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Mothering in a Pandemic

Society relies on the unpaid, invisible work of parents—mostly mothers—to care for children and to buffer kids from trauma and stress. Supporting that work during COVID-19 requires direct cash support to families.

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As the crisis in the business sector occupies Congress, the quieter crisis in many American homes goes largely unnoticed. In theory, all parents of young children must now navigate a world without schools and daycare. But in practice, the heaviest burden falls on mothers, especially single ones, who face a near-impossible choice between caring for their children and staying afloat financially.

Despite some progress toward gender equality, mothers in different-sex couples still do the lion’s share of childcare. Most mothers, even those with babies and toddlers, now hold paid jobs, but even so, mothers bear the heaviest burden. They not only do the greater share of hands-on care, but they also tend to take on what we might call child management: the work of arranging for childcare and filling in when those arrangements fall through. When the babysitter is sick, the daycare is closed, or school vacation rolls around, it is primarily mothers who must scramble for alternatives—or sacrifice their own work to stay at home. These dynamics persist even when both mothers and fathers work full time. Women also take on the greatest load of caring for elderly family members and for people who are sick—including COVID-19 victims.

We can hope that the pandemic will actually help equalize parenting roles, at least in two-parent families. With both mom and dad on site 24/7, perhaps they will hash out a more egalitarian division of labor. But that rosy scenario must be balanced against the reality that married mothers in different-sex couples tend to have lower-paid and lower-status jobs. Even with the best of intentions, couples may find that the economic threat of the pandemic intensifies the personal, professional, and societal dynamics that lead couples to give priority to the father’s job and working time over the mother’s.

In a personal essay in Slate, Emily Gould captures why these decisions feel rational, even necessary in a time of crisis. “Our long-term stability as a family hinges on whether my husband can do the work he needs to do this year in order to keep his salaried job,” she writes. “If there is only enough time for one of us to work, it doesn’t make sense for that person to be me.”

The gendered impact of the pandemic falls hardest on the eight million mothers who are raising children alone. Single mothers tend to earn low wages, to work in service occupations, and to have limited access to benefits like health insurance and pensions. At the same time, they have principal, and often sole, responsibility for the care of their children. Many have little or no financial support from the nonresident parent.

Single mothers now face a personal—and nonetheless tragic—choice. With schools closed and daycare shuttered, children need a parent at home. But a single mother who stays home can risk eviction and starvation: without a paycheck, the rent goes unpaid, and groceries are unaffordable. These risks are most pressing for the lowest-paid workers. But as the lockdown continues, more and more white-collar mothers, too, will find themselves without a paycheck if they cannot work. Going to work—if childcare can somehow be found—now poses a literal physical danger not only to the woman but to her children as well.

Going to work—if childcare can somehow be found—now poses a literal physical danger not only to the woman but to her children as well.

Although the tradeoff between personal safety and a paycheck now confronts many workers, single mothers face an especially high-stakes choice because of their children. Child trauma experts point out that the pandemic has imposed great stress on children. Quarantine has disrupted children’s routines. In some places children cannot even play outside. At the same time, shelter-in-place protocols have cut off children from their friends, their teachers, and their extended family. In some cases of shared custody, the pandemic has cut off children from their nonresident parent.

From an adult’s perspective, these schedule disruptions may seem small and temporary. Surely kids will enjoy a break from school and a few extra hours of screen time. And, after all, it’s we adults who have to worry about the big stuff, like jobs and putting food on the table. But from a child’s perspective, the disruptions caused by quarantine are not minor matters. Younger children’s developing bodies and brains need predictability and routine as well as productive stimulation. And older children may worry intensely about the danger of COVID-19 to themselves and their families.

Nor is the COVID-19 experience just a short-term blip of stress that will necessarily fade when the pandemic threat wanes in a year or eighteen months. Some children will bounce back with no ill effects, but the science of trauma suggests that some children may experience biological changes that pose long-term risks for their physical and mental health. As Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child explains:

Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.

The best preventative factor and remedy for children facing stress is close, reliable, and loving care by parents. We sometimes think that resilience is inborn, a character trait that people simply have or don’t have. But studies show that resilience in children is strongly linked to parental care:

The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult. These relationships provide the personalized responsiveness, scaffolding, and protection that buffer children from developmental disruption. They also build key capacities—such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior—that enable children to respond adaptively to adversity and thrive.

While parental care can be supplemented by care from teachers and childcare workers, substitute care too should be warm, personalized, predictable, and supportive of each child’s needs. But this kind of ideal childcare is hard to find (and to afford) even in the best of times. Cobbled together care in a pandemic may fall woefully short.

