going to be able to work multiple times a month,” she says, “the company that I work for, if they’re really going to still find value in me being there.”

University of Michigan labor economist Betsey Stevenson says the economic fallout of the pandemic has been a little strange: Typically, male-dominated industries get hit hardest in a recession.

“We usually keep going to the dentist and getting our haircut when the economy is turning south, but we stop buying goods,” Stevenson says. “Well, the pandemic economy was the exact opposite. We all bought a lot of goods and we stopped buying services. And that has meant a lot of job loss for women.”

And then there are kids, who have been suffering themselves in this pandemic with anxiety, loss of learning and loss of playtime. Kids have been at home asking their parents to make up for that — and this huge impact on parenting could change family dynamics and labor divisions within households forever, she says.

Aurore Sibley of Capitola, California, is a self-employed single mother of two who was forced to close her massage therapy practice during the pandemic.

“I had to remain shut for over a year because my children were schooling from home and I went back to teaching,” Sibley says. “I was lucky to be able to fall back on teaching and taught online so I could be home. But of course, I made less and income was up and down.”

Many people like Sibley who don’t have other work find themselves riding out the pandemic at home and taking care of children.

In late December and early January, 14 million people were out of work — more than any other wave of the pandemic — because of COVID-19-related reasons like getting sick, caring for someone else or taking care of kids, she says.

Getting people back to work will require defining a new normal, she says.

“People are returning to the labor force,” Stevenson says, “but as they start to try to get back on with their life, we’ve got knocked down by other waves of the pandemic.”

The percentage of women in non-farm payroll jobs dropped from 50% to 49.1% during the pandemic, which is significant, she says. Now, millions of women reentering the workforce brought the number back to 49.8%.

Bess Kennedy of Menlo Park, California, is the mother of five children. She helps run 36 public charter schools from home — and things got especially stressful when her partner lost his job.

“For sure, there were days when I longed to take a break or push off a project or just run and hide. But I knew I couldn’t,” Kennedy says. “And while my partner stepped up to manage distance learning last year, I really knew that without my income we would be in really dire straits.”

On average, mothers bear more of the stress of balancing work and taking care of children, Stevenson says. And many single mothers don’t have a partner to co-parent with or fall back on their income.

Many families lost jobs, income and stability — a stressful experience that people need to keep in mind when thinking about policy, she says.

Some speculate that sending families money contributed to inflation, but Stevenson highlights that the families who did need the money from financial assistance like expanded unemployment insurance really needed it. In the early days of the pandemic, food bank lines hit record levels because people didn’t know where their next meal would come from.

“The unemployment insurance system is not designed to cover every worker, but through the pandemic, it was expanded and extended in ways that covered more people,” she says. “And it’s that coverage that we needed to reduce the stress.”

Health care worker Danielle Loren in Seattle, Washington, says she lost more than 300 hours of work last year because of child care issues and got into a lot of debt.

“The pandemic has rocked me financially: my savings, everything,” Loren says. “And the little bit of help that we’ve gotten from the government has been wonderful. But it’s not enough to keep people like me or people that are struggling even more than me alive.”

The pandemic didn’t impact everyone equally: People who could work from home saw their income and savings rise, while others went into debt trying to stay afloat, Stevenson says.

“It’s that inequality that we have to keep in mind when we think about how we design a fair response to something like a pandemic,” she says, “which has such an unequal burden on people.”

Allison Burbank of Apex, North Carolina, is a physician-scientist at a university who gave birth to her second child at the start of 2020.

Every day, Burbank says she makes “impossible choices.” She just cancelled her plans to speak at a medical conference.

“The conference is really important for my career advancement, but I had to make a choice between that and keeping my kids safe from omicron,” Burbank says. “It feels so unfair. It feels like everybody has forgotten about the parents of the under 5-year-olds.”

Stevenson says she’s heard that many parents of immunocompromised kids and children under 5 feel abandoned by society, parents and employers. Even with cases hitting 800,000 per day, she says students at her school are testing positive on rapist tests but not reporting it.

Parents want to keep their kids safe — but it’s forcing them to make tough choices, she says. And she wants other economists to keep in mind that every data point represents real people.

“I think that the parents who have suffered and the people who’ve seen parents suffer need to work to build a better labor market with stronger social supports,” she says, “that allows people to celebrate the joy of having children while succeeding in their jobs.”

Elizabeth Ross produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.