From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject Mothering in a Pandemic
Date May 20, 2020 12:05 AM
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[Society relies on the unpaid, invisible work of parents—mostly
mothers—to care for children and to buffer kids from trauma and
stress. Supporting that work during COVID-19 requires direct cash
support to families.] [[link removed]]

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Anne L. Alstott
May 10, 2020
Boston Review
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_ Society relies on the unpaid, invisible work of parents—mostly
mothers—to care for children and to buffer kids from trauma and
stress. Supporting that work during COVID-19 requires direct cash
support to families. _



As the crisis in the business sector occupies Congress, the quieter
crisis in many American homes goes largely unnoticed. In theory, all
parents of young children must now navigate a world without schools
and daycare. But in practice, the heaviest burden falls on mothers,
especially single ones, who face a near-impossible choice between
caring for their children and staying afloat financially.

Despite some progress toward gender equality, mothers in different-sex
couples still do the lion’s share of childcare
[[link removed]]. Most mothers,
even those with babies and toddlers, now hold paid jobs, but even so,
mothers bear the heaviest burden. They not only do the greater share
of hands-on care, but they also tend to take on what we might call
child management: the work of arranging for childcare and filling in
when those arrangements fall through. When the babysitter is sick, the
daycare is closed, or school vacation rolls around, it is primarily
mothers who must scramble for alternatives—or sacrifice their own
work to stay at home. These dynamics persist even when both mothers
and fathers work full time
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Women also take on the greatest load of caring for elderly family
members and for people who are sick—including COVID-19 victims.

We can hope that the pandemic will actually help equalize parenting
roles, at least in two-parent families. With both mom and dad on site
24/7, perhaps they will hash out a more egalitarian division of labor.
But that rosy scenario must be balanced against the reality that
married mothers in different-sex couples tend to have lower-paid and
lower-status jobs. Even with the best of intentions, couples may find
that the economic threat of the pandemic intensifies the personal,
professional, and societal dynamics
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that lead couples to give priority
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to the father’s job and working time over the mother’s.

In a personal essay in _Slate_, Emily Gould captures
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why these decisions feel rational, even necessary in a time of crisis.
“Our long-term stability as a family hinges on whether my husband
can do the work he needs to do this year in order to keep his salaried
job,” she writes. “If there is only enough time for one of us to
work, it doesn’t make sense for that person to be me.”

The gendered impact of the pandemic falls hardest on the eight million
mothers who are raising children alone
[[link removed]]. Single mothers tend
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earn low wages, to work in service occupations, and to have limited
access to benefits like health insurance and pensions. At the same
time, they have principal, and often sole, responsibility for the care
of their children. Many have little or no financial support
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from the nonresident parent.

Single mothers now face a personal—and nonetheless tragic—choice
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With schools closed and daycare shuttered, children need a parent at
home. But a single mother who stays home can risk eviction and
starvation: without a paycheck, the rent goes unpaid, and groceries
are unaffordable. These risks are most pressing for the lowest-paid
workers. But as the lockdown continues, more and more white-collar
mothers, too, will find themselves without a paycheck if they cannot
work. Going to work—if childcare can somehow be found—now poses a
literal physical danger not only to the woman but to her children as

Going to work—if childcare can somehow be found—now poses a
literal physical danger not only to the woman but to her children as

Although the tradeoff between personal safety and a paycheck now
confronts many workers, single mothers face an especially high-stakes
choice because of their children. Child trauma experts point out that
the pandemic has imposed great stress on children
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Quarantine has disrupted children’s routines. In some places
children cannot even play outside. At the same time, shelter-in-place
protocols have cut off children from their friends, their teachers,
and their extended family. In some cases of shared custody, the
pandemic has cut off children from their nonresident parent.

From an adult’s perspective, these schedule disruptions may seem
small and temporary. Surely kids will enjoy a break from school and a
few extra hours of screen time. And, after all, it’s we adults who
have to worry about the big stuff, like jobs and putting food on the
table. But from a child’s perspective
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the disruptions caused by quarantine are not minor matters. Younger
children’s developing bodies and brains need predictability and
routine as well as productive stimulation. And older children may
worry intensely about the danger of COVID-19 to themselves and their

Nor is the COVID-19 experience just a short-term blip of stress that
will necessarily fade when the pandemic threat wanes in a year or
eighteen months. Some children will bounce back with no ill effects,
but the science of trauma suggests that some children may experience
biological changes that pose long-term risks for their physical and
mental health. As Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child explains
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Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong,
frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional
abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness,
exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family
economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of
prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the
development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and
increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment,
well into the adult years.

The best preventative factor and remedy for children facing stress is
close, reliable, and loving care by parents. We sometimes think that
resilience is inborn, a character trait that people simply have or
don’t have. But studies show that resilience in children is strongly
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to parental care:

The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is
at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive
parent, caregiver, or other adult. These relationships provide the
personalized responsiveness, scaffolding, and protection that buffer
children from developmental disruption. They also build key
capacities—such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate
behavior—that enable children to respond adaptively to adversity and

While parental care can be supplemented by care from teachers and
childcare workers, substitute care too should be warm, personalized,
predictable, and supportive of each child’s needs. But this kind of
ideal childcare is hard to find (and to afford) even in the best of
times [[link removed]]. Cobbled
together care in a pandemic may fall woefully short.

