Tuesday was the first day in more than a month that Eileen Funke, 43, had both of her children in school and was feeling well enough herself to get anything done. A Slinky of sickness had uncoiled between her 7-year-old daughter, her 3-year-old son and herself with the colds that have been circulating through her kids’ two schools in Santa Monica, Calif.
But things were looking up: Her daughter had just gotten her first coronavirus vaccine shot, and with both of them in school, Funke could turn to the tasks to do around the house and errands to run in the scant hours she had between drop-offs and pickups.
Still, Funke knew better than to bank on hope that this ephemeral calm could be her new normal. Even with the promise of a future normalcy, she said, she hasn’t been able to consider when she will go back to work.
“People have been asking me for the past several months, ‘So, what are you doing?’ What am I doing? I’m keeping my family alive from day to day,” Funke, a consultant for media companies, said.
Like so many other mothers of young children, Funke left the workforce in September 2020. That’s when she realized that “this cannot continue,” she said, referring to working at home for a major media company while supervising online school and her toddler and attending to the myriad chores that popped up while her family of four followed covid protocols in their apartment for months.
Funke is just one of 1.3 million mothers between 25 and 54 that have left the workforce since February 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s September 2021 Current Population Survey. While women, particularly mothers of young children, have been dropping out of the workforce throughout the pandemic, both September 2020 and September 2021 showed higher-than-expected numbers of moms exiting the workforce. That’s been attributed to the closure of schools — or more recently, the uncertain continuity of in-person schooling with the delta variant.
At the outset of the pandemic, women, and particularly women of color, in service industry jobs like retail, restaurants and caregiving lost jobs at staggering rates. But new research shows college-educated mothers with a remote work option were most likely to leave their jobs as they shouldered the extreme demands of child care and domestic duties.
“Telework was not the savior,” said Misty Heggeness, principal economist at the U.S. Census Bureau who was the lead researcher on a study published by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “The pandemic has really demonstrated that there is a lingering space in our society in which gender inequalities still dominate and we haven’t made as much progress.”
Heggeness’s research shows that although remote work and increased flexibility can increase women’s labor force participation, those factors alone “are necessary but not necessarily sufficient,” she said. The innovations were considered pivotal, she said — in normal times.
“The pandemic has shown us that child care availability is just as important of an issue in increasing women’s labor force participation today because gendered norms within households still mean that, on average, domestic chores and child-care responsibilities fall disproportionately on women,” Heggeness added.
The researcher sees it play out in her own life. Heggeness and her husband are both working at home, but when her 11-year-old son was sent home to quarantine for 10 days after an exposure at school, she was the one her son would go to throughout the day, she said.
For decades, flexible work — remote, part-time or telework — was heralded as a tool to further gender equity in the workforce.
But the pandemic has exposed the cracks in the tenuous structures enabling even some college-educated mothers to maintain their careers and home lives, as child care, either in the form of extended family or care centers, became unavailable.
Joan Williams, professor and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, has been advocating for flexible work for decades with the goal of gender parity. She sees the mass acceptance of remote work as one of the silver linings of covid-19. And while she believes that shift will help working moms going forward, she also recognizes the flip side of what Heggeness’s research revealed — that other societal norms remained mostly unchallenged.
“One of the reasons why mothers are so incredibly stressed out and quitting is that we thought at the start of the pandemic, ‘Now fathers are finally going to see everything that mothers do around the house, and they will show up,’” she said. “Well, they didn’t show up.”
According to Williams, this is backed up by the documented unequal distribution of domestic labor, or the “fairness gap.” In other words, she said, the pandemic did not transform women’s home life as much as it did their offices.
Indeed, the pandemic thrust many working mothers fully into two full-time jobs, without the usual support of schools, camps, lessons, after-school activities, grandparents — not to mention completely disrupted routines and balancing health needs for their families, both physical and mental.
“When we talk about the benefits of flexible work, the working assumption is that children are at school or in day care and that people are at home working,” said Marianne Cooper, a sociologist conducting research at Stanford University. “The assumption is not that someone is regularly getting interrupted to log in a kid into a class, coach them through school assignments and fix them lunch. If you wanted to examine the benefits of flexible work, this isn’t the experiment you’d run.”
She said that companies could counter some of the losses their employees — both current and future — have had to shoulder during the pandemic as part of their corporate culture and policies going forward. This includes clearly laying out on-ramps for mothers as they reenter the workforce.
Companies “should think about their role in addressing the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on mothers’ careers,” Cooper said. “This should be top of mind in recruiting and hiring efforts.”
For Funke, despite a glimpse of a potential horizon with childhood vaccinations more readily available and fewer disruptions at schools, going back to work — which, for her, can involve international travel as well as working from home — seems too daunting to consider right now.
“It would be a mental break to go back to work, but I’m too exhausted to do it,” she said. “And we’re not there yet in terms of our family unit functioning.”
In the meantime, on Tuesday evening, she went over to help a friend who is moving cross-country pack up a six-bedroom house and had an unexpected getaway — a dinner by herself in an empty space, watching TV on her phone.
“I had nothing to do,” she said. “I had the best time.”