The Help That Never Came

The pandemic’s lockdowns and school closures put parents under unprecedented pressure—and moms, not dads, took the strain.

A photo-illustration of a bucket of spilled Lego bricks.
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent for NPR and the author, most recently, of The Stolen Year: How COVID Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now.

At the start of the 2020 lockdown, we had a 3-year-old who needed near-constant supervision. My third grader, in public school, generally had about an hour’s worth of unchallenging remote lessons a day. We were grateful that our downstairs tenant, who lives alone and is a freelancer, agreed to share a bubble with us and provide 20 hours a week of child care in exchange for a break on rent.

My husband has a challenging job and makes more money than I do. He tries hard to be egalitarian. We divided up the direct hours of daily child care as equally as possible. But our relationship had subtle imbalances common among many straight couples.

For example, he had set up his home office, years before the pandemic, in the basement. He was literally insulated from the sounds of unhappy children. I had a small office for my public-radio work upstairs, next to the kids’ bedroom. No matter who was supposed to be on duty, my preschooler rattled the door or stormed in if I forgot to lock it, sometimes asking for a hug, sometimes in full meltdown mode. I know her voice came through at least once while I was live on air.

Before COVID-19, I managed the children’s schedules and planned their activities. I report on schools for a living, which provided some logic for why I was the one to research preschools and after-school programs and summer camps, to make spreadsheets and show up to parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings.

My husband picked up relaxing, optional household tasks during the pandemic, perfecting his sourdough bread and kombucha. I did the grocery shopping, the meal planning, and most of the cooking. On one occasion, I freaked out because we were out of dark-green vegetables but running to the grocery store for a single item seemed like an unacceptable risk.

Most of all, as a mom, I felt burdened with a new mental load. The fear, uncertainty, and doubt that came with COVID-19 required constant recalculations of risk and fresh backup plans—additional emotional labor. Do I send the kids to school or day care, or do I keep them home? Do I order takeout? Wipe down my groceries? Is it okay to see Grandma with masks on? Are my friends on the group text mad at me for not responding quickly enough? Is my daughter just in a mood, or is she depressed? Is that tickle in the back of my throat COVID? Whom should I trust: the CDC or the president or my friends on Facebook?

As that suggests, the fact that this was a public-health crisis hit moms especially hard. Of the many papers I’ve read in my research, one that stuck was “Dad, Wash Your Hands.” Through interviews conducted with college students and members of their households, Janani Umamaheswar and Catherine Tan found that “gender differences in attitudes toward risk are influenced by the unique and strenuous care-work responsibilities generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which are borne primarily by women—and from which men are exempt.”

Gender differences showed up in other studies of responses to the pandemic. Men were more likely to have severe outcomes from COVID, yet they were less likely to report wearing masks. When the vaccines appeared, they were slower to get one.

Women, in my experience, are generally more aware of risk than men are and pay more attention to health. We report high rates of anxiety. We are more likely than men to seek medical help. We are overrepresented in much frontline health-care work, as well as in other caring professions.

Studies have indicated that many women are socialized to have a clearer picture of friendship and kinship networks—which matters during a pandemic when the disease is a social predator, spreading through close contact with other people.

In short, during the early months of the pandemic, women were often more worried about the coronavirus—and did more of the work to keep themselves and others safe. That contributed, in a vicious cycle, to their being more worried, as well as more tired. Men were more likely to exempt themselves from all of the above.

I should note that most of the social-science research I cite here is limited to a cisgender, heterosexual norm. Where the emotional and practical toll of the pandemic is concerned, some research suggests that single parents and male same-sex couples fared better, in certain respects, than heterosexual couples raising kids.

Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University, does qualitative research that involves interviewing mothers about their well-being. When the pandemic hit, she switched to asking them about that experience. The mothers who worried her the most were those who stayed in the workforce while taking on more of the burden at home.

Aside from the stresses of career and employment for working moms, she told me, “they’re also getting slammed in terms of their mental health, in terms of their relationships, in terms of their ability to remain patient with their partners and their kids.”

According to a paper co-authored by Calarco, about 40 percent of mothers with young children felt more frustrated with their partners during the pandemic. This was especially true when the fathers didn’t help as much with caregiving or were dismissive of their partner’s concerns about the coronavirus.

