Making motherhood work in the age of COVID-19

Making motherhood work in the age of COVID-19

By Caitlyn Collins and Christie Henry

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This Mother’s Day weekend, Christie Henry, Director of Princeton University Press talks with Caitlyn Collins about ‘Making Motherhood Work’ in the age of COVID‑19.

With the PUP team entering its 8th week of remote collaborations, the realities of coronavirus parenting have been shared in daily Zoom sessions with colleagues. While it brings us all joy to have the company of Henry and Hannah and Clara and Theo in our Project Review meetings; to catch glimpses of Gretchen and Sloane and Sadie in meetings with the leadership team; and to engage in our parent-to-parent Zoom chat group with recommendations for online resources for the many colleagues #schoolingfromhome, I am acutely aware of the intense stressors this global crisis is adding to the already significant challenges of work-life integration of colleagues. The kids of PUP are among the more than 50 million children in the US alone who are at home, in our attempts to mitigate the spread and impact of COVID19. I am sheltered in place with two teens, and while their public school is extraordinary, and their teachers indefatigable in their commitments to teach, the kids have hours a day of self-study. My 14-year-old seems to be conducting ad-hoc ethnographies of gamer cultures.

My current responsibility and commitment is to ensure that the PUP and Henry families endure this crisis, which entails #MakingMotherhoodWork during unprecedented times. My hope is to further build a team of “joyful warriors.” As a small, independent scholarly non-profit publisher, we’ve been able to create stronger scaffolding for parents, introducing four months of full-pay maternity leave for example, and an additional fully compensated month for either parent, and remote work options and support before they were mandated (still just a fraction of the 480 paid days parents have in Sweden, which I learned from Making Motherhood Work). Our work-life employee resource group a month ago proposed condensed work weeks to embed greater cultural flexibility. And in this current crisis, our investment focus has been foremost on the flexibility and empathy we know all colleagues need now more than ever.

Even with prioritizing a constancy of collaborative flexibility, I know some of our staff will over time embrace the temporarily extended paid family and sick leave approved by Congress, and I have been keenly watching for positive state-level decisions like Minnesota governor Tim Walz’s executive order to provide childcare for school-age children of emergency workers which now includes grocery store employees.

As one who has introduced so many, myself included, to the global disparities of women experiencing the integration of work and career, I am grateful for the chance to learn more from you Caity, and to think about what new horizons of supportive change could be.

CH: Do you feel the crisis of work-life integration being experienced now in the US with schools and daycares closed could lead to expedited and enduring positive change for working parents? 

Caity: First, Christie, I can’t thank you enough for your steadfast support of Making Motherhood Work. It’s been a privilege to publish with you and the PUP team—a group of “joyful warriors” if ever there were one! You embody the principle of leading by example and the work-family policies you’ve implemented since taking the helm in fall 2017 are nothing short of monumental. You’ve laid the groundwork for other firms to follow suit. I applaud you!

It’s possible that the COVID19 pandemic could expedite lasting positive change for working families across the U.S. I really hope so. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage the heightened visibility of work-family conflict to pass the sorts of federal work-family policies that already exist in every other western industrialized country. COVID19 has underscored just how problematic—and antiquated—it is that we have no public infrastructure to support care.

The consequences of this policy lag are being laid bare right now as millions of employed parents struggle to care for their kids in the face of school and childcare closures; as others suddenly find themselves without incomes; and many more are caring for those who have fallen ill or grieving the death of loved ones. I hope we can use the momentum we see right now to get federal policies passed that support the invaluable work of caregiving.

CH: How might the different notions of ideal workers and good mothers you explore in the book be shifting as our exposure to these experiences become more present in public conversations (and video meetings)?

Caity: Ideal workers are meant to be fully committed to their jobs and unencumbered by external responsibilities. They’re available at a moment’s notice and singularly devoted to their employer. I hope we can all agree that this vision is absurd. The pandemic has made it clearer than ever that this model is out of touch with reality, yet it’s the standard to which we still hold employees. I’m afraid I don’t see our notions of the “ideal worker” changing as we might hope, even now. The importance of “face time” in the office for white-collar workers, for instance, has morphed into valuing virtual face time, “Slack time,” or “Zoom time.” And the same people who most closely conform to the ideal worker norm will continue to benefit even under these new working conditions.

I’m also afraid that the pressure to live up to intensive mothering norms—with homemade meals, carefully assembled homeschool lessons, screen-free kids’ activities, and an extra tidy home, given all that “extra” free time (!)—will continue to make moms feel guilty that they can’t do it all and be it all.

CH: As the challenges of work-life integration are impacting entire families, companies, and communities now, not just working mothers, might there be unique opportunities for developing knowledge and empathy to arise from COVID19?

