Image by Chuck Underwood from Pixabay

Quick Summary: New study shows that couples justified relying on mothers as the “default” parent during the pandemic, seeing those arrangements as “practical” and “natural” because of longstanding gendered norms about caregiving and inequalities in parents’ work roles.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many mothers stepped into the “default” parent role. They took on more of the parenting, even when they were working for pay. And they often did so without any real discussion or negotiation over who would do more of the care.

Given the toll these arrangements took on mothers – undermining their mental health, causing stress in their relationships, forcing them to scale back their work hours, or even pushing them out of their careers – it’s important to ask: how did couples justify having mothers do so much more?

My coauthors Emily Meanwell, Elizabeth M. Anderson, Amelia S. Knopf and I answer this question in a new study, recently published in the open access journal Socius, and supported in part with funding from the NIH through the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

Drawing on two waves of in-depth interviews with 55 mothers and 14 fathers in different-sex dual-earner couples, we found that cultural and structural inequalities made it seem practical and natural for couples to rely on mothers as the “default” parent for care. Justifying these arrangements, mothers and fathers pointed to fathers’ status as primary breadwinners, mothers’ disproportionate availability at home, and gendered ideas about who would be more patient with the kids.

In couples where fathers were the primary breadwinners, both mothers and fathers described mothers’ work as “less valuable” than fathers’ and thus more easily sacrificed during the pandemic. Because dads earned more and usually worked more hours, they were allowed to “hole up” during the workday while moms had to simultaneously managing working and caring for the kids. As a Latina mother told us, explaining why she did her part-time data analysis job while caring for her two children, while her husband worked from their bedroom all day: “whatever pays the most wins.”

In other couples, particularly where moms had higher levels of education than dads, moms were able to work from home while dads had to work outside the home. This led moms to do more of the caregiving at home, even when they were the primary earner and working from home full-time. As a Black mother told us, explaining why she was the one caring for her three children during the day while also working full-time as a customer service representative: “[My husband] works in construction. I work from home.”

Gendered caregiving norms allowed couples to justify these arrangements as natural and desirable. Some mothers even described themselves as fortunate to have lost their jobs during the pandemic, because it allowed them to give their undivided attention to their kids. That included a white mother who lost her job in food service and told us: “With my older kids being out of school… I realize how fortunate I am that I got to be home. So I didn’t get faced with daycares being closed and schools being closed but still having to go to work…. I got the easy option.”

At the same time, gendered caregiving norms also limited mothers’ sense of entitlement to support with childcare from partners and other potential caregivers. A white mother we interviewed, who we call Candice, continued working full-time from home as a nonprofit administrator. When her husband lost his job in food service, they planned to have him provide full-time care. Yet, because their toddler gravitated toward Candice, she remained highly involved in care, saying: “It’s mostly [my husband]’s responsibility, I guess, to watch her, but I’m definitely involved throughout the day, as well. I sit on the couch with her playing in her toys. So I’m there and interacting with her but also still doing work…. So it’s not the same quality of work, but it’ll pay.”

Those norms also made mothers feel guilty and selfish for sending their children back to in-person school and childcare. As a white mother we interviewed explained, “[My daughter has] really struggled with in-person kindergarten…. And then [sending my toddler back to childcare] just broke my heart. I was so scared for her because she had no recollection of being in daycare because she’d been out for almost a year.” Similarly, a Black mother we interviewed called herself “selfish” for choosing in-person school and childcare, saying “without it I wouldn’t be able to do what I need to do from a work aspect.”

Of course, there were some couples that divided care more equally during the pandemic, and a few where fathers did more. Over time, though, many of those couples abandoned their more egalitarian arrangements. Particularly when fathers who were working from home had the chance to go back to work in the office. Or when couples perceived mothers as more suited for care. Fathers in these couples told us things like: “How she does it, I don’t know. Like, where she finds the time. Days I’m home with the boys by myself, all I can do is focus on keeping ’em alive, and she’s doing it all.”

In sum, we found that many mothers and fathers in dual-earner different-sex couples perceived traditional parenting arrangements as justified and desirable even when those arrangements damaged mothers’ careers, relationships, and well-being.

These findings help explain why many women have remained out of the workforce even as hiring signs have returned. They help explain why early increases in father involvement declined over the pandemic. And they help explain why opinion polls show growing preference in the United States for traditionally gendered divisions of parenting and paid work.

We conclude that structural changes—things like paid family leave, affordable childcare, and higher minimum wages–are needed to keep women from becoming the “default” parent when care arrangements break down. And yet, we also acknowledge that because current structural and cultural inequalities allow couples to justify mothers’ default status, those same couples may not advocate for policies that would support a more egalitarian division of care. Essentially, some mothers may reject the need for big structural and cultural changes, even if they would benefit the most.