This Isn’t Sustainable for Working Parents

The pandemic has already taken a toll on the careers of those with young children—particularly mothers.

Moises Saman / Magnum

Child care is the immovable object around which so much else in family life orbits, and when the usual child-care options disappear, something else has to give. During the pandemic, with schools and day-care centers closed or operating at reduced capacity, many parents’ careers—particularly mothers’ careers—are getting deprioritized.

When Salpy Kabaklian-Slentz left her job in April because her family was moving to Southern California, she thought she’d be able to devote her days to job searching and then start working again soon enough. Three months later, she’s struggled to find any open positions similar to the one she gave up, as a local-government attorney.

Her main task these days is looking after her and her husband’s boys, two “bundles of energy” ages 6 and 4. Kabaklian-Slentz’s husband, also a lawyer, has mostly been going into the office, but when he works from home, he’s protective of his time. “He’s not only locked the office door but barricaded the sofa in front of it to get stuff done,” she told me. “Otherwise the kids pop in every two seconds.”

Instead they go to her, preventing her from getting the sort of uninterrupted time that a job search, as a well as a job itself, demands. She doesn’t yet know how or when schools in her area will reopen, and thus whether she’d even be free to start a new job in the fall, if an opportunity were to open up. “It sucks,” she said. “Being a stay-at-home parent was never on the radar for me.” It wasn’t on the radar for many other parents of young children either, and yet here they are, even those in households with lots of resources, leaving their jobs or reducing their hours.

Francine Blau, an economist at Cornell University, says that working mothers are especially vulnerable to professional setbacks right now, for two reasons. First, before the pandemic, women on average spent twice as much time as men caring for other members of their household, according to government time-use data. That means that as families have had to figure out new child-care arrangements during the pandemic, many women have, by cultural default, spent more time looking after their kids, which affects their ability to work.

Second, “if it becomes difficult for both parents to give work the same amount of attention that they would have under normal circumstances, it makes economic sense in many households to prioritize the husband’s career,” Blau told me, given that men are much more likely to be the higher earner in straight couples. “If we have to do a triage, in many cases it’ll be the wife’s career that suffers.”

Of course, this isn’t always the case. Daniel Olmstead, a 43-year-old in Petaluma, California, has lately been in charge of child care, homeschooling, shopping, cooking, and other tasks in his household while his wife works from home—she has a steady income, while he’s been looking to start a career in a new field after finishing a data-science graduate program last year. “It feels like being trapped: Time is limited, something has to be sacrificed, and the rational candidate is clearly my nascent career,” he told me in an email.

During the past few months, looking after the kids, mixed with short bouts of networking and working on his professional portfolio, has worn Olmstead down; he said he hasn’t been able to sleep through the night, and sometimes gets anxiety-induced eye twitches and headaches. And this is a household in which one parent is able to work from home and keep the family financially afloat. Parents who are only able to work in person and don’t have a partner who can afford to be a full-time stay-at-home parent are likely even more overwhelmed.

Workers who can’t manage both their job and child care are left with some unpleasant choices. Dana Sumpter and Mona Zanhour, both business professors at California State University at Long Beach, have been interviewing working mothers about their experiences during the pandemic. Their research is in its early stages, but Sumpter told me that so far they’ve heard more women talk about the possibility of reducing their hours than leaving their job entirely.

That’s at least better than the alternative. “It is difficult to reenter the workplace once someone has left it,” Sumpter said. “A career hiatus can impact one’s career trajectory, not to mention lifetime earnings, [and] it also affects women’s identity, self-esteem, and well-being.” Reducing one’s schedule to part-time, though, can also come at a high cost, because many white-collar employers disproportionately compensate those who can work longer hours.

Even working mothers who haven’t switched to part-time or temporarily left their job can feel like they’re falling behind professionally during the pandemic. Annie McMahon Whitlock, a professor living in Clarkston, Michigan, spent much of the spring semester working and parenting in three-hour shifts, alternating with her husband. She told me that writing up her research was “very slow going” during those stressed-out three-hour periods.

Falling behind on her writing was frustrating too, as she saw some men in her field become “super productive” with their own output. “I look at them and go, ‘When did they have the time to do all this writing?’” Whitlock said. “If you have to work on the child-care aspect, you’re not going to be able to get those book contracts [and] get those articles out, so you might not get promoted.” Before the pandemic, she said, she knew women at other universities who would rather lie about being sick than tell their co-workers that they were taking a day off to care for their sick child, and she worries that academia has only become less hospitable to working mothers in the past few months.

This is a concern that Melissa Mazmanian, a co-author of Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working, and Parenting in the Digital Age, raised when I interviewed her last month. During the pandemic, working parents with young children “are fundamentally not going to be able to be as productive as someone who’s been on their computer for eight hours at home with grown kids or without kids,” she told me. “Who’s going to get promoted two years from now? Or who’s going to lose their job two months from now?”

Indeed, Whitlock has observed, based on her and her friends’ experiences, that any initial concern for the needs of working parents has tapered off. “People were very understanding in March and April that people had kids at home,” she said. “We’re getting into July, and in general people are sort of over it … [During conversations about] reopening, everyone's saying we can all work remotely still, [but that ignores] the fact that that’s the same thing we were doing in March, and that was really hard.”

Are any working parents not having a hard time? Kabaklian-Slentz said that some she knows seem to be faring all right—one is a mother who used to travel a lot for work, and who has been enjoying the time at home—but “everybody else is either not working or has been pulling their hair out.”

One of the exceptions she mentioned stuck out. It was a couple who had already been considering, before the pandemic, relocating their family to New Zealand, and who are now going through with the move, in part because they expect that their daughters will be able to safely go to school there. They’ve settled on what can seem like the only solution to the problem that’s making the lives of so many American working parents worse: Leave the country.