The Paradox of Pandemic Parenting: Is this much family time necessarily good for kids?

As we enter the winter months of 2020 amid the continuing pandemic, many American families have been spending more time together, sheltering in place, than at any time in recent history. Today’s family togetherness is not even punctuated with play dates and, in most places, by attending school.

Research is beginning to show, quite conclusively, that mothers are providing the lion’s share of the work it takes to manage a family when children have nowhere to go and taken-for-granted childcare options, such as daycare and schooling, are out of reach.  Much of our current understanding is based on surveys that were conducted at the very beginning of the pandemic.  Still, our research, along with that of others, points to three conclusions. First, while some men are doing more childcare and housework than they were before the pandemic, in general most men are still not doing their fair share.  As the amount of domestic work has risen, women are doing even more proportionally than men.  Our research suggests that this is true even among younger parents who many hoped would find a way to finish the gender revolution.  Second, mothers are taking primary responsibility for the home-schooling of their children who are learning online. Four out of five mothers say they are spending more time homeschooling then their male partners, while only 45% of the men claim to spend more time than their wives.  Third, as a consequence of this unequal division of labor, some women are working fewer hours or dropping out of the labor force entirely. Finally, women are also much more likely to have left the labor force because their jobs have disappeared.

What are the implications for children? Traditionalists might predict that children would do better with more parental time invested in their well-being. Perhaps, according to this logic, an unintended silver lining of the pandemic is that parents, especially mothers, are spending more time with their kids. Yet a long tradition of family research suggests this is not likely to be the case.  If the past provides any lessons for the future, the increasing demands on an expanded second shift for women at home, will undermine rather than enhance children’s well-being. A brief explanation is in order.  

The vast majority families depend on mothers’ incomes to support their children’s needs. Among households with children, 64% depend on a mother who is either a primary or co-breadwinner. Needless to say, when most mothers are forced to reduce their paid work hours or withdraw from the labor force altogether, the family suffers economically.  In single-parent households, a job loss can mean facing eviction and food insecurity. Even the loss of one parent’s job may lead to parents’ inability to provide the basics. At the moment, families require technology and high speed internet for remote learning. The children of families already struggling will be hurt the most by the arrival of increased financial hardship.

As perilous as the situation may be, the challenges are not limited to struggling families. Even in households that may be financially secure, parental stress takes a toll on children. Early research on the health effects of the pandemic go far beyond COVID-related illness. An epidemic of stress is also taking place among parents and particularly mothers, and it extends beyond national borders. Reports from Australia, the UK, and the US show that the balancing act of working for pay with the loss of professional child care and classroom instruction has created serious stress and mental health struggles. New research in the US shows that the increased workload among mothers is contributing to marital discord and women’s declining mental health. A long tradition of research shows that parental mental health, and especially maternal mental health, influences child health and well-being. Children whose parents are depressed are more likely to externalize their problems (cheat, bully, be disobedient) and internalize them (be fearful, feel worthless, withdrawn). Maternal depression and anxiety before and after birth decrease the social-emotional health of offspring, and these consequences can last throughout childhood and adolescence.

The loss of employed mothers as a role model can itself be a loss. Lois Hoffman, a pioneer in the study of employment among mothers, has reported that the children of employed mothers enjoy numerous benefits, including higher academic achievement, greater career success and, for daughters, more non-traditional career choices and greater independence and assertiveness in building their lives. Our research and that of others has also found that children with employed mothers perceive a range of benefits, including greater financial stability, more satisfied parents, and uplifting examples to emulate. The prospect of a reversal of 40 years of movement toward women’s equality in the labor force poses the risk of enduring effects on children that may last well beyond childhood. Leaving the labor force may lower the short-term stress of a parent, but the long-term consequences may be children who doubt girls will have or deserve equal opportunities at work or home.  

No one can wave a wand to end the pandemic today. Yet it is well within our collective control to develop policies to respond effectively and help American families. We need policies that encourage fathers to do their fair share, protect all workers from discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities, provide child-care assistance, fund supervisors for children who must learn online, and make schools and child care centers safe again. We must develop policies that support children’s needs without putting elderly and immune-compromised family members at risk.  We must provide an infrastructure of care that makes it possible to earn a living when you are a parent or anyone who cares for a dependent. If not, parental and caregiving stress will rise, especially for women; families will face increased insecurities; and children growing up today will need to grapple with the consequences long after the pandemic is behind us.

Barbara J. Risman, Kathleen Gerson, Jerry Jacobs and Jennifer Glass

Professor Risman’s current work includes a three city study of non-binary people, and their narratives about identity within the gender structure.  She is also studying the effects of COVID on family life, and on productivity of university faculty. 

Contact Professor Risman

Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University,Evanston, IL