I started interviewing moms about parenting during the pandemic in the surreality of March, just as stay-at-home orders were being issued and schools were shuttering. My toddler was home from daycare, so I warned interviewees that they might hear a child screaming in the background. At one point, my 3-year-old, who was being watched by his dad in the other room, managed to connect a Bluetooth speaker to my phone call and began talking through the speaker to my interview subject. Often enough, though, there was a child screaming—if not joining via Bluetooth—on the other end of the line.
I talked with women who were crouched in the basement or a kid’s empty room, desperately seeking a moment of quiet and solitude. We were all just trying to make it work.
All told, I interviewed a dozen mothers about their lives in this deeply fucked-up year for our Imbalancing Act series. It was a study in just how swiftly and disorientingly everything collapses without childcare. Wealth has always, to varying degrees, protected middle and upper class families from this reality—and from the lack of a functional childcare system in this country. Now, though, even privileged families—save for those pivoting to private tutors, pods, and micro schools—began to feel what it was like to live without support. While the previously insulated struggled in a new reality, for working moms and single moms the bottom fell out.
The data has started to reflect this: We now know that hundreds of thousands of women have dropped out of the workforce—some due to the decline of women-dominated sectors, and some to take care of their kids. Moms with young children are reducing their work hours four to five times as much as fathers, as American Progress has reported. There are various explanations for this, from gendered caregiving expectations to the wage-gap, which in heterosexual coupling puts the onus on lower-earning women to step in for childcare. These burdens have fallen most intensely on single mothers, who aren’t able to drop out of anything.
Although none of the interviewees from the series who I’ve recently checked in with have newly dropped out of the paid workforce, their stories were an early glimpse of the weight carried by moms during the pandemic. They revealed what losing childcare really means: the disintegration of what often makes motherhood basically and fundamentally feasible. Which is to say: the ability to be a person outside of parenthood.
In March, when daycares and schools suddenly shuttered, many found themselves adding full-time unpaid childcare to their full-time paid work. “There’s no clocking out,” said Lacey, the mother of a 4-year-old. “When you’re at home with the kid... your start time is when you open your eyes and your end time is whenever you close them.” Others were forced to choose between paid work and childcare, like Ashley, a single mom who splits custody with her ex and does grocery delivery and other gig work. She could only work when her 7-year-old was at his dad’s house. “Now, I will try to do four or five days of work in two days,” she told me. “I was definitely financially stressed out before all of this, certainly paycheck to paycheck, if I even made it that far. I love my child, but if he’s here, I can’t make money, and we need money to survive. The bills keep coming.”
Those who were basically managing to juggle childcare and paid work still worried about the possibility of getting covid-19 and having no backup. Grandparents who might otherwise have provided care were off-limits because of covid-19 risk. In fact, Renee, a mom of two, was healing from a broken leg when her husband came down with covid symptoms. “Since I can’t take care of the kids on crutches, we had a few people in mind that we would call if it progressed to the point of him going to the hospital,” she said.
Bri, a single mom of two, came down with symptoms herself and made the tough decision to send her youngest daughter to stay with relatives for 17 days. “I felt like a terrible mom. Here is this disruptive moment in our life and I’ve pawned my kids off on other people,” she said. “Then, 30 seconds later, I would have the complete opposite thought: No, I am being the best mom I can be right now by protecting them. It was this internal struggle, as I think moms have all the time, regardless of a global pandemic, about am I doing the right thing for my kid.”
Parents of younger kids often found themselves concocting art projects and handwriting lessons. But remote learning for older kids was not necessarily any easier: Rebecca, the mother of a 5-year-old, felt like she’d become her child’s personal assistant. “A lot of times she won’t hear the teacher or there will be a tech issue that I have to troubleshoot or she’ll get kicked out of the Zoom meeting. I have so much paper that the school gave me and then the teacher will be like, ‘Show me your math packet homework,’ and I have to find that for her,” she explained. The mothers I spoke with worried about the impact of their kids’ lack of social engagement and hours of screen time and brains turning to “mush.”
The difference of having a yard or access to open space suddenly became monumental in terms of occupying kids’ time, and getting any space or work done. “Jennifer” talked of a utopia neighborhood with nearby, uncrowded walking trails, whereas Ashley’s neighborhood isn’t walkable and local parks were closed. Stark disparities were most obvious economically: Some moms had the flexibility to work whatever hours they could while receiving the same paycheck, while others found themselves either out of work or dependent on frontline work, like grocery delivery. One in three jobs held by women is essential, according to a New York Times analysis, and many of those women are mothers.
Marisol, a daycare provider, saw her enrollment drop from 20 to two kids. “I was making at least $15,000 a month,” she said. “Now I live with $600 dollars a week.” Meanwhile, she carried the emotional weight of not just caring for other people’s children in the midst of mask-wearing and constant sanitizing, but also concern for her two teenagers whose lives were upended by lockdown. She also felt the responsibility for holding herself together emotionally, lest the rest of her family fall apart. “They don’t see that I have been their rock. I need that time off, too. My only time off is to come to the garage,” she said. “I cry in the garage, I hide myself. I work. I work I work, I work, just to keep myself busy.” Marisol’s experience is reflective of national trends: In July, a survey of child care providers found that enrollment is down by 67 percent. Approximately two out of five providers said they would have to close without federal assistance.
Even at the start of the pandemic, several moms spoke of total overwhelm, describing it as “treading water” and feeling “depleted.” At the same time, though, many moms were also finding that the pandemic underscored the imbalance of our pre-pandemic norms, which left too little space for family. As Lacey put it, “I would say that this would be the best thing to come of this: I get that quality time... I don’t have to rush home, I don’t have to bring a book to work or read to her over FaceTime just to see her at night. I get to put her to bed at night.”
These individual vignettes of maternal struggle speak to the national crisis now reflected in headline-making stats about childcare closures and women dropping out of the workforce. Many of these interviews took place in March and April, when many were imagining having to endure for just a few more months. Nine months later, some interviewees have gotten relief in the form of access to childcare. Meanwhile, others have been doing this “imbalancing act” for as long as it takes to gestate a whole human baby. Vaccine approvals offer a glimmer of hope, but don’t address the brokenness of our fragile childcare system, and the inequities of caregiving, paid and otherwise. They certainly don’t address the long-term impact of masses of women exiting the workforce, which is said will set back gender equity by decades.
As I write these words, it’s rushed: I hear my kid waking up from his nap and it’s my turn to take over childcare from my husband. We decided to send our now-3-year-old to in-person preschool, but it’s the holiday break and the usual childcare backups are not available. Here we are, still: Trying to make it work.