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Economist: 'We need to get over this idea' that working moms have a choice

·Assistant Editor
·3-min read

The pandemic has placed working parents — especially working moms — in a bind.

As day care centers closed and schools shifted to distance learning, mothers were more likely than fathers to reduce their hours or leave the workforce to manage childcare and other household responsibilities.

But for many mothers, leaving work was never a viable option. 

“I think we need to get over this idea that mothers can come and go out of the labor market if they please," Misty Heggeness, principal economist at the U.S. Census Bureau, told Yahoo Finance (video above). "For a lot of mothers, that's not an option."

In April 2020, as the pandemic shut down American society, almost half (45%) of mothers with school-aged children left active work, meaning they either shifted to paid or unpaid leave, were laid off, or dropped out of the labor force altogether.

The active work status of working mothers and fathers of school-age children shows a steep decline in April 2020 followed by a rebound.  (Source: Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Working moms saw a particularly steep job decline in April 2020, followed by a rebound. (Source: 'Tracking Job Losses for Mothers of School-Age Children During a Health Crisis')

Over time, as the pandemic progressed and society slowly re-opened, many of those jobs returned.

"If you look at the data, there hasn't been a huge shift in moms leaving in droves the labor force,” Heggeness said. “There was a big hit when the pandemic first happened. But they have recovered. And so I think we need to be thinking about this a little bit differently.”

Working moms feeling 'a lot of strain'

Prior to the pandemic, two-thirds of mothers were breadwinners who brought in at least half of their household's earnings or co-breadwinners who brought in at least a quarter of household earnings.

Women of color, in particular, were more likely to be breadwinners than white women. That cohort also faced disproportionately higher unemployment rates, with Black women and Asian women seeing the sharpest job losses. 

“I think there's a lot of ways in which the pandemic has been extremely disruptive in our lives,” Heggeness said. “And for parents, particularly parents who work, one of the biggest struggles has been trying to balance formal paid labor with domestic unpaid labor that we do in our house with our families every day.”

Working moms are increasingly key to household income. (Source: CAP)
Working moms are increasingly key to household income. (Source: CAP)

Many families cobbled together solutions to ensure needs were met, using vacation days and sick days to look after children or moving to part-time work or shifting to a lower role that offered more flexibility.

“Not all moms have a choice to quit paid labor if they need to provide additional assistance to their children and other people in their household,” Heggeness said. “We're seeing a lot of strain.”

Childcare remains an issue

Amid fears that women had been set back decades, there have been growing calls for President Biden to make family policies like paid leave a core economic initiative and to include child care in the infrastructure package. 

Child care remains a disruptor to full-time employment, according to the Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey from June 23 through July 5.

Sonia Maestre cares for her twins Cristina and Alvaro while she works at home in Palma de Mallorca on May 19, 2020, during the national lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease. - Sonia,42, is a single mother that works from home as a state official while she takes care of her children. Spain began last week a three-phase plan to end lockdowns for half the country by the end of June. The lockdown measures initially imposed were among the strictest in Europe. (Photo by JAIME REINA / AFP) (Photo by JAIME REINA/AFP via Getty Images)
Many working moms have been the breadwinners of their families. (Photo by JAIME REINA/AFP)

In households where children were unable to attend day care or another child care arrangement due to the pandemic in the previous four weeks, 25% of survey respondents said that an adult took unpaid leave to care for children; 22% said that an adult took paid leave, such as vacation time or sick leave, to care for children; 26% said that an adult cut their work hours to care for children; and 16% said that an adult left a job to care for children.

“We don't live in the 1950s anymore,” Heggeness said. “Mothers are breadwinners, and I think that that is something that we need to keep in mind when we're thinking about the pandemic and its impact.”

Grace is an assistant editor for Yahoo Finance and a UX writer for Yahoo products.

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