The Pandemic Exposed the Inequality of American Motherhood

Rich and poor women had completely different experiences.

illustration of women working
Illustration by Alex Cochran

In the early days of the pandemic, the outlook for women seemed bleak. Experts predicted that, faced with an uncertain economy in the midst of a public-health crisis, women would have fewer kids, accelerating America’s long-running drop in fertility. For those who already had children, researchers foresaw plunging employment. Schools and day cares were closing. Family members couldn’t come help with child care. It seemed clear that mothers would take on the majority of this additional labor, forcing many to scale back on or opt out of paid work entirely. American family life would be sent back to the 1950s.

Fortunately, these dire predictions never quite materialized. Women did shoulder most child care but, broadly speaking, they weren’t pushed out of the labor market at higher rates than men. Likewise, births did not crater. Instead they rose slightly in 2021. U.S.-born women had about 46,000 more babies than they would have had COVID never hit, according to one recent analysis.

But these broad figures, just like the sweeping prognostications that preceded them, flatten a more complex narrative about what the pandemic was like for women. The virus and its economic fallout affected women in the top tiers of society in very different ways than it did women at the bottom. Those without advanced degrees and high-paying jobs were pressed out of the labor force in far greater numbers, and experienced a slower recovery, than their more privileged counterparts. Similarly, a baby bump among highly educated women overshadowed a baby bust among their peers without a degree. Reducing all of these experiences to a single thread is impossible. There isn’t just one story about women during the pandemic; there are many.

For college-educated women, the tale is framed by the safeguards of privilege. Like their male peers, they were far less likely to lose their job than Americans without a degree. Though some stopped working in the spring of 2020, the group’s employment levels recovered pretty swiftly, according to a recent paper by Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor. And although having children to care for did drive women out of the labor force, the effect seemed less pronounced among those who’d gone to college, Goldin found. In the spring of 2021, the percentage of highly educated mothers with at least one kid under 5 who were working was actually higher than it had been two years prior. And these women kept having kids. Their birth rate remained steady at the start of the pandemic, before increasing substantially in January of 2021 and jumping about 6 percent relative to their pre-COVID trend by year’s end.

The reasons for this resilience are fairly intuitive. Educated women—and, very likely, their partners—worked from home at higher rates, which not only kept them safer from infection and minimized the chances that they’d lose their job but also allowed them to better juggle care and work. In Goldin’s words, advanced schooling “inoculated” workers from the economic impact of the coronavirus. Thanks to generous government-aid programs and a booming stock market, savings and net wealth improved during the pandemic—in all income groups, but especially among more affluent households. This extra money may help explain the baby boom in the laptop class, Hannes Schwandt, one of the authors of the fertility paper, told me. For them, the coronavirus actually offered a good opportunity to start a family.

The narrative followed a much different arc for low-income women and those who hadn’t gone to college. The COVID-related drops in employment were far steeper and more persistent among those with less education, according to Goldin’s analysis. Mothers without a degree, particularly those with very young kids, had an especially sluggish recovery; they continued to lose jobs in 2021, even as employment exceeded pre-pandemic levels for highly skilled mothers of toddlers. Black women were also hit particularly hard. Other research has found similar disparities. For example, a preliminary version of a new study showed that school closures did push some women out of the labor force, but mostly those working low-paying jobs. And though some couples fell into a more traditional male-breadwinner/female-caretaker pattern in 2020, the share of dual earners remains below its pre-COVID rate only among families in which neither partner has a four-year degree. Fertility was also marked by such inequality. Births among women without a college degree declined during the pandemic and never fully recovered. Fertility among Black women also dipped in early 2021 and never entirely bounced back. For those women, there was actually a COVID baby bust.

Poor and less-educated women were not as well insulated from the pandemic’s blows. They left the labor force in greater numbers because they were much more likely to work in service jobs highly susceptible to layoffs, and more likely to face challenges with child care: Most low-income mothers couldn’t work remotely and care for their kids during the workday, and they had less saved to help them afford the ballooning prices of babysitting or day care, an industry that is still in shambles. Under circumstances like these, it’s not surprising that fewer poor women had kids.

Though the fates of privileged and less-advantaged women are starkly different, neither of these stories is simple. Many women with relatively high incomes and higher education still faced the immense stress of working from home with kids underfoot. And although they did not leave the labor market in droves as expected, their careers may have suffered in less obvious ways. The strains of homeschooling while working even seem to show up in fertility data: The baby boom was driven largely by first births. Among women who already had two or more kids, births fell, though they largely bounced back by the end of 2021. By the same token, though outcomes were worse for poor and less-educated women, they still fell short of the catastrophic predictions of 2020. The fact that the baby bust wasn’t more pronounced among women who hadn’t gone to college may be a testament to the aid the government provided through much of the pandemic. And the slower employment recovery among poor mothers might be partly a result of lower-income women having more choices: The unusually strong labor market for workers without degrees, or the various forms of COVID aid, may have made surviving on one income easier and allowed mothers without promising job opportunities or quality child care to stay at home with their kids for a while.

Of course, these explanations reveal inequality of a more insidious sort: Whether working motherhood can be characterized as a privilege or a necessity, a possibility or a burden, is largely dependent on the kinds of work and child care available to you. Many American mothers want to work; others don’t but have to anyway. COVID conditions may have given some poorer women new flexibility, but these circumstances didn’t give them the kinds of opportunities their well-off peers fought so hard to keep. Ultimately, the only coherent story we have to tell about the impact of the pandemic on women is one we’ve heard before: It largely reflected, and in some ways deepened, the inequality long embedded in American motherhood.