Juggling work and kids is always a challenge, but now with the coronavirus shutting down schools, Dusti Arab knows she’s facing a reckoning. A mother of two living in the greater Portland, Oregon, area, Arab had just stopped working in an office and was looking forward to being able to focus on the small marketing agency she runs from her home when coronavirus hit. “This thing destroyed everything I had going on,” she said. “Everything’s a disaster here.” So far she has had to cancel a long-held vacation plan to Europe and figure out how to accommodate her kids on what she now expects will be a very extended spring break. “My kids go to two different schools and are in different districts, so I’m managing a lot, trying to make sure my family and extended family are prepared for this,” she said. Her husband, who typically works out of an office in downtown Portland, will also be working from home for at least the next two weeks, per company mandate – but that doesn’t fix her problems. “He’s great with helping with rides and getting the kids back and forth,” she said, “but this is primarily going to fall on my shoulders.” Arab is one of millions of women who will find themselves needing to step up their roles at home as the coronavirus spreads. Study after study has shown that even as women have stepped forward in the workforce, in married heterosexual couples women still shoulder the bulk of household chores. (A Gallup poll from January found women were more than seven times as likely to care for their children on a daily basis as men in heterosexual married or cohabitating couples.) And 80% of single-parent families are headed by single mothers, according to 2019 US Census Bureau data.
That means when kids come home from school, sick or otherwise – as they are and will be around the country in the coming days and weeks – the answer to the question of who takes care of them is gendered. “Women are typically the chief healthcare officer, the chief entertainment officer, the chief education officer in their homes,” said Kristy Wallace, CEO of Ellevate Network, a group that supports women in the workplace. “In a time of crisis, a time where we don’t have a clear playbook but we do have a lot of panic and anxiety – the weight of these roles is quite overwhelming.” Rachel Sklar, a single mother and gender advocate, sees the hardship posed by the pandemic two ways. “There’s the Covid-19 mental load – are we ready, what do we need, fear of what’s going to happen – and then there is the mental load of the single parent in a one-income household after terrifying market drops and business grinding to a standstill,” said Sklar, who founded TheLi.st, an online community of professional women, in an email. Her daughter’s father lives in Canada, she added, “So practically it’s just been me doing the prepping, and the reading about the prepping, and the gaming out contingencies, weighing whether to go to gymnastics and swimming, conferring with my co-founder about how best to support our members (I run an online network of professional women), conferring with clients (I am also a consultant to early-stage startups) and pitching articles (I am also a writer!).” Already total shutdowns have been announced in 23 states, as well as in large urban areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington DC. Experts expect daycare centers may soon also close en masse, and some already have.
Such headlines are especially bad news for mothers, who already do 2.6 times as much unpaid caregiving and domestic work as their heterosexual partners, according to a recent report from the United Nations. And in the face of a pandemic such dynamics will only be exacerbated, with the elderly – whose care is also primarily shouldered by women – needing more care than ever, and the sick proliferating.
Julie Kohler, a single mother in DC who works for Democracy Alliance and a fellow in residence at the National Women’s Law Center, is reducing her work hours to care for her five-year-old son. As his sole legal guardian, Kohler is fortunate to have a babysitter who helps out part-time. (She has decided she will continue to pay her babysitter’s weekly salary regardless of whether she’s able to come to work or not during the crisis.) But as a scholar of family social science, the upheaval has only served to highlight to her how inadequate individual responses are in face of a pandemic. “We can try to do the right things individually but we really need government leadership at a time like this,” Kohler said, ticking down a list of US policy solutions that would help support women caregivers like paid family leave, paid sick leave and other family-focused social programs she would like to see enacted. On Saturday, the House passed a coronavirus relief package that would help assist working families by granting employees affected by the coronavirus crisis up to 12 weeks of paid leave should they need to go into quarantine, care for a quarantined family member, or look after a child whose school is closed, though the provision would apply only to employers with fewer than 500 employees. The bill is expected to be taken up by the Senate as early as Monday. In a statement last week, Tina Tchen, the CEO of Time’s Up, called providing paid sick leave “key to unlocking deeply entrenched gender, racial and economic disparities,” noting that “the majority of our healthcare and public health workforce are women, who are on the frontlines of the fight to stop the spread of the coronavirus.” Antonina Mamzenko, a freelance photographer who works flexibly from home to accommodate the schedule of her home-educated son, said the crisis has created a ton of new work for her individually. “I definitely found that everything coronavirus-related fell on me, from staying on top of news and learning about the symptoms, to having pep talks with my nine-year-old and explaining what all this means without making him too anxious, to reminding him to go wash his hands, to noting if any of us have symptoms, to making the decisions as to whether to stay home or go to classes and clubs, and manage work around all of that too,” she said in an email. “It’s frustrating but I’m definitely used to it. It seems just so par for the course that I’m expected to be the one managing it all.”