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Women have been far more likely to leave the labor force and to juggle working and child care than men have been over the past year. And women’s earnings, career prospects, and mental health are suffering. Of course, historically, women have done much more child care than men have. Inequality in the time fathers and mothers spend caring for children has persisted, though in recent decades, there’s been some movement—men have been doing more child care than they used to, often seen as an improvement for children and for their mothers. But the COVID pandemic has erased many of these gains.

In our research published last year using data from the Time, Love, and Cash in Couples with Children Study[1] (TLC3, connected to the Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing Study), Laryssa Mykyta and I found that some mothers described themselves as solely responsible for having and caring for their children, even to the exclusion of the children’s fathers. Some mothers spoke about their obligations related to their children in this way even when the fathers were involved in their children’s lives—in some cases, even when those men were sitting right next to them!

I have written for this blog before about people’s reluctance to ask for help from family members. Some participants believed that expenses related to parenthood are the parents’ responsibility—more specifically, the mothers’ responsibility.

Lanetta[2], a married Chicago mother, said during a couple interview with her husband Jerry, that she got no help for expenses from family, and “I try to take care of that by myself. My motto is, ‘I don’t take money for nothing’… Basically, I figure, [my son is] my responsibility . . . So basically I’ve been doing everything for him, by myself.” Lanetta was married to the man sitting beside her, the father of the son she spoke of.

Melissa also noted during a couple interview that she avoided asking for help from family members “Because it’s my responsibility, nobody else,” even while the father of her child, Mike, sat beside her.

Rosa said, “Like my kids are my responsibility, so for me to actually ask for something, for anything, for my kids, it has to be that I really have nowhere else to get it, and it’s my only choice.” Rosa also referred to the responsibility for her children being hers alone.

These mothers described sole responsibility for their children, even when married to the fathers of those children, and even when the children’s fathers sat next to them in the couple interviews. It may seem surprising that mothers would say this in front of their children’s fathers, but when we think about the context of long-held ideas about responsibility for care and supervision of children, it makes perfect sense.

U.S. society doesn’t value child care, a fact rooted in deeply entrenched sexism and racism. Americans tend to resist the notion of universal child care provided outside of the family unit, and inside the family unit, it’s mothers who people expect to provide care for their children. The reasoning centers in part on moral arguments and gendered expectations of what mothers should do, and in part on a pervasive individualistic ideology that is fundamental to United States society.

Women have internalized these notions about their obligations as mothers, and have found these ideas validated by economic realities. Center-based child care has long been prohibitively expensive, leading some parents—usually mothers—to leave the workforce as a result. During the pandemic, many school-age children have been learning at home, adding to parents’ need to provide care and supervision during the workday. And when child care is unavailable as it has been for many families over the last year, it’s been women who’ve juggled work responsibilities and parenting to care for their children. And it’s women who too often feel like failures when they can’t do it all.

All parents of young children struggle to balance work and family, and the COVID-19 pandemic has presented an additional challenge for working mothers. Those who cannot work from home have few if any child care options, while those who have been working from home while parenting full-time feel the competing pressures of career and family more intensely than they probably ever have. The situation is not tenable. But maybe these negative consequences can lead us to recognize that child care is an essential piece of the economy, and therefore lead to the meaningful structural policy changes we have long needed, to finally address enduring systemic inequalities and to help women—as caregivers and as workers.

[1] TLC3 consists of four waves of interviews with 150 parents in 75 couples (some married, some not married) in three cities, first interviewed shortly after the birth of a child. Both mothers and fathers participated in in-depth interviews individually and as a couple in each of the four waves from 2000-2005.

[2] All names used are pseudonyms.

Joan Maya Mazelis is the author of Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor (NYU Press 2017). She is an associate professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice at Rutgers University–Camden, an affiliated scholar at Rutgers–Camden’s Center for Urban Research and Education, a Faculty Affiliate at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty, and co-leader of the New Jersey/Philadelphia chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, an organization of scholars that connect their research to legislatures, civic organizations, and the media. Follow her @JoanieMazelis.