The Pandemic's Motherhood Penalty

Written by
Kelly J. Baker

Jul 29, 2020

Jul 29, 2020 • by Kelly J. Baker

It's May, and I'm sitting at my dining room table. It's covered in pencils, crayons, scissors, worksheets and overstuffed binders. The table is now our school; it's no longer for eating. We're two months into remote schooling, crisis schooling really, and it's not getting any easier. My children's work piles up, and mine does too. The pile never seems to get smaller.

The Struggle Continues

My book is already two weeks overdue to my editor. The deadline was bumped up from August to May because the topic is timely. I worked on my revisions slowly in the pockets of time that I could scrounge together. The book was almost finished, but I was convinced it wasn't any good. I felt like a failure as a writer and a person. I'm about to call my editor to pull it from the press. While my kids play outside under my partner's supervision, I'm sobbing at my dining room table and wondering how I can continue.

Because of the pandemic, I've become a pinch‐hit teacher, an even more anxious and depressed mother, an overloaded partner and a stressed author while still editing two magazines. I'm struggling, and my job is more flexible than my partner's. I can build my own schedule around child care. Other women can't. Even with that flexibility, I could barely do what I had to. So many other women have it worse.

The Urge to Quit

I'm sobbing at my dining room table while cataloging what I have to accomplish to still have a job and realizing once again how untenable and unending the situation is.

Maybe I shouldn't tell you that I've considered quitting my job—this very job as editor of this very national, monthly newsletter. Maybe I shouldn't tell you that I've considered quitting my job more than once. More than twice. More than I really should admit aloud, much less in print. And yet, I'm telling you anyway.

I didn't quit. I continue to feel the urge to quit—three months after I broke down at my dining room table. Quitting is a privilege for me because I'm married and my partner has a secure job. Other women aren't so lucky. They've been forced to quit because it's their only option. To have choices is a privilege that many working mothers don't have.

Many working mothers are struggling to balance taking care of children and keeping their jobs. The New York Times had a story profiling a few women who did quit their jobs because of the lack of child care during the pandemic. Someone had to take care of the kids, and most often that someone is a woman.

This isn't news really. Before the pandemic, we knew that women still shoulder most of the caretaking and domestic responsibilities. Women's careers also take a serious hit because they are caretakers. After all, there's a well‐documented motherhood penalty: Mothers are paid less, viewed as less competent at and less serious about their jobs and passed over for new jobs and promotions more than men and women who don't have children. Being a working mother comes with disadvantages because of bias and the structure of the workplace. Being a working mother during a pandemic is a disadvantage.

The Motherhood Penalty

We knew all of these things, right? Study after study documents and analyzes the barriers women still face at home and work. The pandemic made those barriers more obvious. While it already was impossible for many women to manage their jobs and motherhood, the pandemic made it impossible for more women, including those privileged enough to be able to work from home.

Writing for Rolling Stone, EJ Dickson writes, “[L]ow‐income mothers will be hardest hit by the impact of the pandemic.” Their jobs disappear completely, or they quit to take care of children. Early data out of California shows that not all women are shouldering the burden equally. The Mercury News reports that “more than one in five jobs held by Black, Latinx and immigrant women disappeared between March and May.” Racial discrimination is partly to blame, but child care is another factor.

The motherhood penalty is now worse than before. Women quit their jobs, work part‐time or do the minimum amount of work to keep their jobs. This summer, women academics felt this pressure keenly too. Mother scholars weren't submitting their work to journals, producing research or finishing books. How could they?

Women, mothers and caretakers, are in impossible, untenable situations with no end in sight.

So, in June, when I saw an announcement from FSU, my alma mater, I wanted to scream. Starting in August, the school wouldn't allow employees to care for their children while they work from home. The logic, I guess, was since schools and maybe daycares are supposed to open up in the fall, kids wouldn't be stuck at home any longer. And yet, we're still in the middle of a pandemic, which FSU seemed to ignore. The cases of COVID‐19 are soaring in Florida. There's no guarantee that parents will be sending kids to school.

FSU's policy, once again, shows the hard decisions working mothers have to make. One poorly thought out policy could kill the careers of women. After this became national news, FSU backed away from the policy slowly, but it was likely not the only university or workplace instituting these policies.

Because of COVID‐19, working mothers face a brutal battle that they might lose. Dickson puts it more starkly: “[A] global pandemic may well be the impetus for booting working mothers from the workplace altogether.” We still don't know what the lasting effects of the pandemic will be on women. Maybe working mothers will make it through, but at what cost? A high one, which women might not want to pay.