The COVID-19 pandemic has left many American families without child care and in-person schooling. Those new household burdens have largely landed on the shoulders of women, says Journalist Claire Cain Miller.
Miller has been working from home, reporting on how the pandemic has affected the lives of mothers, in a New York Times series called “The Primal Scream.” It’s a subject she’s familiar with: Her children, ages 4 and 8,have been been attending school virtually since the pandemic began.
“I hear … from people I interview — and I feel that myself — that women stepped up, mothers stepped up,” Miller says. “And at this point, a year in, there’s just this deep feeling that we’ve been forgotten about.”
Miller says increased household responsibilities have forced many working mothers — and especially Black and Latinx mothers — to scale back on their hours or leave the workforce entirely during the pandemic, further widening economic and racial disparities.
“It took a very, very slow moving process from the 1970s until today to get women where they are professionally,” Miller says. “I do worry that this has erased so much of it so quickly that it could be a massive setback for decades.”
Perhaps more than anything, Miller says, the pandemic laid bare the need for public policy initiatives that support families: “We live in a country … that has left it to individuals to figure out their family caregiving arrangements on their own. … There were never the structures in place to help us and to provide for working families in this country in the way that there are elsewhere.”
On a gap in perception between mothers and fathers about who is picking up the slack during the pandemic
We did a survey at the Times with Morning Consult, a survey partner we have that I found very amusing: 80% of mothers said they were managing the home school in their house; 45% of fathers said they were managing it. Now, that’s impossible. Three percent of mothers said the fathers were managing it. So there’s a really big disconnect here. And it’s really not surprising because this generation of men does a lot more at home. They do more housework and child care, even in normal times, than their fathers or grandfathers did. But it’s still nowhere near equal. And what we found is that men have done more, especially if you’re working from home or if your kids’ schools are still closed, there’s just more to be done. … Fathers are doing more, but their share hasn’t changed. So mothers are also doing more, and they’re both still doing the same share they used to. Which means men, in general — of course not all — men are doing less.
On things employers have done to help women work during the pandemic
One way that most employers responded at the very beginning is they offered flexibility. So for white-collar workers who could work from home, they said you can work at different hours. You can work in the early morning or late at night instead of being available for the midday meeting if you have child duties. Then for hourly and essential workers, they offered people to shift their schedules or to shift locations to a store near their house, things like that. And that was a helpful response last March.
The thing is that very few employers ever did anything else. And we did another survey: We found that over three quarters of working parents have received nothing else in the way of time off or money for child care. It’s just these flexible hours. And as a working parent, I can tell you there are only so many months that you can wake up at dawn or work after bedtime in order to get it all done. It’s just not sustainable. And so what’s happened is that either people have had to figure out their own alternate arrangements or they’re just really incredibly burnt out, [with their] mental health really suffering, or else they’ve had to cut back on work, either quit, cut back their hours, not apply for the promotion they wanted. And these things are just going to have really deep, long-term effects on their careers.
On why more employers aren’t providing child care subsidies, which can help employees be more productive
This enables your people to spend their day dedicated to the thing you’re paying them to do. It enables them to not have to quit their jobs and to be able to give you their dedicated effort, so I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more of an effort here.
I think at this point it’s really about money. Time is one thing. Paid leave, having a few weeks off, even having 12 weeks off, which the federal government offered to some employees last year, though that’s expired — that’s helpful. But the pandemic has lasted a lot more than 12 weeks. To me, if an employer gives money, then the employee can choose to use that to take an unpaid leave, or to hire a babysitter, or to help compensate a grandparent or an aunt or uncle who’s helping, or to hire a tutor and make their own personal family decisions about what’s best for their child. But again, very few employers are doing this. The ones that are are mostly the higher paying ones that employ people with college degrees or higher. So it’s really reflecting a lot of the inequities that we see in all parts of our culture, which is that people with college degrees and high earners are treated a lot better at work.
On parents’ weighing the risk of sending their kids back to school
As a parent, I can tell you it’s a really very difficult decision. It’s not clear cut. It doesn’t really matter — and I empathize with the teachers too — what scientists and doctors say if you feel that this is too much of a risk to your health or your family’s health to do. … People are really polarized and they’re really hardened, and I get it. On the one hand, it’s really terrifying that your kids could get sick. And on the other hand, it’s really, really hard to have your kids out of school, not just in terms of your day and getting your work done, but in terms of how obvious it is what we’re seeing happen with the kids who are struggling. They’re lonely; they’re anxious. Their entire lives — in some cases, a quarter or an eighth of their entire lives — has just been upended.
On what we know about how much the coronavirus spreads in schools
[Pediatric disease experts polled by the New York Times] said that children spread it less than adults do, that they’re not as efficient spreaders, probably because they don’t get sick. So they’re not sneezing and coughing all over. So they do spread it less. And they said vaccinations will be very important for life to return to normal. But they said that schools around the world that have been open have shown that when the kids are wearing masks, when the teachers and staff are wearing masks, when they’re maintaining distance by avoiding large gatherings and having their desks spaced apart and when they have adequate ventilation — and there are other safety measures, too, but those were really the most important — they thought that transmission is really not happening at high rates within schools. Transmission is happening outside of schools. And if restaurants and bars and gyms are open and if teachers and parents are socializing on the weekends, it’s more likely to come inside the school. But the school is not the site of most of the transmission, is what they said the research has shown so far, based on what we know now.
On proposed legislation to provide parents with a child tax credit
I think there’s a lot more recognition now of something that parents have always known, which is that child care is absolutely essential for society to function. High quality child care is absolutely essential and it’s really expensive. A lot of child care providers have gone out of business because they had to lock down last spring and they couldn’t afford to go [empty for] a few months. They were already working on very, very tight margins. Parents can’t afford to pay more for all these measures they have to put in place, like distancing and sanitizing and Plexiglas barriers and these things, in order to be open in a pandemic. So I think there’s recognition that it’s needed.
I would be very surprised if the United States Congress passed any sort of public child care like the kind that we see in Europe, because there’s historically been so much resistance to it. But one thing that there does seem to be growing support for is an idea of a child allowance, which is sending a monthly check to parents. President Biden has proposed this, as have several other Democratic senators. But what’s been really interesting recently is that Senator Mitt Romney, who, of course, is a Republican from Utah, has also proposed a version of it that’s actually more generous than President Biden’s. The idea would be to send between $250 and $350 a month to parents, multiple checks if you have multiple kids up to a certain limit. In Senator Romney’s proposal, it wouldn’t phase out totally until you made almost half a million dollars a year as a couple. So pretty much every parent in the country would be getting this.
A lot of other countries do this — I’m not sure Americans realize it — Canada, Australia and most of Europe. This is not uncommon, but, of course, it has not happened here. … It means that families could make their own choice. There could be a stay-at-home parent. They could use that check to pay their child-care tuition. They could use that check to hire a nanny, whatever they felt worked for their family. And that is something that both sides seem to agree on. Now, of course, $350 a month or so, while it would be very helpful, is not nearly enough to actually cover your whole child-care tuition. So this would not be replacing something like public child care.
Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nichole Cohen adapted it for the Web.