‘I Feel Like I Have Five Jobs’: Moms Navigate the Pandemic

As coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, we’re working to answer the questions on many parents’ minds. This is a fast-moving situation, so some information may be outdated. For the latest updates, read The New York Times’s live coronavirus coverage here.

Johanna Moran and her husband, Terry, have created a schedule with three shifts: A is the morning shift, when Terry does child care and school for their 3-, 5- and 7-year-olds while Johanna works; B is for the afternoon, when Mom takes over. The evening shift, C, is split between Mom and Dad — for now.

But her husband, a journalist, will return to work on Monday, and Moran worries she might need to be the one to scale back her hours to keep up. “My husband is by far the breadwinner,” said Moran, 40, who is a China analyst for a defense contractor in Washington. “So I do understand, he can’t tell his bosses, ‘That schedule doesn’t work for me.’ But it’s clear that if something needs to go, it’s going to be my job.”

Nan Krafft had planned to return from maternity leave last week — preparing, as she put it, to “re-establish my value” in her job. But then Seattle all but shut down, as did her son’s preschool. She soon found herself in a hospital room, toggling between a breast pump, getting a coronavirus test for a sick child and messaging colleagues on Slack — while her husband took care of the baby at home. The test, fortunately, was negative.

“This is by far the hardest thing we have encountered in our relationship,” said Krafft, 35.

Joy Sherrod, a lawyer in Oakland, Calif., has been home all week with her 7-year-old son, husband and 85-year-old mother. She is handling most of the household planning, she said, while her husband, a project manager at a construction company, does the cooking. “We have a chat room at work about home school that has basically devolved into jokes about how we suck at it,” Sherrod, 47, said.

This is the new reality for many parents who have the luxury of working from home. Amid coronavirus fears, school closures and shelter-in-place mandates — including a new one in Los Angeles on Thursday and in New York on Friday — many have added teacher, coach, germ police and round-the-clock caregiver to their résumés.

These added duties are challenging for any parent — and the struggles for families who don’t have the option to stay home are of course even harder. But many moms who work outside the home face an added stressor: They remain the chief operating officers of their households.

“I feel like I have five jobs: mom, teacher, C.C.O., house cleaner, chef,” said Sarah Joyce Willey, a chief client officer for a health services company in Sharon, Mass., who has been working from home while teaching her 7- and 9-year-olds all week, while her husband, who works for the state of Rhode Island, is at work. “My kids also call me ‘Principal mommy’ and the ‘lunch lady.’ It’s exhausting.”

Division of labor takes a toll, said Krafft, who works in tech. “It’s, well, whose meeting is more important at 10 a.m.?” she said. “It’s like fighting about which movie you’re going to watch but with your job and your ego and your mental wellness on the line.”

She added: “I think we’ve all joked now about, like, what is the mortality rate for marriages in this virus.”

Plenty of social inequities have come to light as Covid-19 has swept the world, from inequities in who gets tested to disparities in sick and family leave to the gender makeup of jobs like nurse and teacher, which carry a higher risk for exposure.

[Read more: Who qualifies for paid leave under new coronavirus law?]

But the pandemic has also emphasized the often lopsided division of labor in the home.

In a new national poll this week, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that four in 10 Americans said their life had been disrupted “a lot” or “some” as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, with parents of children under 18 reflected disproportionately among that group.

But women seemed to be the most affected, compared to men: more stressed, more likely to say they worried their income would suffer, more worried they might have to put themselves at risk because they couldn’t afford to stay at home.

“I don’t think that these data suggests that the dads are slacking, necessarily,” said Liz Hamel, the director of public opinion and survey research at Kaiser, who oversaw the polling. But, she added, “I think women overall are feeling this more acutely.”

Which isn’t to say that dads are not feeling squeezed. Indeed, there are dads staying home full time while their wives work on the front lines of the epidemic; dads sharing teaching resources on blogs and email lists; dads posting on Twitter about their new title as “P.E. teacher,” about living room dance class and a roller skating party.

