working moms distance learning Working moms shoulder the burden of distance learning
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Working moms are worried about their careers as they’re forced to shoulder the burden of helping their kids navigate distance learning.

“I never wanted to be a stay-at-home mom,” said Portland-based attorney Marissa Korbel. “I don’t have anything against it—I was raised by one. I think it’s lovely and great if that’s what you want to do and you can afford to do it.” 

But it’s not what Korbel signed up for. Nonetheless, like many other working moms across the U.S., she is currently staring down the possibility of having to sacrifice her career to help her six-year-old daughter with distance learning.

As school districts increasingly adopt full distance learning for the fall—given the U.S.’ failure to control the COVID-19 outbreak—parents have turned to “pandemic pods” to try and share the burden with their peers. But whether they’re joining pods or supervising distance learning themselves, the organizational labor is falling disproportionately on mothers. 

A number of recently published articles point out that pods will exacerbate inequality among public school students, ultimately leaving behind low-income families who are disproportionately Black, Latinx, or Indigenous. Yet, little attention is being given to how at-home learning will dramatically affect gender inequality in the U.S. across the race and class spectrum. 

In other words, because of the impossible choices parents are being forced to make while navigating their children’s education during a pandemic, the careers of an untold number of mothers are in jeopardy.

Since the economic crisis began months ago, more women than men filed for unemployment—a reversal from normal economic downturns. Those working mothers who have not lost their jobs, however, face heartbreaking decisions regarding whether to quit or scale back hours to take on the burden of supervising their children’s distance learning.

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A recent report conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found that since the pandemic began, “women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands. About one in three (30.9%) of these women are not working because of childcare, compared to 11.6% of men in the same age group.” 

While having an inordinate impact on working moms, school closures have not had a notable impact on either fathers or women without children. 

Both Korbel and her husband work full-time, but he earns more. “You multiply that times every household in America, it’s pretty much the same calculation, and it makes me so sad and depressed,” she said. “Basically, women are just going to be forced out of the workplace.”

Marissa Korbel
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In fact, the repercussions for women who have no choice but to leave the job market will reverberate for decades. Although roughly half of women take a break from the workforce once they have children, they face consequences for this decision. People who leave the workforce lose out on pay increases, promotions, and opportunities to develop in their careers, making it harder for them to re-enter their industries after a period of absence.

These challenges are a major reason why so many mothers either never go back to work (if they can afford it), or resume their careers with more flexible—part-time or freelance—work. In heterosexual marriages, dad is most often the primary breadwinner with the full-time job and less flexibility, so at-home learning automatically falls on mom to facilitate. Even before the pandemic, mothers were spending much more time on household labor and child care than fathers. Now, with kids learning from home, moms’ labor is multiplied.

But this dynamic isn’t limited to heterosexual couples. Some research has shown that even in families headed by two queer women, one parent often takes on more of the child-rearing duties and unpaid household labor, while the other is the primary breadwinner. As a result, one of the women’s careers takes a back shelf.

RELATED: Child Care Isn’t Going to Be the Same After the Pandemic

Stephanie Harad, a therapist based in Santa Fe with a seven- and four-year-old, found herself in this predicament. “Once my second child was born, the cost of child care for two was more than I was bringing in hourly,” she told COURIER. Because her wife earns more than she does, Harad was the one who had to quit her job until the kids started school. That, she said, “caused a lot of tension. All in all, I was out of the workforce for six years.” 

The pandemic and now remote schooling has meant Harad will likely have to quit again because her family can’t afford private care for two kids. “I am worried about the toll that is going to take on my mental health, and my relationship with my kids, and of course our finances,” she said.

This sacrifice is an extraordinarily difficult pill to swallow for working women like Harad and Korbel, who also cited her mental health as a reason why she doesn’t want to leave her job to help her daughter with schooling.

While having an inordinate impact on working moms, school closures have not had a notable impact on either fathers or women without children.

Since the pandemic, even moms who work remotely from home with a male partner who does the same face an outsized burden: As this New York Times piece points out, “[the kids] go to mommy first.” In other words, the disproportionate amount of emotional and household labor moms are expected to do—already hardened into place well before the pandemic—now happens all throughout their work days as they deal with interruptions from their children who are used to asking mom instead of dad for help.

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, a majority of Americans believe the country has not gone far enough in its progress toward gender equality. Unsurprisingly, a much higher percentage of women than men believe this to be true, as do three-fourths of Democrats versus only one-third of Republicans polled. 

It’s hard to back up the claim that this country has done enough to achieve gender equality—or, as 12% of men surveyed believe, that it’s gone too far—when there’s still a wage gap between men and women. The retreat of mothers from the workforce because of school closures will undoubtedly exacerbate that pay difference. 

Because of the high number of people who are unemployed, Korbel predicted that when workplaces begin rehiring again, jobs are “going to get snapped up by all the men who got laid off in similar fields.” This chilling possibility, she added, means “we will end up with a large male majority workplace and a bunch of stay-at-home moms who never wanted to be stay-at-home moms.”