Sarah Howlett always equated peace with a clean space. But during the height of the pandemic, the freelance journalist and mother of 8-year-old twins found it impossible.
With her kids at home, Howlett found herself cooking additional meals for the family, supervising their Google Meet classes, doing “tons more laundry” and “more gross bathroom cleaning.” These responsibilities fell to her in exchange for her husband taking the lead on homework, a task she wanted to stay far away from.
Since he was working full time and had less flexibility than she did, it made sense for her to take on this work, said Howlett, who lives in Boulder, Colo. Even though her husband would relieve her when he could, doing the dishes and putting laundry away for example, it was still overwhelming.
“When they’re here, they’re busy and messy and having fun and changing clothes. It kind of never stops,” she said. “You’re cleaning up the craft project to put dinner on the same table.”
With less energy to put toward her writing and being an attentive partner, Howlett struggled with the feeling that she was failing — at everything. It was familiar to her friends who were also moms.
“I just had sad days where I just felt like everything was falling apart,” she said.
A study from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. finds that, far from creating more balance in the home, the pandemic caused an increase in working moms’ housework and caregiving responsibilities. According to the report, moms were more than three times as likely as fathers to take on most of the domestic labor during the pandemic, and were 1.5 times more likely than working dads to spend an additional three hours or more on housework and child care each day.
“What we found was mothers are now doing a double-double shift,” said Alexis Krivkovich, a senior partner at McKinsey and one of the authors of the report.
The increased workload may explain the stark difference in mental well-being that working parents reported in the same study. While a majority of dads reported better mental well-being as a result of working from home — 71 percent — only 41 percent of mothers reported the same.
Krivkovich worries there are long-term implications to this, some of which is reflected in the data.
Working mothers were more likely than fathers to say they feared being judged negatively at work because of their caregiving responsibilities, while 1 in 3 working moms said they had thought of stepping back or quitting their careers entirely. Krivkovich noted that this was the first time in the six years since McKinsey started its annual report that researchers had seen such numbers.
“For many women, this has become truly untenable,” said Krivkovich.
The new report pulls from McKinsey’s annual Women in the Workplace study, done in collaboration with Lean In, but brings in new data to highlight the extraordinary impact of the pandemic on mothers, in particular. It focuses on dual-earner, heterosexual couples in North America and how they reported splitting labor in the home.
While working women have long advocated greater schedule flexibility and remote work options, the pandemic forced parents into “an experiment on flexibility” that wasn’t equitable, Krivkovich noted.
“We also added home schooling, more household responsibilities, elder care, all of the infrastructure that was built to enable women to get into the workplace was stripped away.”
The pandemic and its economic toll has fallen disproportionately on women, who lost jobs at higher rates than men. And even as recent jobs reports show women are gaining back jobs they’ve lost, an analysis from the National Women’s Law Center cautioned that nearly 500,000 American women would need to reenter the workforce each month for more than a year to return to their pre-pandemic employment levels.
There has also been a racial dynamic to the “she-cession,” with Black women and Latinas facing much higher unemployment rates than the national average for women. But for Black and Latina moms who remained employed throughout the pandemic, their workload at home was even greater than White women.
Black mothers were twice as likely than White moms to say they were responsible for all the housework and child care during the pandemic, while Latina mothers were 1.6 times more likely to take on these responsibilities than White moms. This was despite the fact that they were also more likely to be the primary breadwinners.
Sociologist Jessica Calarco, an associate professor at Indiana University, has been studying the gender inequalities within families during the pandemic. She noted that many times, the “default parent” — the person taking on primary caretaking and household responsibilities — is the one who earns less money, has more flexibility in their work schedule, or has put in more hours raising the children. Often times, she says, this parent is the mom.
But in her research, Calarco encountered Black and Latina moms, especially those in working-class and lower-middle-income households, who were both the breadwinner and the “default parent.” This happened because they worked in administrative and service jobs that allowed them to work from home, but their partners had jobs that didn’t allow for remote work.
For these women, there “really wasn’t a choice" to take on more responsibilities during the workday, Calarco said.
Even in instances when work is split fairly equally, as is the case for Monica LaBarge and her husband, moms still worry that their lack in productivity during the pandemic might have downstream effects on their career.
LaBarge is a professor at a Canadian university. When her two kids, 3 and 6 years old, were at home, she opted to do the cooking while her husband was responsible for doing the dishes and the laundry.
“If we were able to trade off and get two or three hours of work each day, that would have been a miracle,” she said. LaBarge worries that when she goes up for promotions in the future, she’ll look bad in comparison to male colleagues whose work wasn’t similarly disrupted.
“Is somebody going to remember, 10 years from now, ‘well, that’s why you have a gap in what you accomplished this year?’” LaBarge wondered. “I doubt that’s going to happen.”
Calarco is concerned about the long-term impact the pandemic can have on working moms and mental health, especially if there isn’t more institutional support for them.
“I’m worried about the way this has undermined women’s confidence in their own abilities, as moms, workers and partners, because women have been asked to do so much on their own, oftentimes without support from others, without support, in some cases, from their partners,” said Calarco.
She noted that the pandemic, rather than creating the inequality, exaggerated it. Women were already being paid lower amounts for the same job, or were over-represented in lower-paying fields. They were already compromising on salary and working hours for flexibility. They were already the “default parent.”
Addressing these inequities, she said, requires large-scale, societal solutions, such as affordable, universally accessible child care and paid family leave.
Krivkovich highlighted that moms of color typically have much less support and resources than their peers, and are less likely to share those experiences in their workplace. They require targeted support that acknowledges their increased responsibilities, she said.
She would also like to see “true ramp back programs” for working moms, with pathways toward leadership positions, and not penalizing employees for gaps.
As some of the child-care infrastructure that fell apart during the pandemic is built back up — and as more workers insist on keeping flexible working conditions — she sees an opportunity for companies to meet the moment.
“It gives us the potential to come out the other side really in a better place.”