‘Exhausted.’ A year into pandemic, working moms see help on horizon.

‘Exhausted.’ A year into pandemic, working moms see help on horizon.

The pandemic has swamped many working mothers. Already struggling to balance the demands of work and home, they were suddenly confronted last spring with having to add all-day child care and education monitoring to their long list of duties. 

The result? “The first word that comes to mind is exhaustion,” says Aleka Bilan, a working mom in Bend, Oregon. 

The challenges were felt so broadly that companies and politicians began to pay attention. Some corporations are reexamining their paid sick leave and flexible work policies. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable want to target federal funds for child care. 

The Biden administration and Republicans in Congress are pushing rival legislation that would help families pay for child care, extend or increase unemployment benefits, and provide funding to fully reopen schools. 

Says Betsey Stevenson, an economic policy expert at the University of Michigan: “We're certainly having the conversation that we've needed to have for a very long time.”

The pandemic has produced a moment of clarity in the United States about a crisis that has been building for decades: The tradeoffs many working mothers routinely face are becoming unsustainable as the lockdowns reach the end of their first year.

Already stretched thin balancing the demands of work, housework, and child care, these women now face the extra demands posed by homebound children struggling to learn via online classes and the need to care for parents or family members who may require extra support during the pandemic.

The silver lining is that working mothers’ plight, a longtime problem, is finally coming to light. The Biden administration and Republicans in Congress are pushing rival legislation that would help families pay for child care, extend or increase unemployment benefits, and provide funding to fully reopen schools. Companies are reexamining their paid sick leave and flexible work policies. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable want to target federal funds for child care.

“There’s been more interest from lawmakers in the last six months than in the last 20 years,” says Sue Renner, executive director of the David & Laura Merage Foundation, which supports back-office services to child care providers in six states.

Advocates are optimistic that the attention will lead to action, in part because some companies have already made moves to be more mom-friendly, and because the interest in Congress is coming from both sides of the aisle. 

“This is something where Democrats and Republicans can put behind some of the things they have been fighting over and focus on something American families need,” says Betsey Stevenson, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When the pandemic first hit and schools closed, “politicians’ first question was: ‘How do we keep the airlines flying?’ ... There was just radio silence on what this whole thing means for our children. [Now] we’re certainly having the conversation that we’ve needed to have for a very long time.”

The road to this potential policy moment has been anything but easy for families, and especially for mothers. 

“The first word that comes to mind is exhaustion,” says Aleka Bilan, an academic coach and mother of two from Bend, Oregon. 

For Lori White, a single mom in Nashua, New Hampshire, the low point came last spring after she was furloughed from her teaching job and had to fight the bureaucracy for a month and a half before getting unemployment benefits. “It’s just one of those [situations] when you want to lean out the window and scream.”

Between February and April last year, 3.5 million adult women left the labor force and despite a growing number of jobs, two-thirds of them have yet to return. That workforce erosion has been significantly greater for women than for men.  

In fact, a smaller share of women are now working or looking for work than at any time since 1988, according to a new report from the National Women’s Law Center in Washington. And the recovery has been slower for mothers. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that if women with school-age children had experienced a recovery similar to women without children, 700,000 more of them would now be part of the labor force. 

The reason for all this is that the pandemic’s economic storm has battered the already fragile infrastructure that allowed women to work and care for children in the first place.

For starters, the lockdown-induced recession decimated jobs. Previous downturns were hardest on goods-producing industries, where men predominate, but last spring’s lockdowns affected service industries the most, especially sectors where women predominate, such as leisure and hospitality.

“So many of those service jobs were the first to go,” says Brent Orrell, a resident fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute (AEI). “And they’ll be among the last to really come back. And there’s some question if they’ll ever come back.”

Another piece of the working-mom infrastructure hit hard by the pandemic is child care. Last spring’s lockdowns temporarily closed a third of day care centers, and by December there were still 13% fewer open than a year earlier, according to a new report by Child Care Aware of America, an advocacy group. The challenge is that these operations, often poorly financed, are now struggling with higher disinfecting and other costs and lower attendance. Over half of those open are losing money, according to a December survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Four in 10 operations have taken on debt to make ends meet. 

The closing of schools also hurt working parents, because suddenly a parent had to be home and supervising online learning. Most often that burden fell to mothers. When Ms. Bilan had some appointments with one of her children last year, she asked her husband to work from home and supervise the other child. “He lasted a day,” she recalls. “He’s wonderful and he’s great. ... [But] he was just like: ‘Oh no! I can’t do that again.’”

The younger the child, the more intensive the supervision had to be. 

Online preschool “is a joke,” says Lindsey Dillon, a mother of two in Norwood, Massachusetts, and senior marketing manager for a sustainability nonprofit. Children competed with each other to make the loudest noise over the computer or the silliest face, she says. “It’s not conducive to working from home. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice.”