“Mothers blame themselves for these conflicts,” the paper found, “and feel responsible for reducing them, including by leaving the workforce, beginning use of antidepressants, or ignoring their own concerns about COVID-19.”

Plenty of fathers did help, of course. Studies found that those who were able to work from home picked up more domestic work, especially early on. One study found that men did more child care during the pandemic than they did before it, but not necessarily more housework. A New York Times poll suggested that women did more of the remote schooling.

“The division of work has become more equal. But at the same time, women are [still] doing more than men,” Daniel Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Utah, told me. “And I know that that sounds like ‘How is that possible?’ But if you think about it in terms of what men were doing before, even a marginal increase in their labor is going to result in more equality.” The paradox is that the number of hours women are putting in has gone up more in absolute terms, even as men are putting in relatively more hours than before. These inequities held true for most of the mothers I spent time with.

In rural Oklahoma, a woman I call Jeannie (a pseudonym, as she, like some others I interviewed, asked for anonymity in order to discuss sensitive family matters) was raising five kids with her ex-husband. They are members of the Cherokee Nation. Her ex-husband was working long hours, often six days a week, at a chicken-feed mill. He was still living in the house, but he and Jeannie typically communicated by text. He was a safe person to leave the kids with, and he helped financially. But she despaired of getting him to make dinner, oversee schooling, do the grocery shopping, tidy the house, take care of the pets, or drive the girls to gymnastics, more than an hour each way.

“He was supposed to step up. I told him, ‘You’re going to have to help me. I cannot do it all.’ And he said okay,” she told me. “And he did not. I don’t think he knows how.”

Her ex admitted as much. “She definitely was overwhelmed,” he told me. “I didn’t help her as much as I should. And we got into several arguments about that. She was calling my job an escape, so I didn’t have to help.”

Across the country, in Deanwood—a predominantly Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C.—Patricia Stamper’s husband, Pete, was hands on with his kids when he was around. But like Jeannie’s husband, he worked more hours out of the house than Patricia did. She did most of the cooking and cleaning.

Dara Kass was working as an emergency-room doctor while her husband, Michael, worked from home in New York. They had full-time, live-in help from their au pair, plus occasional help from her parents. She told me that she took on more of the mental load, including the decision making about activities, the family’s health, and remote learning. Dara said that Michael did step up, and the example she had was telling: She gave him a lot of credit for buying the family’s Hanukkah gifts for the first time in their 15-year marriage.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “And it’s not that he wouldn’t have before. It’s like, when is he ever home to get the packages, and when is he ever home to wrap the presents, and when is he ever home to make the list and double-check it?”

Some research suggests that when women earn more than their husbands, as Patricia does, they actually do more of the domestic labor. Even when husbands are unemployed and wives are working, the women still do more at home on average.

Women who are powerful and accomplished at work sometimes feel the need to take on the lioness’s share of care and oversight of their children at home. Psychologists sometimes call this “maternal gatekeeping” or “perfectionism,” but Calarco’s explanation rings more true to me. “There are these deep patriarchal norms that exist in society,” she told me. “And they tell women, oftentimes for the economic benefit and power of men, that they should be the ones who are devoting their whole selves to their children and to family.”

Not only are you bringing home the bacon and frying it up, you’re then washing the pan, disinfecting the kitchen, putting the kids to bed, and doing the laundry. My friend Emily calls it “momchismo.”

Women in 2020 were staggering under a teetering pile of extra work and responsibility, conflict over who would actually do the work, loss of social support, and general uncertainty, grief, and helplessness. They reported big increases in anxiety, loneliness, and depression. In one survey, nearly half of mothers with children home for remote learning reported that their mental health had worsened, compared with just 30 percent of fathers who said the same. (Granted, there may be a reporting bias in these numbers, as many men are socialized to not talk about their mental health.)

Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist and an author specializing in women’s mental health, told me that the pandemic brought a huge increase in clinical depression and anxiety among her patients. Symptoms were more severe—anxious people were having panic attacks, and depressed people had thoughts of suicide. Lakshmin put this down to one big factor: the mental load.

Some women drank more during the pandemic. There was a sharp rise in alcoholic liver disease among younger women in their 30s. Some reported more drug use; some reported weight gain. According to an Israeli survey, mothers’ reports of clinical insomnia, which correlated with reported anxiety about the pandemic, doubled. All of this affected children: According to one study, rising caregiver depression was the most significant predictor of parents reporting that they were not caring as well for their children.

