Moms Literally Can't Do It All, And That Narrative Is Killing Us

by Kim Hooper
Originally Published: 

Not long ago, former presidential candidate and current New York City mayoral hopeful Andrew Yang said to the New York Times, “Can you imagine trying to have two kids on virtual school in a two-bedroom apartment and then trying to do work yourself?” Um, yes, Mr. Yang, we can imagine it. And we are also imagining that your wife is doing most of the childcare.

Back in 2018, Mr. Yang tweeted: “The work of women is undervalued in our society… Parenting, teaching, and caregiving are often treated as adding little to no value by the market.”

While this type of message may sound supportive of women, it’s not. What it supports is the ongoing conflation of “women’s work” and “childcare.” It’s this type of message that explains why women have continued to drop out of the workforce in alarming numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the latest jobs report, U.S. employers cut 140,000 jobs in December, and women, accounted for all the losses, losing a total of 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000. For months, women—and especially Black women and women of color—have been pushed out of jobs because they have to care for kids at home. When the new school year started in September, an astonishing 865,000 women left the workforce (four times the number of men), presumably to help their children with remote learning or deal with the inconvenient logistics of part-time remote/part-time in-person schedules. Though the December data is pending analysis, it’s reasonable to assume that the job losses are a reflection of women realizing that the rest of the school year is likely to remain chaotic, as the vaccine rollout has been less than inspiring.

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It goes without saying that a global pandemic would have an inevitably catastrophic impact on the economy. What should not be inevitable is the catastrophic impact on women. There has always been a general consensus, among men and women alike, that women assume most of the childcare responsibilities. COVID-19 has brought this assumption into sharp relief, as we all collectively shrug and agree, “Well, someone’s gotta do it.” True to the patriarchal narrative that defines our culture (and Andrew Yang’s Tweets), that someone is a woman.

My own mother, who I would consider progressive by most standards, passed on this narrative to me, saying that she thought there were biological reasons that women were “better suited” to care for children. Many agree that responsibility for children defaults to women because we are “wired” for caretaking in a way men are not. This belief system is a creative way of maintaining the power structure (and continuing to assign domestic duties to women). As Darcy Lockman writes in “All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership,” “We derive our belief that primary maternal care is natural, inborn, and obvious from a long history of female subjugation. We call that history ‘nature’ and continue to surmise that the sex bearing children must provide them with most of their care.”

The prevalent assumption that mothers are more committed to parenting than fathers is inherently limiting for both sexes—men are subtly encouraged to see themselves as less than capable at parenting, while women are subtly encouraged to see themselves as less than capable at anything besides parenting. Carlos Ball, author and professor of law at Rutgers University, writes, “What we fail to recognize is that the idea that women are more capable inside the home goes hand-in-hand with the notion that they are less capable outside of it. It should be as problematic to claim that women make better parents as it is to contend that men make better lawyers and doctors.”

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For decades leading up to this pandemic, women have been burdened with an impossible choice: Either cut back on paid work and manage the household tasks and childrearing; or don’t cut back on paid work and manage the household tasks and childrearing. For those of us who chose the latter, we have relied on daycare, school, nannies, friends, and family members to help us with the juggling act that defines the Sisyphean struggle to “have it all.” What’s happened with COVID-19 is that many, if not all, of those support systems are gone (or drastically altered). Something, as they say, has to give.

“It was just assumed I’d be the one to take a step back at work,” a friend of mine told me recently. “We each make a similar amount of money—last year, I actually made a little more—but I’m the one who does most of the kid stuff.” During the pandemic, with school closures and remote learning, the “kid stuff” is all-consuming. As Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economics professor, said, “A lot of women have just given up.” After all, in the midst of a deadly virus, with unprecedented pressures on individual households just trying to make it through each day, who has time to fight the patriarchy?

It’s long been known that, as Lockman writes in “All the Rage,” “Mothers’ income trajectories fall when they move in and out of the workforce, cut back their hours, take less demanding jobs, and pass up or don’t win promotions because of biases against mothers.” With COVID-19, women are doing all of these things. In other words, the future of women in the workplace does not look good. COVID-19 may have set back feminism 60 years.

Gloria Steinem said, “Women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.” As the pandemic continues to reinforce the “women are caregivers” narrative, and employers fail to do anything to counteract this narrative (like formally allowing more flexible schedules to accommodate parents), it has become all too clear that men are not equal in the home, and women are giving up on even having aspirations outside of it. The Andrew Yangs of the world need to stop complaining about the inconvenience of “trying to do work” and start asking why they are the only ones who have (paid) work to do.

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