Mothers, by default

Mothers, by default

By Jessica McCrory Calarco

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A few weeks ago, I sat down with a mom I’ll call Erica to talk about how she and her family have navigated the challenges of this past pandemic year. Erica, a Latina mom with a Master’s degree, lives in Southern Indiana with her husband (who is also Latino and also has a Master’s degree) and their two young kids. As we chatted, Erica’s six-year-old daughter popped in and out of Erica’s Zoom screen, often holding up her drawings for me to see—she’s been remote learning all year. Erica’s two-year-old son woke up from his nap about halfway through and joined the conversation—before the pandemic, he attended a childcare center part-time, but he’s also been home all year. Notably absent from the background was Erica’s husband Gabriel. He was, by Erica’s account, “holed up” in their bedroom working, just as he was every day from 8:30am to 6pm. Meanwhile, and just as she did during our call, Erica spent every day of the pandemic caring for her two kids while also working part-time from home. Erica was already working part-time before the pandemic, but she cut back her work hours to just six hours a week and also cut out all the extra contract work she was doing as a data analyst on the side.

As we talked, I asked Erica how she and her husband decided that she would be the one primarily responsible for caring for the kids. She responded with a breathy laugh and a wry smile, saying: “How? Because he’s full-time. So, you know, whatever pays the most wins…. But yeah, so that was how we decided. I mean, it wasn’t really a decision. It was just this by default.”

And Erica wasn’t alone. So many of the mothers my team and I have interviewed during the pandemic described themselves as being “defaulted” into the primary parenting role. These patterns are also consistent with evidence from surveys conducted during the pandemic, which have shown that mothers have taken on a disproportionate share of the pandemic parenting and that those responsibilities have come at a serious cost to their careers, their relationships, and their wellbeing. More than two million mothers have left the paid labor force during the pandemic, and those who’ve remained employed have reduced their paid work hours more than men. Mothers of young children have also reported high rates of psychological distress during the pandemic—higher than among fathers, and higher than among mothers with older children and women without children, as well.

In a new working paper, my coauthors and I examine why—despite these consequences—so many families came to rely on mothers “by default.” We draw on two waves of interviews with a socioeconomically and racially diverse group of 77 mothers, 17 of whom had partners who participated in the study, as well. My team and I have been following these mothers since 2018, as part of a larger study that started with 250 pregnant women in Indiana. We were still in the field with that project last March, and the interviews we conducted during the early weeks of the pandemic made it painfully clear how much of an impact that COVID-19 was having and going to have on families, and especially on mothers with young children at home. Building on those initial interviews, my team invited the mothers and their partners to participate in additional surveys and interviews about their experiences during the pandemic. That included an initial wave of surveys and interviews in April and May of 2020 and a second wave of surveys and interviews in February and March of 2021.

Through our interviews with these parents, we found that the gendered inequalities in paid work and parenting that existed before the pandemic laid the groundwork for families to treat mothers as the “default” parent during the pandemic, as well.

In many families, that default stemmed from families’ efforts to protect fathers’ roles as primary breadwinners. Before the pandemic, and because of longstanding gender pay gaps, many mothers earned less money than their partners. As a result, those mothers and their partners tended to see women’s work as inherently less “valuable”—and thereby more easily sacrificed—than men’s. I asked one white father, who I’ll call Tom, why his wife, a physical therapist, had cut back her work hours to provide care for their two young children, while he continued working full-time as an athletic trainer. He told me, without hesitating: “We never really relied on her money.” Essentially, Tom assumed that his wife’s paid work could be easily sacrificed during the pandemic, since it didn’t “matter” to the family’s bottom line.

In other families, mothers became the default because the gendered sorting of men and women into different jobs left them the only parent available to care for their children at home. That included mothers who, because they were working in feminized service and care work occupations, lost their jobs during the pandemic. It also included mothers who were able to work from home—often in pink-collar jobs—while their partners continued working outside the home. Consider, a Black mother who I’ll call Patricia, who was able to work from home as a customer service representative for a health insurance company, while her husband was working outside the home in a construction job.When asked why she was doing more of the parenting, Patricia told us: “He works in construction. I work from home…. And so I’m trying to do my work-from-home job, and there’s all this ruckus going on in the background and I’m trying to keep my quality good on my calls with my members without violating HIPAA, so it’s a challenge.” As Patricia’s comment suggests, this arrangement wasn’t a choice. It was a default dictated by the gendered nature of her and her husband’s jobs.

