The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll.
The pressures that mothers of young children (defined throughout as having a child under the age of 13 in the household) have faced over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic are legion. Pressure to stay in the labor market as schools closed and child-care networks collapsed (Madowitz and Boesch 2020). Pressure to facilitate their children’s formal education and provide child care as the economy shut down, the labor market contracted, and families struggled to make ends meet. Pressure to work, care, cook, clean, keep safe, keep afloat. From the outset of the pandemic, mothers faced pressure to “do it all” but with fewer resources and support than before.
While inequities persist in many aspects of women’s lives, some of the stickier problems for women stem from the difficult choices they face in reconciling competing demands on their time. Even before the pandemic, caregiving and family responsibilities disproportionately fell on women and on mothers; in 2018, a third of women who reported wanting a job but who were not actively looking for work cited family responsibilities as the reason why (Nunn, Parsons, and Shambaugh 2019). For each American to reach their full potential and for the American economy to grow, it is essential to remove barriers to women’s full and equitable participation in the labor market. But to remove those barriers and support mothers’ economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic requires an understanding of the problem.
As we observe the anniversary of the onset of the COVID-19 recession, we review trends in women’s labor force participation and document how mothers of children under age 13 have changed how they spend their time. In this set of economic facts, we detail some of the ways in which work, time, and caregiving have changed for mothers with young children from before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic through 2020 until early 2021.
In addition to relying on data collected by the federal statistical agencies, we also developed and fielded our own survey. This survey, the Survey of Mothers with Young Children (SMYC), was administered by The Hamilton Project and the Future of the Middle Class Initiative at Brookings twice, between April 27 and April 28, 2020, and between October 7 and November 5, 2020.
While these economic facts focus on mothers with young children, fathers and parents of teens have also experienced a time squeeze, labor market volatility, mental health struggles, and parenting pressures (Aaronson and Edelberg 2020; Ammerman et al. 2020; de Miranda et al. 2020; Patrick et al. 2020; Petts, Carlson, and Pepin 2020; Stevenson 2020; Weissbourd et al. 2020). Yet, the economic facts presented here demonstrate that it is difficult to overstate the disruption that parents—disproportionately mothers, and even more disproportionately mothers of young children—have borne during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2017, The Hamilton Project published the book The 51 Percent: Driving Growth through Women’s Economic Participation (Schanzenbach and Nunn 2017), which argued that many of the limits on American women’s labor market opportunities could be addressed by public policy reforms. The Hamilton Project has offered policy proposals to address the high cost of child care (Cascio 2017), as well as access to paid parental leave (Ruhm 2017), and earned sick leave (Maestas 2017) to spur labor force participation among women. These policies have gained more attention in light of the pandemic, but will support working mothers long after the acute crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. In May 2021, The Hamilton Project will be releasing new policy proposals that address child care and paid family and sick leave in light of the current crisis. Policy proposals in this realm will both benefit working mothers and help create an economy that works for everyone.
Acknowledgements and disclosures
The authors would like to thank Kristen Broady, David Dreyer, Misty Heggeness, Michael Madowitz, and Isabel Sawhill for their feedback on this paper and to Wendy Edelberg, Kriston McIntosh, Ryan Nunn, and Richard Reeves for both feedback on this paper and their support for the SMYC. We also extend our gratitude to Jay Shambaugh for supporting this project’s inception and to Nick Bauer, Michael Madowitz, Diane Schanzenbach, and Abigail Wozniak for helpful conversations on the SMYC. Mitchell Barnes, Madison Bober, Stephanie Lu, Moriah Macklin, Jennifer Umanzor, and Sarah Wheaton provided superior research assistance. We thank Alison Hope for her diligent copy edit, and any errors that remain belong to the authors. Lastly, the authors would like to thank Jeanine Rees for all of her help with the graphic design and layout of this document.