Compared with their fathers and grandfathers, this generation of men is much more involved at home — showing up at midday school events, coaching soccer and cooking dinner. Yet when the pandemic hit, it was largely mothers who took on the additional child care duties; became remote teachers; and, in large numbers, quit their jobs.
The sudden return to 1950s-style households wasn’t an aberration. Rather, it revealed a truth: In the United States, mothers remain the fallback plan.
Today, even though most mothers are employed and fathers have increased the hours they spend on housework and child care, women still spend about an hour more a day on each. Moreover, when unexpected demands pop up — like a child who is home sick or a work meeting that conflicts with child care duties — mothers prioritize the home front, research shows.
As a result, men’s careers aren’t slowed by family caregiving needs nearly as much as women’s are.
The pandemic reveals the same pattern, writ large. There are about 1.6 million fewer mothers in the labor force this fall than would be expected without school closures, an analysis of employment data shows. While some fathers have left the labor force, there is no statistical association between fathers’ employment and school closures, according to the analysis.
Mothers are the fallback plan in the United States in part because of persistent beliefs that they are ultimately responsible for homemaking and child rearing, and because of the lack of policies to help parents manage the load.
“Other countries have social safety nets; the U.S. has women,” Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University, told the journalist Anne Helen Petersen in a recent interview for her newsletter, Culture Study.
Even so, attitudes and policies in the United States had been slowly evolving — men were handling more child care, for example, and paid family leave was becoming more common. Now that the pandemic has forced a generation of mothers into the fallback role, it’s unclear how much of that change will continue.