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When paid work invades the family: Single mothers and the pandemic

By: Rosanna Hertz 

Middle class single mothers typically had children with the assumption that someone else would care for them during the day so they could earn a paycheck. However, the COVID19 pandemic has dissolved the spatial distinction between workplace and home. Moreover, closed daycare and schools, couple with fear about spreading the virus to aging relatives, have stretched single mothers to their breaking point. One mother, unprepared to deal with the demands of increased in-home parenting, conceded: “I never expected to spend this much time with [my daughter] day in and day out. I’m just too exhausted all the time.”  While news reports focus on how the pandemic has forced dual-earner couples to reduce their employment hours, single mothers have an even more difficult time juggling work and childcare.

In my recent coauthored article in the Journal of Family Issues we discuss the results of an online survey with opened ended questions meant to compare carework and family involvement before and after the COVID 19 shutdown. The survey was live the month of June 2020. Links were sent to members in two single mothers’ organizations in the U.S. and Canada and to a Facebook site to create a geographically diverse sample. 722 single mothers answered the survey. Two thirds of these respondents earned at least the current U.S. median household income. The majority of women who completed the survey continued to work full time – albeit remotely – while providing primary care or education for their children.  Among our respondents three quarters of them lived alone with their children; the rest lived in multi-adult households, usually with their parents. While both household types were affected by the pandemic, women in single-adult households wrote much more frequently about the emotional costs they bore, especially in the form of tensions that emerged between themselves and their children. The tension manifested itself in three distinct ways.

Intensity and Isolation. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, middle class single mothers relied on their social networks to round out children’s lives and to modulate the intensity of mother-child relationships. However, worries about communicability of the virus dramatically reduced the utility of networks, leaving single-adult households especially isolated. One mother wrote poignantly: “Before COVID-19 we were social butterflies and I frequently used a sitter to have time away from her. Now it is hell on earth. My child has significant behavioral problems and the pandemic has greatly exacerbated them. Being stuck at home has been awful for both of us. She has major tantrums every day and I am trying to work from home.” Women who lived in multi-adult households could rely on parents and/or siblings to better support child care needs.

Identities at Odds. Women were acutely aware that their sense of well-being rested on a compartmentalization of home and work. Work time was not solely for earning a living; it also allowed them to pursue a distinct element of their adult identity. A woman in a single-adult household put it this way: “There is a physical and emotional space that I get for 8 hours each day. I can run an errand without a kid, go grab lunch and have a phone call that is uninterrupted. When I go to work, I feel more connected with my first self–-the individual that I was before becoming a mom.”

Other women felt that the pandemic robbed them of the ability to recover from the strain of competing roles. Some wrote unapologetically that work provided a much-needed “break” from children. Another woman described her son’s unwillingness to share her attention: “In the last few weeks he has regressed in toileting behaviors (peeing on the floor) when I spend too much time on the computer, or when I’m not in the midst of playing with him or allowing him to play with neighbors outside.”

Reduced Productivity and Its Consequences. Mothers who lived in single-adult households were more likely to report a decline in their work productivity than women who lived in multi-adult households (58% versus 47%).  Moreover, they viewed their inability to combine child care and paid work as a personal problem – not as a structural one – with long term-consequences: “I couldn’t lose my job … I did ask for a lot of help/understanding from work but I am concerned this has made me seem weak and unable to cope as well as co-workers.”

In sum, the Covid-19 pandemic has pulled the rug out from under single mothers, rendering futile their efforts to compartmentalize their day and revealing how employment is not just about a paycheck. The external networks that enabled many to care for their children and for themselves have been stripped away, leaving mothers in single-adult households to feel like they are failing at both their jobs and family life. Absent any sign that the pandemic will soon disappear and concerned that children will either be in zoom school or without adequate daycare providers, women expressed a strong sense of malaise, exhaustion and strain.

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