The data proves it: COVID-19 pandemic put more parenting responsibility on mothers

The COVID-19 pandemic transformed home and work life for us all, particularly for parents dealing with disruptions to employment, childcare, and schooling.

But while working from home has allowed more flexibility in managing changing childcare needs, a new US study of parents’ work arrangements during the pandemic has shown that mothers working from home increased their supervisory parenting two hours longer than fathers.

“We found that women working from home shouldered more of the parenting burden during the pandemic,” says co-author Kelly Musick, Professor of Public Policy and Sociology at Cornell University in the US.

“While the shift to work from home offered more flexibility, the lack of separation between work and family contributed to more challenging work environments, especially among mothers.”

Time with children increased by over an hour among parents working from home, but supervisory parenting, while working at the same time, increased on average by 4 hours among mothers and 2 hours among fathers.

Mothers, both working remotely and on-site, were also more likely to adapt their work schedules to the new pandemic parenting demands. Another 2021 report also found Australian mothers in couples and single parents (80% of whom are women) were more likely to leave the labour force than other groups during the COVID-19 crisis.

The study has been published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Read more: The impact of COVID-19 on mothers and young people revealed.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a dramatic change in work from home, increasing from 22% of people in 2019 to 42% in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here in Australia, 40.6% of people were regularly working from home as of August 2021, up from 32% in 2019.

The team delved into data from the 2017-2020 American Time Use Survey in which parents had recorded their daily activities, noting how long they spent on each task, where they were, and who was present.

They did this to investigate how parents’ work arrangements impacted their time use at home and work during the pandemic.

Overall, across all working parents, there was no significant increase in the time taken for primary childcare – such as feeding, bathing, playing, or reading to the children.

Woman working from home while holding toddler
Credit: MoMo Productions/Getty Images

Instead, increased hours came from supervisory tasks – such as monitoring activities and making sure kids were safe – while also multitasking and doing other activities such as paid work from home.

This is where a two hour-gap between women and men emerged.

Musick says that “the much larger increase among mothers relative to fathers in supervisory care points to mothers’ disproportionate responsibility for children.”

A 2020 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics on household impacts of COVID-19 also found that women were more than three times as likely to report they performed most of the unpaid caring responsibilities in their household (38% compared to 11%).

Read more: Unpaid and unequal: women’s extra workload affects mental wellbeing.

“Insofar as pandemic-era remote work offered a way to manage increased childcare demands, it also changed how parents – particularly mothers – engaged in paid work, with more time “on call” to attend to children and schedule changes that extended the workday,” the authors of the US study write.

“Working from home thus appears to have provided parents with greater flexibility to respond to new demands at home, but with potential negative effects on work quality and stress experienced disproportionately by mothers, consistent with gendered power relations in negotiations over increased demands at home.”

This study has important implications for work and family, especially gender differences in paid and unpaid work among parents, with remote work here to stay as we begin the third year of the pandemic.

“The pandemic highlights a work culture unaccommodating of care demands and a policy infrastructure ill-equipped to support working parents,” Musick says.

“Change is needed at both the public and private levels to better accommodate the health, productivity, and well-being of working families.”

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