Work–Family Decisions Given a Weak Social Safety Net

women families kids COVID pandemic
Women have left the workforce in droves, and kids are struggling with distance learning since schools were closed nearly one year ago. (Photo/iStock)

School closures place a major institutional constraint on families to cover additional childcare. While the primary function of schools is children’s education, they also provide an expansive infrastructure of care, especially for elementary school–age children.[1] Never before have schools closed to the extent or duration that we have observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. One in three U.S. women who left employment cite child care demands as a primary reason for their departure.[2] We conceptualize mothers’ labor force exodus as a deeply constrained choice, given women’s limited capacity to engage simultaneously in paid work and around-the-clock care of children at home for months on end. Without more support from fathers, employers, and the government, something had to give under this unsustainable pressure. What seems to be giving is mothers’ employment, with disastrous implications for their long-term earnings and occupational attainment.[3]

Expensive and inaccessible child care hinders mothers’ employment. Costly child care increases mothers’ odds of labor market exits and deters reentry, especially among single mothers and mothers with lower wages.[4][5][6][7] As a liberal welfare state that conceives of families and caregiving as private responsibilities, the United States is one of the only high-income countries without a public child care system.[8] Across OECD countries, other governments are in agreement about the value of early childhood education and care and make major investments to subsidize care accordingly. Absent a federal program, the long-awaited expansion of universal preschool in some U.S. municipalities shows just how central child care is for mothers’ employment. In Washington, DC, for example, the implementation of universal preschool for three- and four-year-old children has been linked to a remarkable 10–percentage point increase in maternal labor force participation.[9] Without a robust public child care system, many women reduce employment when children are young and reenter the labor force when children reach school age.[10][11]

Bay Area day cares want to help with COVID-19 distance learning
Travis Danner, left, holds his son Elliott Danner, 3, as he gets his temperature checked by Learn, Play and Grow Together child care director Shruti Agarwa before he enters her house in Livermore, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

School schedules (i.e., length of school day) also shape maternal employment, and legislated school day hours vary across states.[12] In states where school days are shorter, fewer mothers work for pay than in states with longer school days; and mothers who do work are more likely to do so part-time.[13] For many, schools provide a critical institutional lifeline to maintain employment. Thus, remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be particularly detrimental to mothers’ labor force supply and attachment, as they struggle to maintain paid work while supervising children’s virtual schooling.

Early studies of parents’ domestic allocations at the height of the first pandemic lockdown show that mothers picked up a larger share of housework, child care, and homeschooling than did fathers,[14][15] which hurt their employment.[16] Fathers’ employment remained largely unchanged. Our research shows that even when both parents could telecommute, mothers reduced work time and were more likely than fathers to exit the labor force.[17][18] Mothers also reported greater increases in anxiety, depression, and disturbed sleep compared with fathers, especially after experiencing a job loss or an increased housework or child care load.[19] Thus, preliminary evidence suggests that gender inequality in the domestic division of labor worsened under the pandemic. Mothers, on average, assumed the brunt of the added care at the expense of their paid work.”

Excerpt adapted from Collins, Caitlyn, Leah Ruppanner, Liana Christin Landivar, and William J. Scarborough. “The Gendered Consequences of a Weak Infrastructure of Care: School Reopening Plans and Parents’ Employment During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Gender & Society 35, no. 2 (April 2021): 180–93. (From the section, “Work–Family Decisions Given a Weak Social Safety Net: Theorizing Maternal Employment Through a Capabilities Perspective.” Emphasis and images added. References in original reproduced below.)

[1] Schulte, Brigid. 2015. Overwhelmed: Work, love, and play when no one has the time. New York: Macmillan. Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2015. Unfinished business: Women men work family. New York: Random House.

[2] Heggeness, Misty L., Fields, Jason M. 2020. Working moms bear brunt of home schooling while working during COVID-19. United States Census Bureau. Last modified October 30, 2020.

[3] Kashen, Julie, Glynn, Sarah Jane, Novello, Amanda. 2020. How COVID-19 sent women’s workforce progress backward. Center for American Progress, 30 October.

[4] Blau, David M., Robins, Philip K. 1989. Fertility, employment, and child-care costs. Demography 26 (2): 287–99.

[5] Han, Wenjui, Waldfogel, Jane. 2001. Child care costs and women’s employment: A comparison of single and married mothers with pre-school-aged children. Social Science Quarterly 82 (3): 552–68.

[6] Hofferth, Sandra, Collins, Nancy. 2000. Child care and employment turnover. Population Research and Policy Review 19 (4): 357–95.

[7] Landivar, Liana Christin, Ruppanner, Leah, Scarborough, William J. Forthcoming. Are states created equal? Moving to a less expensive childcare state increases mothers’ odds of employment. Demography.

[8] Collins, Caitlyn. 2019. Making motherhood work: How women manage careers and caregiving. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[9] Malik, Rasheed. 2018. The effects of universal preschool in Washington, DC: Children’s learning and mothers’ earnings. Center for American Progress.

[10] Bianchi, Suzanne M. 2000. Maternal employment and time with children: Dramatic change or surprising continuity? Demography 37 (4): 401–14.

[11] Landivar, Liana Christin. 2017. Mothers at work: Who opts out? Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

[12] Ruppanner, Leah. 2020. Motherlands: How states push mothers out of employment. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[13] Ruppanner, Leah, Moller, Stephanie, Sayer, Liana. 2019. Expensive childcare and short school days = lower maternal employment and more time in childcare? Evidence from the American Time Use Survey. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 5.

[14] Carlson, Daniel L., Petts, Richard, Pepin, Joanna. 2020. Changes in parents’ domestic labor during the COVID-19 pandemic. SocArXiv. doi:10.31235/

[15] Heggeness, Misty L. 2020. Estimating the immediate impact of the COVID-19 shock on parental attachment to the labor force and the double bind of mothers. Review of Economics of the Household 18:1053–78.

[16] Petts, Richard, Carlson, Daniel L., Pepin, Joanna. 2020. A gendered pandemic: Childcare, homeschooling, and parents’ employment during COVID-19. SocArXiv. DOI: 10.31235/

[17] Collins, Caitlyn, Landivar, Liana Christin, Ruppanner, Leah, Scarborough, William J. 2020. COVID-19 and the gender gap in work hours. Gender, Work & Organization. doi:10.1111/gwao.12506.

[18] Landivar, Liana Christin, Ruppanner, Leah, Scarborough, William J., Collins, Caitlyn. 2020. Early signs indicate that COVID-19 is exacerbating gender inequality in the labor force. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 6:1–3.

[19] Ruppanner, Leah, Tan, Xiao, Scarborough, William, Landivar, Liana Christin, Collins, Caitlyn. 2021. Shifting inequalities? Parents’ sleep, anxiety and calm during the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia and the United States. Men and Masculinities. DOI: 10.1177/1097184X21990737.

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