Caity: Workers aren’t robots. They need occasional time away from work (vacation, illness leave, schedule flexibility) to maintain productivity and morale on the job. The gap between what is reasonable and what is asked of working parents has never been clearer. My hope is that this increased awareness will lead to cultural change that gives parents—especially women, who continue to bear the brunt of responsibility for housework and childcare—more understanding by virtue of exposure. This exposure can lead the way to more empathy, and hopefully the political will to implement the basic policy supports that all families need and deserve.

I say in the book that “it will take a revolution in our country’s laws and cultural attitudes to ease the heartache of working moms, and that’s no easy feat. But it’s time” (263). I quote the feminist writer and activist Rebecca Solnit (2016:5) to describe the radical hope we need to envision a better path ahead for U.S. mothers and families:

“To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say it because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door. [ … ] To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable. Anything could happen, and whether we act or not has everything to do with it.” (Hope in the Dark)

CH: Might there be a risk, as some have noted will happen with environmental standards, of a regression of benefits for the sake of economic growth?  And can making motherhood work and economic vitality peacefully coexist, or is that too joyful a concept?

Caity: There’s nowhere to go but up because we already rank dead last among OECD countries when it comes to work-family policy provisions.

The good news is that making motherhood work can more than peacefully coexist with economic vitality: supporting motherhood (and fatherhood) are absolutely central to a robust economy. Women in the U.S. are unable to fulfill their full economic potential because the country don’t support caregiving like most other wealthy western nations do. Supporting working families is good for children and parents, of course, but it’s also good for businesses and for the national economy. This recent report by the Center for American Progress, for example, shows that if all paid working women in the U.S. took one day off of work, it would cost the country almost $21 billion in GDP. Women’s earnings are increasingly central to the economy, as is their unpaid labor at home, and supporting both forms of labor is in our collective best interest.

CH: In seeking out different global responses to the crisis, I learned that Japan facilitated access to after-school childcare centers to support working parents during school closures. If you were to start a comparative study of the experience of working motherhood based on country level responses to COVID19, which countries would you include in that study, and why?

Caity: Where to begin? For starters, I’ve been paying extra attention lately to Sweden’s response to COVID. Their approach looks totally different from the rest of the Nordic countries and most of Europe. Sweden has implemented far fewer restrictions than have neighboring nations. Schools, daycares, cafes, restaurants, bars, and businesses are still open, although large events are banned. In a country that prides itself on exceptionalism, time will tell whether their approach to COVID has proven helpful or harmful.

CH: At global scales, UNICEF is promoting these key elements of supporting working parents and children during this crisis.

  • Assess whether current workplace policies effectively support families, with a specific focus on vulnerable groups. 
  • Grant flexible work arrangements.
  • Support parents with safe, accessible and affordable quality childcare options. 
  • Promote good hygiene in and out of the workplace. 
  • Provide workers with guidance on how to seek medical support. 
  • Help workers and their families cope with stress.
  • Reduce financial burdens should workers or their family members fall ill with COVID19.

Are there any additions you would make to this list based on what you have learned of the experiences of working women?

Caity: These suggestions are great. One broad point is that it’s important for employers to take into account the varied needs of different workers. There is no one singular experience of contending with the crisis for working parents and children. Productivity and availability will vary across the board for employees, so it’s important that managers be attuned to these differences in experience, which call for different forms of support.

I can recommend a report by Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll and her team, who recently convened a focus group of 27 leaders from the corporate and nonprofit sectors to understand how the pandemic is affecting workers and to get a better sense for what firms are doing to support them right now. One point in particular stands out: “Now more than ever, employers need to reaffirm their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. During past economic downturns, some leaders put inclusion goals on the back burner and focused on issues that they perceived to be more critical. If we back off our diversity and inclusion goals now, we run the risk of losing all of the gains we have worked so hard for during the past several years.”

CH: As your publisher, we have learned from our collaboration with you that the “costs of child-rearing cannot remain private and feminized if we seek to reduce the conflicts borne by working mothers today.”  What is the most important commitment organizations like Princeton University Press can make to working parents, until each of us has the “public commitment in the form of monetary and policy support and cultural recognition for the value of mothers’ participation in the labor force and the value of caring labor” that your work informs and inspires?

Caity: I think the most important commitments regarding benefits for working parents concern flexible work and entitlements to leave time. Flexible work can mean reduced working hours, job sharing, or flexible schedules across the workday, week, or month. Entitlements to leave time can look like paid parental leave following the birth or adoption of a child, paid family or illness leave to care for oneself or a loved one, paid vacation, and the time and space to pump breastmilk in the office.

Managers and employers can follow your lead, Christie, by using these policies themselves, talking about their own families openly at work, showing empathy for people’s familial commitments when times get rough, and recognizing the importance of caregiving even when it’s easy to feel like work is the most important thing in the world. Thank you for showing us all what a better, fairer, more just work environment can look like.

Caitlyn Collins is assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been covered by the Atlantic, NPR, and the Washington Post. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Christie Henry is Director of Princeton University Press.