Credit: Courtesy Jessica Calarco

This (hopefully last) wave of the pandemic is brutal for working parents, as schools and childcare close again, winter weather limits outside activities, financial stress intensifies for some, and everyone is burned out waiting for the crisis to end.

What do we know from the pandemic so far that can make a difference for working families at this point? What can employers, friends, and colleagues do?

For answers, this week I spoke with Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University who has been studying the experiences of working mothers as a coauthor of the Pandemic Parenting Study. Here is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

Based on your research, what do you see as the biggest problems working parents are facing?

We have a serious lack of support for families and especially working families in the US. We, unlike many other countries, don’t have a robust welfare system and welfare system beyond just aid for low-income families—a social welfare system or a safety net for families that are struggling, or for families that are just dealing with the normal challenges of raising children in society. We don’t have programs like affordable childcare. We don’t have universal health care, we don’t have universal paid parental leave. In the absence of those kinds of policies, so much of the struggle of family life is left on families to figure out themselves. That creates a tremendous burden, especially for workers and especially for working parents and especially for working mothers in the sense that they are often the ones who are faced with ideal worker norms in the US—especially in elite occupations, where those workers are pressured to put their entire lives into their work, to devote all of their time and all of their energies to their companies.

At the same time, working women also face these ideal, or intensive, parenting norms that essentially tell women that they are only good mothers if they fully sacrifice everything for their kids’ wellbeing, if they’re willing to drop everything to make sure that their kids are taken care of. So those two norms for women create almost this impossible situation where they’re expected to be both ideal workers and ideal mothers at the same time. And when you literally have work and home happening in the home at the same time, it just creates chaos in the sense that there is no way to be an ideal mother and an ideal worker while your kids are at home—while you’re also trying to work from home. It’s the clash of those two norms that seems to be creating the biggest problems for working women during the pandemic.

So what can organizations do to support them? There are three key categories of things that employers can do. On the one hand, and this is something I’ve been working on with a group of other caregivers at my own university, is reducing, recognizing, and more adequately distributing work. Essentially there are steps that organizations can take to eliminate basic bureaucratic hurdles, paperwork, busy work initiatives that can be put off until after the pandemic. They can identify those places where work is being asked of employees that doesn’t need to happen right now. That’s a very basic straightforward step. Beyond that recognizing more effectively the work that employees are doing. Research tells us that women within organizations and also other workers from systematically marginalized groups are often doing a great deal of unpaid or unrecognized labor for their employers.

Things like mentoring, new hires, things like serving on committees or coordinating events that could be incorporated into their titles or at the very least more adequately compensated. Or employers could hire more workers to do some of that labor in order to ensure that the employees that they do have aren’t being overtaxed and undercompensated for the labor that they’re doing. Then also redistributing tasks more equitably, potentially hiring more workers during the pandemic and potentially after that as well, to offset the burden on people with caregiving responsibilities to reduce the workload, ideally without reducing salaries in the process. The next big category of things is really supporting workers with caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic.

Paid time off is huge right now. If employers are able to provide those benefits for their employees, and especially if they can either shift work around to be distributed more equitably or to hire new workers to reduce that workload. Also things like childcare benefits in terms of many families. If their schools are closed right now or if their childcare centers are closed or if they’re keeping their children home because of concerns about health risks then they are taking on tremendous amounts of extra work. Being able to hire a caregiver to help with some of that during the day is a way to kind of reduce the burden. The third, big category of things that employers can do right now is lobbying state and federal legislators to enact policies that would benefit all workers, including things like mandatory paid parental leave, mandatory paid sick leave and personal time off, affordable, universal health care and childcare, increasing funding for public education, even to make sure that schools are able to reopen safely right now. The Cares Act provided $13 billion for public schools and the best estimates suggest that it would cost $254 billion to be able to safely reopen public schools. So just making it possible for schools to reopen safely right now would reduce a huge amount of burden on caregivers. Also things like expanding unemployment benefits, making sure that they are getting the support that they need to take care of their families in the interim until they’re able to be rehired in the process.

