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‘They Go to Mommy First’

Paula M Naranjo/Parent Editor

How the pandemic is disproportionately disrupting mothers’ careers.

Jessica Grose

By Jessica Grose

  • Published July 15, 2020 Updated July 16, 2020
Credit…Monica Garwood

Maggie Levine was on maternity leave from her job as a children’s librarian in Boston for the first few months of the pandemic, but she started working again in the middle of May. She and her husband, James Maher, an engineer, had no outside child care between mid-May and early July, while she was working from home and he was working part time from home and part time from the office. They were both caring for their baby, who is now 9 months old.

“I’m usually expected to do 35 hours a week, and I have been hitting, I would say, 10,” Levine said, “which would be a really generous way of thinking about the time I’m able to put in.”

When I asked Maher how many hours a week he worked in pre-pandemic times, compared to how many hours he works now: “My usual is around 40, and I’m probably hitting around 40,” he said.

Levine and Maher are representative of a nationwide trend. A pre-print of a study soon to be published in the academic journal Gender, Work & Organization showed that in heterosexual couples where both the mother and father were continuously employed and have children under 13, mothers “have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers.” This has exacerbated the gender gap in work hours by 20 to 50 percent, the study found.

William Scarborough, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas and a co-author of the study, said that he and his colleagues analyzed data from the Current Population Survey, because that data set followed the same group of families from February to April.

“It created this good empirical opportunity to see what mothers’ and fathers’ work hours were prior to the pandemic, and how they changed at the peak when schools and day cares across the country closed down,” Dr. Scarborough said.

While the parents examined in this study were not a nationally representative group — they are dual earning, straight married couples who tended to be middle or upper class, and many had jobs that could be done from home — the study’s findings were consistent with other research about who handles the majority of child care during the pandemic.

Syracuse University research brief examined data from the Census Household Pulse survey, conducted in late April and early May, and found that over 80 percent of U.S. adults who weren’t working because they had to care for their children who were not in school or day care were women.

Dr. Scarborough said that their study did not examine why women whose work circumstances were the same as their husbands were doing more of the child care. However, he said that his co-author, Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University, speculated that part of the issue may be that “when a child needs help, they go to mommy first,” and over days and weeks, that has a cumulative, undermining effect.

Nick Kahl, the dad of a 2-year-old in Portland, Ore., and a lawyer in private practice, said his son doesn’t interrupt him as much as he interrupts his wife, Jenny Smith, who is the communications director of a state agency.

Terri E. Givens, a mom of two boys in Menlo Park, Calif and the chief executive and founder of a company that provides career development for academic leaders, had another explanation for the gender disparity: Moms are the emotional barometers for the household, and they’re managing an unseen amount of extra work, thinking about child care, dentist appointments and the happiness of their children, even when men are making an effort. “My husband is one of the best you’ll find,” she said of her spouse, who is an engineer. “But it’s that emotional labor that’s really hard to quantify.”

Sandi Villarreal, the executive editor of Sojourners, a Christian social justice magazine, said that her husband, Michael Middaugh, a pastor of a Lutheran church in Silver Spring, Md., is doing the same amount, if not more, of the caretaking for their three children, ages 6, 4, and almost 1, because his schedule is more flexible than hers — for now.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen when church starts to reopen in August,” Villarreal said. Her husband will no longer be able to solely telecommute and he will have to go in for services. They have a nanny coming one day a week right now, but the situation is not sustainable.

“I think at some point it’s going to give,” Villareal said of their tenuous arrangement. “I think the hard part is there’s no end in sight

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