And so the pandemic’s dilemmas are especially dark for single
mothers and their children. Staying at home may not be a feasible
economic option, but leaving home to work may not be possible without
schools and childcare. Shelter-in-place orders can also make it
difficult or impossible to rely on child-care assistance from friends
and relatives.

Some states and cities have begun to provide emergency childcare
assistance to essential workers
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But these efforts will likely be taxed by the demand. Counting only
frontline health care workers, there are a stunning four million
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parents with children under the age of fourteen. Emergency measures of
limited scope cannot feasibly replace the role of schools, day care,
and summer activities for the larger number of children whose parents
will need to return to work to make ends meet.

The point is not just that the pandemic imposes hardship on families.
That is true, but there is a deeper problem of social fairness at
stake. Society relies on the unpaid, invisible work of
parents—mostly mothers—to care for children and to buffer kids
from trauma and stress. Today, with schools closed, mothers must step
into the teachers’ role as well. And the vast majority of mothers
will step up, putting their children’s well-being first and making
whatever financial and career sacrifices they need to make. We know
that that’s what mothers do
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But a fair society should reward rather than punish people who
sacrifice their own interests for the good of society. We all share a
stake in the development of the next generation. The trauma of the
pandemic is very real for children, and so is the buffering effect of
parental care. When mothers make sacrifices for their kids, they are
performing a critical social role that allows the rest of us, quite
literally, to go about our business, unencumbered by the care of the
young and the vulnerable.  

A fair policy response would recognize that the burden of family care
will fall hardest on the parents of young children and, particularly,
on mothers. But, so far, Congress has instead chosen to focus, as it
did during the 2008 Great Recession, on business. Industries from
airlines to restaurants have lined up to ask for bailouts, while
benefits for families have been small, partial, and temporary.

To be sure, some business-focused policies will help mothers, but only
unevenly so and indirectly. The Paycheck Protection Program is far
from a universal jobs guarantee, and unemployment insurance assists
some but not all laid-off working parents. (Many workers are not
covered because they have not worked long enough at the same job or
because they work part-time.) The one-time stimulus payments of $1,200
per adult (plus $500 per child) provided welcome but short-term relief
for families. Even family leave programs expanded during the pandemic
provide uneven assistance: the new rules provide a mix of paid and
unpaid leave
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twelve weeks to parents who cannot work because of childcare
responsibilities, but many parents will not qualify because their
firms are not required to provide the leave
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A better approach would send financial relief directly to families
rather than indirectly via the business sector. A universal basic
income (UBI), paid for the duration of the pandemic, would provide
economic security and would be simple to administer and distribute. To
address the burden on families with young children, the UBI could
include a supplemental payment for families with children (and other
dependents who need daily care).

The UBI has most recently been championed
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by presidential candidate Andrew Yang as a response to
technology-driven unemployment, but it is a program with a long and
distinguished history—and one that could be especially valuable to
mothers. The two key features of UBI are that it is universal and that
it pays cash. Universality means that all families receive the money,
in sharp contrast to the Paycheck Protection Program and unemployment
benefits, which provide spotty coverage. With a UBI, if you are a
human being, you get cash; and if you have children (or other
dependents who need daily care), you get more cash.

The cash payout provided by a UBI is also especially valuable to
families, because it permits parents to make choices keyed to their
own, individual circumstances. Some parents would use the cash to help
pay for reliable childcare and go back to work. Others would use the
cash to cushion a period of staying at home with the kids. The right
choice is highly individual, depending on the nature of a parent’s
job, the needs and ages of children, and the kind of substitute care
available. These are precisely the choices that society relies on
parents—especially mothers—to make, because they will, by and
large, make choices that put their children first.

Although the level of UBI assistance—on the order of, say, $1,000
per month—might seem small to some, it would provide a critical
baseline of economic security for single parents and for lower-earning
married couples. Children benefit enormously from family stability,
and a UBI could contribute directly by creating a predictable income
guarantee that could lower parental stress and permit parents to make
stable plans.

To be sure, a program of this size and scale would be expensive in
budgetary terms. With twenty-five million families with children under
the age of twelve
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a universal benefit of even $1,000 per month, paid per-family to
married couples and to single parents alike, would cost $300 billion
annually. Income-testing the benefits would lower the outlays needed
(although at the price of introducing extra complexity into the
program). Still, even though numbers like these are staggering, they
are in line with the scale of relief efforts already underway.
Congress’s first coronavirus relief legislation cost $2 trillion
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and negotiations for more are in progress.

As small (and large) businesses line up for relief, Congress should
take notice of the parents, mostly mothers, who are doing some of
society’s most important work by taking responsibility for children.

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