But it was the moms whose color-coded home-school schedules were going viral. Eighty percent of single-parent households are headed by mothers, according to 2019 US Census Bureau data, who don’t have the luxury of dividing the work up. Women make up the majority of those who care for aging or sick family members. And it is undeniable, based on years of research, that women in opposite-sex couples simply do more of the domestic work and child-related planning — even in dual-earning couples and when the woman makes more money.

[Read more: Young men embrace gender equality, but they still don’t vacuum]

“I think our normal dynamic is probably like a 65/35 — which is probably not uncommon,” said Sherrod, the lawyer. “And now it’s probably like an 80/20. I think part of it is — and I hate using generalizations — but women tend to be planners.” As soon as things got serious, she said, she went to school to get all her child’s work. “If someone else is doing it, it’s really easy not to,” she said.

Researchers call this the “second shift”: the idea that when a woman gets home at the end of the day, she must clock into her second, unpaid job — buying groceries, cooking, cleaning and doing dishes, plus “the invisible work” like planning, coordinating and anticipating needs, said Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., the director of the Center for the Changing Family at the University of Southern California.

But in a health crisis, that labor gap might become even more pronounced as moms tend to be the primary point of contact for family health issues.

Alina Salganicoff, Ph.D., the director of women’s health policy at Kaiser, noted that 77 percent of moms say they take their children for doctor appointments, compared to only 24 percent of dads, according to a 2017 survey. “This has been a consistent finding in this survey since 1999,” she said. The same 2017 survey found that of working parents, 40 percent of moms said they’d taken time off from work to stay at home with sick kids, compared to 10 percent of dads — and that more than half of those moms were not paid.

“I think there are a couple of things going on,” said Salganicoff. “One is that we have societal expectations and gender roles that have been very hard to change. So managing health — whether it’s kids’ health, a spouse’s health, or caregiving to parents and often to in-laws — these are responsibilities that are often shouldered by women.”

And often, in part because of those responsibilities, women make less money — which means that when couples must decide whose work will take the hit, it is more likely hers.

[Related: The gender pay gap is largely because of motherhood]

Saxbe said that she hopes the mere fact of being confined to the home — while challenging — will make women’s disproportionate domestic work more visible to their partners. “In one sense, that might open up some more discussion and recognition for couples. On the other hand, that might exacerbate disparities.”

So how is it all going?

Well, you know.

When reached by phone this week, Wiley said the kids were “supposed to be doing math, but they’re just watching YouTube.”

Moran’s daughter, Helen, wanted to know why her mom was talking on the phone in the daughter’s room. “Because it was the only private place I could find,” she told her.

Sherrod said she got a brief work call while she was showing her son the reptiles at the San Diego Zoo as part of a virtual tour. When she returned, he had made his way to a video game.

Dana Marlowe, 43, an executive director of a nonprofit and mother of two in Silver Spring, Md., posted a thread on Facebook that had been circulating among parents sharing things that their young “co-workers” had done while they tried to work.

One co-worker had pushed the other down. Another, during a companywide yoga class, licked his boss’s ear.

“Today my co-workers took off their shirts while eating cereal, had a conversation about their nipples, then played Fortnite,” one of the comments read.

Courtney Hill, a 38-year-old mom in Seattle who works in marketing, enlisted her kids to help. During “art class” this week, she had her daughters make signs that said, “STOP: Mom is on a call.”

“You know, you have to find a sense of humor in it,” said Jacquelyn Vaughn, 37, who works in HR for a social service organization in Chicago and is a mother to an 11-year-old daughter. As a single parent, she said, she is working from home as much as she can — but without the usual help from her mother, who is high-risk because of her age.

“We’re doing our best,” she said. “As long as the Wi-Fi keeps working and the snacks don’t run out, I think we’ll be OK.”

Sharon Attia contributed research.

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