What are some examples you’re finding of work that doesn’t need to be done right now, and which employers should put off until after the pandemic?

I’m part of what we call the Care Caucus here at Indiana University. Essentially we’re a group of people with caregiving responsibilities who are working with administrators to identify ways that the university can better support us and other people with responsibilities during the pandemic. One of the basic things that we recommended was eliminating letter of recommendation requirements for internal grants and for internal fellowships and awards. So many of our grad students, for example, apply for funding from the university to go to conferences or to get money for their research. And those applications normally require letters of recommendation from faculty. So we said, why are we doing this? It’s really silly. We’re just writing letters to ourselves. We should just be able to check a box and say we verify or we vouch for this person. That would potentially eliminate hours of work for each individual faculty member and potentially thousands of hours of work overall. So it’s thinking strategically and thinking creatively like that about ways to reduce the work that we often take for granted as part of bureaucratic processes that can help to streamline what we’re doing right now and potentially into the future as well.

Is there a good way to offer flexibility to working parents so that they don’t still feel that they’re falling short of expectations, of ideal worker norms?

The place that I’ve thought about this the most is in higher education in terms of the work that we’ve been doing within our university. One of the things that I’m a strong advocate for is post-pandemic sabbaticals. Research has shown that research scientists with caregiving roles right now are essentially getting behind on their ability to do the kind of work that counts for promotion, for tenure, for kind of advancement in our careers and are just prioritizing the basic stuff that we have to get done, things like teaching, things like mentoring. One of the things I’ve advocated for is this idea of post-post pandemic sabbaticals as a way to strip away some of those other requirements and help people get back on track in terms of their research careers. I’m not entirely sure what the analogy would be to a traditional employment context or business context.

But there are ways to provide workers with more opportunities to engage in the kinds of work that is meaningful for career advancement and strip away some of the tasks that they would normally have that are less valued, prioritize the core work of the organization in the work that people are doing. One key piece of it is making sure that the work that people are doing is the work that is most valuable for them in their careers. As opposed to getting sidetracked with other kinds of tasks that just have to get done in the short term. One thing that I do worry about with even things like more flexible work schedules, is that so many of the moms that we’ve talked to in our research, if they have flexible work are doing things like staying up until midnight or getting up at 4am to work and then helping their kids all day. And they’re exhausted.

So I worry a little bit about pushing flexible work as a solution because of how that has the potential to be detrimental too. It allows caregivers to enact these intensive parenting and intensive worker norms. But it sacrifices their health and their wellbeing in the process. It really points to the idea that we need to ratchet down expectations. Something else we’ve been pushing for within an academic context is essentially reducing the expectations for things like hiring and promotion and tenure, saying how much research does the faculty member really need to be doing in order to qualify for promotion? Are there ways to adjust our standards for what is good enough right now in the context of the pandemic? Expanding outward to a traditional business context, what are the ways that we can reduce? What is being required? Focus on the core mission of the organization and prioritize that kind of work both for individual employees and for the organization as a whole.

We talked about the organization level. Is there anything that you’re aware of that friends and colleagues can do to support working parents specifically?

I was talking with a friend on Twitter the other day who has kids in high school now. She went across the street and hung out with social distance outside with her neighbor’s kindergartner so that her kindergartener could have a break from her mom and her mom to get some stuff done. There are ways that, as a community, we can help each other and step in and notice when our colleagues, our neighbors, our friends need some extra support and take on that extra work. This is a deeply structural problem. So I worry about promoting individual-level solutions. But getting to the structural-level solutions is going to take a substantial amount of time and political will.

In the short term, there are ways for folks to step up and say, ‘Hey, I do have some extra room on my plate right now. Who can I help? Who can I offer to offload some work or to offload some caregiving responsibilities?’ It’s challenging because the pandemic limits our ability to provide that it-takes-a -village-style support for each other because there’s risks that go along with that. As we’ve seen, the risks of even small in-person gatherings are kind of huge. So providing that hands-on support becomes difficult. But I do think there’s value to the extent that we can ask how our colleagues are doing, ask how our friends are doing, offer to provide support, where we can.