And so the pandemic’s dilemmas are especially dark for single mothers and their children. Staying at home may not be a feasible economic option, but leaving home to work may not be possible without schools and childcare. Shelter-in-place orders can also make it difficult or impossible to rely on child-care assistance from friends and relatives.

Some states and cities have begun to provide emergency childcare assistance to essential workers. But these efforts will likely be taxed by the demand. Counting only frontline health care workers, there are a stunning four million parents with children under the age of fourteen. Emergency measures of limited scope cannot feasibly replace the role of schools, day care, and summer activities for the larger number of children whose parents will need to return to work to make ends meet.

The point is not just that the pandemic imposes hardship on families. That is true, but there is a deeper problem of social fairness at stake. Society relies on the unpaid, invisible work of parents—mostly mothers—to care for children and to buffer kids from trauma and stress. Today, with schools closed, mothers must step into the teachers’ role as well. And the vast majority of mothers will step up, putting their children’s well-being first and making whatever financial and career sacrifices they need to make. We know that that’s what mothers do.

But a fair society should reward rather than punish people who sacrifice their own interests for the good of society. We all share a stake in the development of the next generation. The trauma of the pandemic is very real for children, and so is the buffering effect of parental care. When mothers make sacrifices for their kids, they are performing a critical social role that allows the rest of us, quite literally, to go about our business, unencumbered by the care of the young and the vulnerable.  

A fair policy response would recognize that the burden of family care will fall hardest on the parents of young children and, particularly, on mothers. But, so far, Congress has instead chosen to focus, as it did during the 2008 Great Recession, on business. Industries from airlines to restaurants have lined up to ask for bailouts, while benefits for families have been small, partial, and temporary.

To be sure, some business-focused policies will help mothers, but only unevenly so and indirectly. The Paycheck Protection Program is far from a universal jobs guarantee, and unemployment insurance assists some but not all laid-off working parents. (Many workers are not covered because they have not worked long enough at the same job or because they work part-time.) The one-time stimulus payments of $1,200 per adult (plus $500 per child) provided welcome but short-term relief for families. Even family leave programs expanded during the pandemic provide uneven assistance: the new rules provide a mix of paid and unpaid leave for up to twelve weeks to parents who cannot work because of childcare responsibilities, but many parents will not qualify because their firms are not required to provide the leave.

A better approach would send financial relief directly to families rather than indirectly via the business sector. A universal basic income (UBI), paid for the duration of the pandemic, would provide economic security and would be simple to administer and distribute. To address the burden on families with young children, the UBI could include a supplemental payment for families with children (and other dependents who need daily care).

The UBI has most recently been championed by presidential candidate Andrew Yang as a response to technology-driven unemployment, but it is a program with a long and distinguished history—and one that could be especially valuable to mothers. The two key features of UBI are that it is universal and that it pays cash. Universality means that all families receive the money, in sharp contrast to the Paycheck Protection Program and unemployment benefits, which provide spotty coverage. With a UBI, if you are a human being, you get cash; and if you have children (or other dependents who need daily care), you get more cash.

The cash payout provided by a UBI is also especially valuable to families, because it permits parents to make choices keyed to their own, individual circumstances. Some parents would use the cash to help pay for reliable childcare and go back to work. Others would use the cash to cushion a period of staying at home with the kids. The right choice is highly individual, depending on the nature of a parent’s job, the needs and ages of children, and the kind of substitute care available. These are precisely the choices that society relies on parents—especially mothers—to make, because they will, by and large, make choices that put their children first.

Although the level of UBI assistance—on the order of, say, $1,000 per month—might seem small to some, it would provide a critical baseline of economic security for single parents and for lower-earning married couples. Children benefit enormously from family stability, and a UBI could contribute directly by creating a predictable income guarantee that could lower parental stress and permit parents to make stable plans.

To be sure, a program of this size and scale would be expensive in budgetary terms. With twenty-five million families with children under the age of twelve, a universal benefit of even $1,000 per month, paid per-family to married couples and to single parents alike, would cost $300 billion annually. Income-testing the benefits would lower the outlays needed (although at the price of introducing extra complexity into the program). Still, even though numbers like these are staggering, they are in line with the scale of relief efforts already underway. Congress’s first coronavirus relief legislation cost $2 trillion, and negotiations for more are in progress.

As small (and large) businesses line up for relief, Congress should take notice of the parents, mostly mothers, who are doing some of society’s most important work by taking responsibility for children.

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