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COVID and the Burdens on Working Moms

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

Here are some must-read stories about the toll the pandemic has taken on working mothers, explaining how the current state of affairs is the next step of an ongoing trend of inequity.

mother working from home with children playing

The New York Times’ Patricia Cohen and Tiffany Hsu detail the devastating impact of the pandemic on working mothers and anticipate how its potential prolonged effects. They identify how COVID has exposed long-running weaknesses within American society. It is telling that while women passed the 50% threshold in the workforce in February, the pandemic’s upending of the economy in March disproportionately burdened women, forcing them to bear the brunt of childcare challenges. These inequities predated the pandemic, with COVID simply bringing them into starker relief than before. Cohen and Hsu’s reporting warns that the damage done by COVID will not be limited to 2020, with the lost wages and time spent out of the workforce having enduring implications for the working lives of many women, especially mothers.


In The Atlantic, Marianne Cooper also emphasizes the precarious state of working mothers during COVID is not an entirely new phenomenon but a continuation of broader trends. She highlights how biases around the ideas of an “ideal worker” and “good mothers” have a long history of negatively targeting working mothers. With working from home making the work-life balance increasingly visible and confused, life during COVID has created an environment even more likely to trigger these biases, manifesting in assumptions made by employers regarding the divided loyalties of a working woman who is also a mother. She closes with a look toward solutions, pointing out ways that this “motherhood penalty” could be addressed.


In an article published in The New York Times from a pre-COVID era, Emma Goldberg examines the unique challenges faced by surgeons who are mothers. Surgeons are overwhelmingly male, with women facing warnings about how the career path would interfere with a potential future family life that dissuades them from pursuing the specialty. Women who do train as surgeons are much more likely to drop out, creating a dynamic where gender parity is over 100 years away. While this piece is from the ‘before-times,’ it is instructive as to the factors that conspire against women who aspire to time-intensive, high-stress jobs, factors that have only become more pronounced during a pandemic that has demanded so much time and resources from the medical field. Its publication date is a testament to how this dynamic precedes and will outlast the peculiarities of the COVID economy.


Barbara Rodriguez, a reporter for The 19th, looks specifically at the impact of the COVID economy on single mothers. While most mothers have been saddled with the majority of child care responsibilities during this time of working from home, single mothers face their own set of unique challenges without a partner (and a second income) to rely upon. These mothers are left without the option of leaving the workforce but are similarly forced to contend with drastically reduced childcare options. The piece then looks to the role the federal government should play in assisting struggling single parents, pushing for a holistic approach to childcare and economic relief.


For HuffPost, Catherine Pearson writes about the anxiety that has overwhelmed some working moms during the relentless uncertainty of a pandemic. She describes the mental health challenges during this time that have disproportionately fallen upon women, as well as how the pandemic has exacerbated the tension between childcare and professional life. The piece brings the unique mental and emotional challenges of navigating life during a pandemic to the forefront, encouraging a deeply-needed conversation about the stigma surrounding mothers’ mental health.


Jessica Bennett, writing for The New York Times, details the stories of three mothers struggling to carry out their work and caregiving responsibilities after eleven months of COVID. After following the lives of these three mothers for several months, Bennett documents the various ways in which they are still “trying to stay afloat,” as they attempt to work, care for a special needs child, homeschool, and maintain their own mental health. Reading this story, as well as looking at the images that accompany it, one comes away with the sense of overwhelming exhaustion that has characterized this time for many and the desperate need for some kind of wide-scale assistance for parents that has largely failed to materialize.


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