Are there any groups of people that you’re finding need special attention?

Certainly mothers with limited resources, low-income moms, mothers who are in circumstances where they also are facing health risks within their communities and who are facing limited resources within their households and within their social networks. We know that communities of color have been hit the hardest when it comes to the pandemic itself, have been hit the hardest when it comes to unemployment. Some of the low-income mothers of color that we talked to, it’s not only them that are unemployed. It’s also their family members, their friends, their whole communities are struggling financially. The economic struggles and the social struggles are really compounded within certain communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color and employers have to be mindful of that. Especially if they’re pushing employees to help each other, some parts of their workforce might be more able to do that and have more bandwidth to do that than others.

If you think about the next few months ahead, with the pandemic worsening and more schools closing, what are the biggest stresses on working parents?

One of the things I’m really concerned about is the uncertainty in some places as to whether schools will be reopened and for how long. One of the biggest challenges for parents in all of this is not just having their kids home, but not knowing what next week will bring or what two weeks from now will bring. Many school districts are only making decisions about reopening on a two-week by two-week basis. That creates tremendous challenges for families in terms of finding alternative caregivers, if they have the resources to do so, in terms of getting family members to help if they can, in terms of just their own scheduling and planning purposes and their own mental health in navigating those challenges.

I’m worried about the continued uncertainty. I’m also worried about the number of families that we’ve talked to that are scared of the vaccine and that are not willing to get it for themselves or their kids, even if it becomes available. I’m worried about how that will affect our ability to return to a sense of normal in terms of childcare and in terms of schools and in terms of work There’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of fear among families that we have to think about right now as well.

Beyond the pandemic, do you see lasting impact for working parents from the changes to work that we’re seeing now, such as remote work?

There is value in showing employers that families and workers can work from home. But having workers work from home with their kids at home is clearly not ideal. It’s not a situation that we want to move toward as a universal solution to anything. But there is value in showing employers that that work can get done from home and that a lot more tasks than we would typically recognize as possible for doing from home can be done that way. That does allow, in more normal times, families to have the flexibility to be able to more easily balance the demands of caregiving with the demands of paid work. To the extent that this does shift a greater number of employers to offer long-term options for work from home, or more flexibility around work from home, or giving workers the option to transfer in and out of working from home as needed, that has the potential to benefit workers and especially working parents long term.

What structural changes do you think are needed, such as social welfare support and policies companies should lobby for?

Those are the big things. I would also see a shift in the culture around the way that we treat work and motherhood and parenthood more generally. There are reasons that those norms exist, and that they benefit capitalism. They benefit the patriarchy. They are powerful in the sense that if we have workers who are fully devoted to their jobs, that means that they are more productive often at less cost in the salaries that employers have to provide to them. If we have mothers who are fully devoted to this idea of intensive motherhood, it often means that they will take a backseat to men in terms of their advancement in the workplace. They are more dependent on their husbands, if they’re in different sex relationships, in terms of who is the primary provider within the home. We have to think about why these norms exist and what they serve. Changing those is challenging. But it means changing the structures of power in our society. Some of those big policy changes have the potential to change the norms by shifting the balance of power. But it’s not an easy shift to make.

Are there any policy changes that would make the biggest difference in terms of shifting the norms that you are talking about?

Affordable universal childcare is probably the one that I see making the difference, especially if it is from infancy or coupled with mandatory paid parental leave. If there’s a system of care that is in place to ensure that workers are not pushed out of the workforce when they have children, especially women, and that they’re able to get the care that their children need to be able to maintain engagement in the workforce throughout their kids’ lives. So women don’t feel like they have to choose careers that allow them to be home at 3:30pm when their kids get off the school bus. Those kinds of differences have the potential to allow women to invest more in their careers and to be seen as more committed to their careers as well.

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