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May 4, 2021

How the Pandemic Affected Parents’ Work

Working parents respond to the unique demands of a unique time

Nichole Black is a substance abuse counselor in Chicago, the mother of two daughters, and — during the COVID-19 pandemic — an ad hoc technology consultant. Even while she was at work, she fielded calls from home, where her first and fifth graders were navigating online school.

“Did you unplug the router?” she asked between clients. “Are you sure you’re plugged into the Wi-Fi?”

Black’s family is one of almost 29 million in the U.S. with children under 18 at home and at least one parent in the workforce. During the pandemic, they faced the dual challenges of job losses and widespread school and day care closures.

To understand the impact of the pandemic on parents’ work, Pew researchers compared employment data from September 2019 and September 2020. They found overall that the share of fathers who were working fell from 91% to 86% and the share of working mothers fell from 69% to 63%. Unpartnered mothers had the steepest drop in employment compared to other parents, falling from 76% in September 2019 to 67% in September 2020.

Nichole Black, who’s raised her kids alone since their father died, is one of the single women of color who found herself without a job in mid-2020. The pandemic forced the residential drug rehabilitation center where she worked to cut many of its programs. Black and other staff members were laid off. Her situation reflects a larger trend: Between February 2020 and February 2021, the percentage of unemployed Black women jumped from about 5% to about 9%.

Black hadn’t planned to stop working, but the temporary job loss did mean that she could take care of her daughters during the summer. When school started online again in the fall, Black’s mother stayed with the girls while Black began a new job at a clinic a few blocks from home. The arrangement allowed her to go home for lunch and connect with her family in person.

Black said she was still able to do her job well, but her days were characterized by stress: the stress of constantly shifting her attention between work and home demands, and the more significant stress of worrying about her children. Will they fall behind academically, she wondered? Will they be OK socially?

You feel so helpless, you feel so powerless, you feel crummy personally

Khaner Walker

“I call it the dark days,” said Khaner Walker about the first months of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. Walker lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife and two children. They were ages 2 and 3 when their day care closed in March 2020. The companies where Walker and his wife worked also closed their buildings, and the couple shifted to trying to do their 50-hour-a-week jobs from what had turned into a crowded house.

Walker described trying to make a phone call for work while his kids wrestled noisily with each other in the background. “You feel so helpless, you feel so powerless, you feel crummy personally,” he said.

So Walker did what many employed parents did in 2020: He cut back his time on the job. A Pew survey from October 2020 found that 34% of working mothers and 26% of working fathers said they needed to reduce their work hours because of parenting responsibilities. The average hours worked by dads fell nearly three hours per week, from 43.3 to 40.5.

In the fall of 2020, the family hired a babysitter, and Walker started a new job leading a company’s communications department. He’s lucky: the position pays more than he was making before and requires less time. But he also made sure to set expectations early. When interviewing, Walker told them, “I’m going to drop my kids off at school in the mornings and I’m going to be there when our babysitter leaves every day.” In the late afternoons, he takes time to go outside with the kids or start dinner.

Walker noted that his ability to control his time is a function of his industry and his seniority. But it was also necessary to cope with the unique demands of being a working parent during the pandemic. “Health and stress were really weighing us down,” he said. “Something had to change, right?”

The share of working moms who needed to reduce work hours due to child care responsibilities

Kat Zambon, who is married and works full time in communications in Washington, D.C., had just given birth to her second child when the pandemic hit. On the one hand, she felt lucky — lucky to have a job that allowed her to work from home, and lucky to spend more time with her infant and 4-year-old daughter, who started preschool virtually in the fall of 2020.

“It’s nice that I can go downstairs and see them,” Zambon said. “It's also nice to know who your kid’s teachers are, and see that they're learning about, you know, traffic signals.”

On the other hand, blurring the line between home and everything else made doing anything well impossible. “I often feel like I'm playing catch-up on work, while not being there all the time for my kids,” she said.

What’s more, the stakes felt higher. Zambon and her husband had to manage their daughter’s attention during online school, making sure she didn’t get up and leave or turn off the iPad.

Then there was the threat of the virus itself. “Do we have to worry about her getting sick, or her getting someone else sick?” Zambon asked. “The worst-case scenario got a lot more grim.”

Nichole Black in Chicago agreed that the pandemic had placed unique demands on working parents, but she tries not to dwell on her discomfort. Instead, she focuses on what’s going to benefit her daughters. “I have to do what I have to do,” she said. “Is it hard? Absolutely. Am I blessed to be able to provide for my kids financially? Absolutely. Do I wish I had some additional help? Yes.”

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