Meanwhile, even when fathers tried to do more at home, pre-pandemic gender inequalities in parenting left fathers unprepared for the demands of parenting full-time. In most of the families we interviewed, fathers were only able to take a few weeks (or days) off after their children were born, and most didn’t have the opportunity to transition into part-time work for a few months (or years) before returning to full-time work. As a result, fathers had spent far less time parenting than mothers had over the course of their children’s lives. With less parenting experience, and with the gendered pressures toward overwork that men disproportionately face in their careers, many fathers found themselves frustrated with the challenges of caring for children while also working from home. In December 2020, for example, my team and I conducted nationally representative survey of 2,000 US parents with children under 18, and we found that 60% of white fathers with advanced degrees reported that they were more frustrated with their kids than before the pandemic, and 60% also reported that they were more often yelling at their kids. That was the most of any group of parents, and it reflected the fact that highly-educated white fathers were the fathers most likely to be working from home.

All that yelling and frustration led mothers to take on more of the parenting, because they felt compelled to protect their children from the ire of overtaxed dads (and compelled to safeguard their husbands’ wellbeing, as well). I talked to one white mom, who I’ll call Marley, who has been doing “the bulk of the care” for her three children, because she can work from home in her job as a financial administrator, while her husband Russell, a healthcare worker, primarily works outside the home. Russell can work from home occasionally. And yet, as Marley explained: “The few times he stayed home to help, it was totally chaos. And he had zero patience for it. And it was almost worse because he just got super angry very quickly because he didn’t understand why [the kids] didn’t just behave and do their [school] work…. It was almost not worth having him there. Or at least it’s worse. Because he didn’t have a great perspective on [helping the kids with virtual learning] because he wasn’t home every day with me.” Like Marley, mothers whose partners struggled to handle the demands of pandemic parenting tended to take over that work, instead.

Of course, this isn’t to say that mothers escaped the pressures of pandemic parenting unscathed. In our national survey, for example, my team and I found that large numbers of those parents were experiencing increased psychological distress. Among mothers, for example, more than 90% reported that they are more tired than they were before the pandemic. About 40% reported that they are experiencing increased anxiety, increased feelings of hopelessness, and increased irritability. And about a third reported that they are more frustrated with their partners and their kids. Our interviews echoed similar experiences. Marley, for example, told me: “My mental health was not doing well… I had some significant depression issues. I would lose my patience. I would just kind of yell at them…. I started drinking a little bit more heavily just because I’m so stressed out…. I started gaining weight again, like forty pounds in three months…. It’s been really hard, really, really hard…. I was in a really dark place. And [my therapist] told me first thing, she’s like: ‘Get your kids back in school.’ So I did. And it has gotten a lot better since.”

So, what should we take from these findings?

First and foremost, they show that mothers are the default parents. When family routines are disrupted—whether by the birth of a new baby, the loss of a job, or a global pandemic—mothers are the ones forced to find a way to make it work. Even when making it work takes a serious toll on their wellbeing, their relationships, and their careers.

Second, we see that fathers aren’t just selfish or lazy. Instead, their choices—like mothers’ choices—are constrained by the hand they’ve been dealt. When we talk about gender pay gaps, paid maternity leave, flexible work policies, and affordable childcare, we tend to focus on their implications for women. And that’s part of the problem, right there, because our lack of an adequate safety doesn’t just leave women to do more of the unpaid labor at home. It also leaves men feeling pressured to sacrifice their caregiving responsibilities to keep their families financially secure.

Ultimately, then, if we want to change the default, we can’t tell mothers—or fathers—to just make a different choice. Instead, to change the default, we have to change the settings—we have to tackle the gendered structures of paid work that existed long before the pandemic, and we have to change the cultures that have, for generations, situated fathers’ value in the office and mothers’ value in the home.

Jessica McCrory Calarco is associate professor of sociology at Indiana University and the author of A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum and Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School. She has written for the Atlantic and Inside Higher Ed, and her work has been featured in the New York TimesTime, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and on BBC Radio and NPR. Twitter @JessicaCalarco