Before the pandemic began in March 2020, Melissa and Richard Head would have said they evenly split the child care duties for their two young children in Salt Lake City. Melissa worked part time as a nurse, Richard worked in an office, and their household management arrangement worked well enough for both of them. But during the pandemic, Melissa’s job became essential—she worked 16-hour shifts and sometimes mandatory overtime. Richard transitioned to work from home, becoming the primary caregiver for their children—an arrangement that has lasted until today.
For the Head family, the pandemic flipped their traditional responsibilities in a lasting way. New data released this month by researchers Richard Petts and Dan Carlson looked into relationships like the Heads and found that lasting change in traditional family setups was more likely when the woman worked in some capacity and the man had a remote-work arrangement. Fathers’ child care and household support is vital for mother’s labor force attachment. If a mom wants to stay in the labor force, a dad’s support isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s ESSENTIAL.
Petts and Carlson surveyed more than 4,500 parents about their work-life responsibilities during the pandemic and found that though a father’s remote work was a greater indicator for a more equitable division of labor, a mother’s job flexibility was not. A mother being able to have flexible work meant that she was more easily able to attend to the child care and housework needs as they arose. Petts and Carlson cautioned that simply increasing workplace flexibility can be a double-edged sword toward creating more gender equality at home. If men weren’t willing to take on more of the work at home, then women with the more “flexible” jobs wound up doing double duty.
But even those jobs that offered flexible, remote work as an option during the early stages of the pandemic were often concentrated in high-income occupations. Workers in lower-income jobs had fewer remote and flexibility options, and this has continued even as other structural supports, like schools and child care, have returned.
As part of their findings at “The Future of Gender Equality in a Post-Pandemic Society,” an event hosted by the Better Life Lab at New America, Petts and Carlson found that both fathers and mothers increased their at-home child care and housework responsibilities during the early stages of pandemic. But as domestic supports returned—such as schools and child care facilities reopening—fathers began to reduce their child care and housework. For the mothers who stayed attached to the labor force during the pandemic, the division of labor at home became more equal, and in most cases, has stayed that way since. Like Melissa Head, who worked throughout the pandemic as a nurse, the changes they have made to their child care arrangements have lasted—especially since Richard’s role is now permanently remote.
This wasn’t everyone’s reality. For Britany Wiliams, a single mother, lack of child care remained one of the top obstacles in her return to work. Williams worked as a home health aide in Seattle, work she said had gone largely unnoticed until the pandemic, when “people realized we were the essential workers.” She wanted to keep going to work, but without child care for her son she had no option but to stay home with him. She considered bringing him along, but worried about the risk of COVID exposure – both for her child and for her clients. Too many missed shifts meant she had to quit her job. Williams had been working to get off public assistance before the pandemic, and she may have been able to achieve that had she found a tenable child care situation. Though Williams is optimistic for the future, this setback has largely erased many of her pre-pandemic economic gains. As a single mother, she feels she works twice as hard to maintain a level of stability for her family.
So what does gender equality look like going forward?
There’s no quick fix, and lasting change involves a shift from trying to solve this on an individual and single-family level, and look at the infrastructure support that will allow more families to achieve a manageable stasis. These include a lot of the priorities the Better Life Lab champions: access to affordable, reliable, quality child care; paid family leave; societal recognition and compensation for ongoing caregiving responsibilities; and creating meaningful work boundaries and advancements systems that allow for upward mobility for everyone, regardless of caregiving opportunities.
The symposium included a panel discussion, moderated by Better Life Lab’s Vicki Shabo and included First Shift’s Sophia Mitchell, The Century Foundation’s Julie Kashen, and Main Street Alliance’s Chanda Causer. The fact that our federal policies need to better reflect the families we currently have: two working parents, mothers as breadwinners, nontraditional family arrangements, caregiving for aging parents, and more—came up multiple times. Cash infusions to families under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Child Care Stabilization Program, made a significant difference—serving more than 220,000 child care providers and affecting as many as 9.6 million children—but even those will sunset this year.
The symposium shifted to an afternoon of engagement with colleagues in academia, reviewing forthcoming research on gender, families and work. Child care remains a primary focus, as does the lack of funds that are being spent to build up a child care infrastructure, and to compensate caregivers—including those who do work similar to Brittany Williams—accordingly.
“When the federal government invests in the care agenda, it matters: people get paid better and people get the care they need,” said Kashen, one of the panelists. “The American Rescue Plan Act was not only a one-time pandemic emergency action, but looking at the results, it provides important lessons learned. The cliff is approaching—child care stabilization funds need to be spent by September of this year. This is why we need the stories of why this works.”