A lack of child-care options and too much unstructured time also contributed. “[Mothers] really described the loss of their typical support network and a lot of challenges around the breakdown of routines,” said the clinical psychologist Leslie Roos at the University of Manitoba, who has small children of her own. “Relatives, other moms, going to the playground—all of that went away.”

Early in the pandemic, one woman I spent time with, a nonprofit communications specialist on the West Coast, was raising a son with autism and ADHD; she also took in a foster child. She experienced severe mood swings and cried often. Kass, in New York, took Ambien in the early days to help her turn off her brain and sleep. Another mother I met, in St. Louis, was raising eight children while working at a homeless shelter; she smoked marijuana and repeated positive affirmations. Jeannie, in Oklahoma, had struggled with anxiety and depression for years. She went on and off different psychiatric medications during the early months of the pandemic, put on weight, and experienced suicidal thoughts.

“It’s easy to say, ‘I need help,’ but I don’t know where to go,” Jeannie told me. “School counselors tell me where to take my children, but for adults, it’s not easily available. And I don’t have time for that. So … I put myself on the back burner.”

Some mothers were able to find that elusive silver lining. One key seemed to be that they weren’t in the workforce. A team of researchers from the University of Chicago interviewed nearly 600 low-income primary caregivers of toddlers in Chicago from May to July 2020. They asked respondents, among other things, how often they felt depressed, how often they found themselves yelling at their child, and how often they were having positive interactions with their children—such as “hugging or cuddling” or “playing a game”—relative to before the pandemic. The team expected to find worse mental health and impaired family functioning. In general, they did. Stress was up and depression was more common; parents got impatient with their children. But 9 percent of the sample was different: Parents who had lost a job but were able to replace their lost income through pandemic relief money reported fewer adverse effects on their mental health than the other respondents did, and more positive interactions with their children: more cuddles, more games.

“Even during this pandemic, where you have this big kind of shock of an unexpected increase in time [spent caregiving], parents really seem to find the value in this,” Ariel Kalil, one of the paper’s co-authors, told me. “There are rewards.”

The overall verdict is clear: Most mothers did more domestic labor during the pandemic than fathers did and more than they themselves had done before—even as many continued to work for wages. They also tended to worry about COVID more. It took a heavy toll on them, economically, mentally, and physically—and on their children. And many blamed themselves.

Sitting in my own sometimes-chaotic house, trading off work meetings with my husband and wondering what to cook for dinner, I read story after story after story about the disproportionate burden falling on mothers. I muttered expletives. Where. Are. The. Dads?

A rational-actor theory of economics might predict that a two-earner family, at a time of enormous economic uncertainty, would adjust the division of paid and unpaid labor to keep both earners in the workforce if possible. And most two-parent households in the United States rely on both parents’ incomes to get by. Leaving the workforce or cutting back on hours, even temporarily, has lasting costs—affecting not just immediate household income but future career prospects and retirement savings.

On the emotional side of the ledger, you might also think that husbands would go above and beyond to prevent their partner from becoming insomniac, drunken, depressed, and anxious. You’d at least expect dads to do what was necessary to keep their offspring from being yelled at by moms at the end of their rope.

And yet, that rarely happened. Families didn’t function as rational economic units. Too often, they reverted to old, patriarchal habits. Dads weren’t pulling their weight often enough; all too frequently, moms picked up the slack.

Employers could and should have done more. Governments, particularly the federal government, could and should have done more. But what I keep coming back to is the call that never came from inside the house. Most heterosexual couples tacitly agreed to sacrifice mothers’ earnings and mental health to the pandemic: a decision as shortsighted as pulling down the timbers of your own house to use as fuel in a snowstorm.

So where do we go from here? Five years ago, the #MeToo movement asked women to confront the men in their lives. It got uncomfortable. There were real consequences in relationships, not just in the public sphere.
We should push for change from government and society, but you can only get so far with public policy. Mothers, and primary caregivers generally, need to pursue personal reckonings about these inequities with the men or other partners in their lives. And men, if you recognize yourself in this essay, you should be the one to start the conversation.

For one thing, when we’re doing too much at home, we have no time or energy to fight for larger political change. And wow, do we need it.

This article is excerpted from Anya Kamenetz’s forthcoming book, The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now.