The Parent Trap

The global pandemic exposes the invisible labor that has always fallen on the backs of women. But now, they’re not in it alone.

author : Remy Blaire

art : Nora De Broder

Since New York City went on lockdown in late March, Heartie Look’s bedroom has become her workplace.

Recently laid off from her job at a media company and searching for a new one, Look has spent the last three weeks figuring out how to make the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband and two-year-old into an office for two adults that’s also a daycare and a school. “We’ve learned to be very flexible with how many hours we work and how much we get done, as long as the necessities are taken care of,” she says. 

With her son’s routine of seeing friends on pause and her husband working full-time, Look is adding “nanny” to her existing duties as a mom and events manager. She is one of millions of parents who the coronavirus pandemic has forced into reckoning with an impossible equation that adds layers of responsibility onto the already intense work of raising a child. Maintaining is difficult, but there’s no other option, she says. “Day by day, hour by hour, is how we are getting through.”

Society’s functioning has always depended on invisible labor, which Oxfam defines as unpaid care work “looking after children, elderly people, and those with physical and mental illnesses or disabilities, as well as domestic work.” According to the organization’s research, this unpaid care work is worth $1.48 trillion annually in the U.S. alone, and it’s highly gendered: women spend nearly 40 percent more daily time than men on unpaid care work, often when still working a full-time job. Without these contributions, which make it possible for other household members to work outside the home, the world’s economy would falter. 

Now, with over four billion people globally under some degree of quarantine, many women are finding themselves expected to pick up the pieces. What was once considered a normal balancing act between the visible work of a job and the invisible work of care has been compacted into the home sphere, without a reduction on either front. Living quarters have been transformed into classrooms, conference rooms, and magical kingdoms with cardboard fortresses. Amid it all, moms are reckoning with the fact that it’s just about impossible to have it all when it’s happening all at once. 

To understand how the pandemic is affecting unpaid care work, Trix surveyed 45 mothers working from home in the U.S., South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. While their responses vary, one thing is clear. They are holding down several full-time jobs: mom, teacher, household manager, spouse, and often more. 

Most of the moms we talked to report having supportive partners or family members who do what they can, despite often working themselves. Those with young children say they struggle to help their kids understand that working from home doesn’t mean mom is suddenly available all the time. “There is always a demand from the kids to be with them,” says Srestha Roy, a government worker in India. And on top of that, she adds, “there’s the increased household work, and the challenge of keeping up to expectations from the office.” 

Those expectations are weighing heavily on many moms. Several responses mention employers who have refused to recognize that their workers are now pulling double shifts, taking on the invisible child-minding work that made their previous time in the office possible. Yulia Tolskaya, a product engineer in San Francisco, says that her employer has verbally acknowledged that the situation is hard for parents, but has not made any changes to reflect it. “Taking care of a toddler full time and working full time are just not compatible,” she says. “The expectation of keeping up the same level of productivity while childcare is shut down is simply unreasonable.” 

For some moms, even good policy changes aren’t enough. Sarah Groves, a Dallas marketing director, says her employer granted 160 hours of paid time off for families impacted by the pandemic—including through school closures. But although she appreciated the offer, she explains, “my job is too demanding, and I don’t feel in a position to take it.”

This impossible balancing act is mired with uncertainty, stretching on with no end in sight and making equilibrium feel like a distant possibility. Being the perfect mother was already a myth, and adding on work expectations pushes it even farther out of reach. Despair and other types of psychological stress can set in. Riddhi Shah, who works at a San Francisco payroll company, says the hardest thing for her so far has been “combating feelings of hopelessness about when this will end, and how bad the economic impact will be.” 

Jenni Bishop experienced her first-ever panic attack after struggling to adapt to the stress of suddenly homeschooling three kids. A self-employed interior designer in Texas, she functionally became a single mom overnight after her husband’s work managing a car dealership was deemed essential. While prepping breakfast one morning, she started to feel nauseous and dizzy. Her chest tightened and her vision blurred. Once the symptoms passed, a search revealed their psychological cause. “It was that moment that I knew I had to take care of myself before my work and before the kids’ school,” she says. “As scary as that moment was for me, I needed it to happen to help me get my priorities straight.”

It’s hard to imagine a situation like Bishop’s being in any way a luxury. But according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, less than 30 percent of Americans have jobs they can do from home, and access breaks down along familiar lines of inequality: less than 20 percent of black Americans and a little over 16 percent of Hispanic workers are able to work from home. 

And not all remote work is created equal, either. Shawna Gonzales works full-time at a large Bay Area tech company and is married to an essential worker who still commutes. Her manager has been supportive, she says, but there’s not much to do about the fact that despite being full time she is still an hourly employee. “I am working hard to make sure I complete my 40 hour week,” she says, even though she is now also responsible for her daughter’s school work. “I really need every penny from that paycheck, right now especially.”

Regardless of their identity or income, none of the mothers we surveyed say that they’re stress-free, and only a few report feeling like they’re getting all the support they need. The responses overwhelmingly mention needing additional financial support, help with caregiving, and educational assistance from schools. Employer support for additional leave policies and better pandemic responses by governments are also top requests. 

These responses aren’t restricted to moms in the social safety net-free U.S., either—from Switzerland to El Salvador, governments across the world are letting families down, particularly ones with self-employed parents. And while some large employers, like Facebook, have offered additional support, it’s generally limited to salaried employees and excludes the company’s contract workforce.

But the survey also shows that moms aren’t waiting for anyone to save them. They’re finding a way forward by helping each other: Where spouses, schools, or governments fail to step up, other moms do. Grove writes that “having mom support groups with silly memes and funny videos to keep up laughing” has been a lifesaver for her. Meanwhile, Bishop has started joining other moms in her neighborhood for a weekly happy hour in each other’s front yards. “We bring our own chair and our own wine and sit well over six feet apart,” she says. “It recharges me and helps me know everyone is in the same boat.”

And although the moms we talked to are routinely hard on themselves, expressing a desire to be just as good at teaching as they are at being moms or partners, they have nothing but encouragement for others in their same situation. Despite the many stresses of quarantine, our survey reveals an emerging commitment to collective support by and for working moms around the globe.

Amanda Moutakki, a writer in Morocco, wants to remind other moms to “be easy on yourself and know this won’t last forever.” Estelle Roux-Stevens, a small business founder in Amsterdam, urges against trying to “be perfect at everything.” Marie Charles, who works in insurance in Louisiana, wants to tell her fellow moms, “do not allow this world to make you feel as though you’re not doing enough!”

Hope is within reach, as long as women take the sage advice that they generously give others: Don’t forget to take care of yourself. As Jacqueline Gordon, a Dallas, Texas bar manager, writes, “We sacrifice everything for our children. This is no different. We are a community, we are resilient, we will survive!”