Pandemic put more parenting stress on mothers

A first-of-its-kind study of parents’ work arrangements during the pandemic shows that mothers working from home increased their supervisory parenting fully two hours more than fathers did, and women were also more likely to adapt their work schedules to new parenting demands.

The study used time diaries to examine how working parents managed school closures and childcare disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic – thought to be the first such use of that data.

“We found that women working from home shouldered more of the parenting burden during the pandemic,” said researcher Kelly Musick, professor of public policy and sociology and senior associate dean of research in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy. “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.”

An article detailing their findings, “Parents’ Work Arrangements and Gendered Time Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” published Dec. 9 in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Thomas Lyttelton of the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark was the lead author and Yale University sociologist Emma Zang and Musick were co-authors.

The researchers delved into data from the 2017–20 American Time Use Survey. A representative sample of Americans recorded their daily activities in detail, noting how long they spent on each task, where they were and who was present. Those records were then compared with how parents allotted their time prior to the pandemic, resulting in these key findings:

  • There was no increase among parents working from home or on site in total childcare time as a primary focus, such as when feeding or bathing, playing, or reading to the kids. The added hours were in supervisory tasks – monitoring activities and making sure young ones were safe, while also doing other activities, often paid work – and that’s where the two-hour gap between women and men emerged. “The much larger increase among mothers relative to fathers in supervisory care points to mothers’ disproportionate responsibility for children,” Musick said.
  • When activities did not involve multitasking or affect work duties, there was a more even divide between mothers and fathers. Moms disproportionately increased their time playing with children during the pandemic, and dads took on more household chores. That’s a reverse from what evidence suggests about home lives prior to the pandemic.
  • While the pandemic afforded parents more time at home with children, the majority of that time was spent juggling paid work. Parents working on site experienced no such changes. All mothers – both working on site and at home – also altered their work schedules during the pandemic, increasing nonstandard hours and spells of work throughout the day, presumably to better accommodate increased parenting demands.

While the study focused on the pandemic, the findings have important implications for work and family in a post-pandemic world characterized by more remote work.

“The pandemic highlights a work culture unaccommodating of care demands and a policy infrastructure ill-equipped to support working parents,” Musick said. “Change is needed at both the public and private levels to better accommodate the health, productivity, and well-being of working families.”

Jim Hanchett is assistant dean for communications for the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

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