During the pandemic, everything got more complicated. Ms. Dillon gave birth to her second child, took maternity leave, came back to work just as her new daughter started day care, and had to find a new preschool for her 3-year-old son because of behavioral issues. That was her low point. 

“I know I’m lucky and I have to keep reminding myself that a lot of people have it far worse,” she says. But “you can’t ignore the need for parents to have adequate child care. It’s imperative to have that addressed in order to get the economy back up to where it was.”

The pandemic has been particularly hard on women of color. “The racial implications of the economic downturn are really clear,” says C. Nicole Mason, the first Black president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington think tank. “I’m a single mother and have 11-year-old twins who just began middle school and I work full time. It’s been really tough to manage virtual learning and a 40- to 50-hour work week. But I feel very fortunate. ... I didn’t have to leave the workforce. But many other women did.”

An estimated 22% of Black mothers left their jobs during the pandemic, closely followed by Asian mothers at 20%, and Hispanic mothers at 19%, according to a survey of more than 1,500 mothers by The Mom Project’s research arm, WerkLabs. By comparison, only 12% of white mothers reported leaving the workforce.

One reason for that gap is that Black and Hispanic women are more likely than their white counterparts to hold front-line jobs that can’t be performed at home. They’re also more likely to be single moms. Twice as many Black moms reported doing more than 90% of household work compared with white and Asian moms, the WerkLabs survey found.

The time away from work will mean lower lifetime earnings and, potentially, reduced opportunities for advancement for mothers. For Linda Overbay, a Seattle mother with two teens, it has meant a year delay in starting her new business. In January 2020, just as the first U.S. coronavirus case was confirmed in Washington state, she coincidentally gave notice at her physical therapy job to start out on her own. Soon after, concerns over the virus put a stop to that and she became a nonworking mom while her husband, an architect, worked from home.

She had to increase her vigilance, she says. “I was monitoring the websites of the school, news, communications from the schools and clubs; I was monitoring the workload of the kids. ... I definitely learned to monitor my own needs better. In the past I might work myself to exhaustion and then look for support. [After the pandemic hit] I left more space in my own workload and I allowed myself to decompress a lot more.” She plans to open her business this spring. 

In the nationwide search for solutions, reopening schools has taken on rising urgency for policymakers and citizens alike in recent months – although the trend toward hybrid or partial reopenings so far hasn’t provided much of a fix.

Child care is one area where Democrats and Republicans both want to commit federal funds. This weekend, the House passed the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion rescue package, which includes $15 billion in block grants so states can help low-income families make child care payments. It also would expand the child tax credit and offer aid directly to child care providers. 

The bill’s shape is being guided by Democrats, but some GOP senators have been seeking to put a focus on the issue. Ten of them have supported offering $20 billion for low-income families with children up to age 12 to help pay for child care expenses. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican, is proposing sending all but the richest families a monthly payment of $250 to $350 per child under 18, leaving parents to decide how to spend the money. 

“Let people self-manage this with some extra resources,” says AEI’s Mr. Orrell, whose own proposal would expand current programs that allow states to give monthly payments to the unemployed to help them train for new and better jobs. “Maybe they have other needs that are not training: car repairs, transportation. Maybe they need child care.”

Others argue that affordable, high-quality child care is a right that all families should have access to. “Some of the lawmakers are looking at providing child care and the support to child care for only the poorest, and we say: ‘Wait a second, the majority of this country is middle class,’” says David Merage, the founder of the Merage Foundation. He urges a public-private partnership that would make child care available to everyone.

Corporations have a role to play, says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, chief executive of MomsRising, a policy and activist group. “Employers are changing their policies [for working women] not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it’s the smart thing to do.” Research shows it increases employee retention and makes it easier to recruit top female talent. 

“Employers like Microsoft and Google have great policies,” Ms. Rowe-Finkbeiner says. “But a lot of people don’t work at Microsoft or Google.”

That’s why she is pushing for more government support of child care. A new bill in Massachusetts, which would provide child care at the state level for families with less than half the median income, is garnering support from business groups.

Paid sick leave is another top demand of working mothers’ advocates. The pandemic caused Congress last year to pass legislation mandating that even small companies offer paid sick leave for workers who were diagnosed with COVID-19, were caring for family members diagnosed with COVID-19, or were taking care of children whose child care was no longer available or whose school had closed. But the law had a sunset provision for the end of 2020.

Some large companies, like Levi Strauss, have started offering paid sick leave. Other employers will need a nudge from federal legislation to begin offering it, says Ms. Mason of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She’s optimistic that Washington, having become aware of the crisis, will act.

“This is a moment unlike many others,” she says. “All engines are firing at 100%. There’s great momentum at the federal level.”