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“Other Countries Have Social Safety Nets. The U.S. Has Women.”

Anne Helen Petersen and Jessica Calarco discuss how mothers are experiencing and responding to pandemic-related disruptions in their normal routines.

Culture Study

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a mom holding weights while her kids play around her

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In November 2020, I spoke with sociologist Jessica Calarco about her recent research on mothers grappling with parenting, partners, anxiety, work, and feelings of failure during the pandemic. She’s whipsmart, as you’ll see below, and I love what she has to say about the work of sociology as a form of “ungaslighting.” Follow her on Twitter here — and if you have thoughts, praise, or questions, please feel free to share them with her. [Academics don’t get a lot of explicit praise, in particular, just saying.]

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your work?

I’m an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, and my research focuses on inequalities in family life and education. I’m also the mom of a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old whose antics and insights and general hilariousness are getting me through the darker days of the pandemic.

This research grew out of a project examining how mothers navigate parenting controversies in making decisions for themselves and their children (e.g., decisions about breastfeeding, co-sleeping, vaccines, screen time, and employment after childbirth). The project started in 2018 with surveys of pregnant women in Southern Indiana, and we’ve been following up with those same mothers with surveys and in-depth interviews every six months.

In the interviews we conducted early in the pandemic, mothers told us about waking up at 5 am to work before their kids got up, trying to keep toddlers occupied during conference calls, losing their jobs and their childcare in the same week, fighting with their partners about whether or not to wear masks, and doubling or tripling their kids’ normal screen time, just so they could get a break. My coauthors and I (Amy Knopf, Assistant Professor, Indiana University School of Nursing; Emily Meanwell, Clinical Professor of Sociology, Indiana University; Elizabeth Anderson, PhD student in Sociology, Indiana University) made the decision to develop a follow-up project called The Pandemic Parenting Study.

The first paper we’ve developed (“Let’s Not Pretend It’s Fun”) focuses on pandemic-related childcare disruptions: Among the mothers who have greatly increased the time they are spending with their children, 80% report that they are experiencing more stress during the pandemic, 72% report that they are experiencing more anxiety during the pandemic, and 56% report that they are experiencing more frustrations with their kids.

Because of intensive work pressures and intensive parenting pressures, and because of a lack of adequate support from the government, their employers, or their partners, mothers who are working from home without childcare feel like failures — as both workers and mothers. They also blame themselves for those failures. Many are turning to turn to food and alcohol as ways to cope — even hiding out eating Oreos in the bathroom to give themselves a break. Some mothers are also dropping out of the workforce to reduce the stress they face.

The second paper (“My Husband Thinks I’m Crazy”) shows how the pandemic is exacerbating longstanding sources of conflict in couples with young children (related to men’s perceived lack of support with parenting and household responsibilities) and also creating new sources of conflict (related to men’s perceived dismissal of mothers’ concerns about COVID-19).

39% of the mothers in our sample report increased frustrations with their partners during the pandemic — and this frustration is especially common among mothers who have been working from home without childcare (because, in many of these cases, their partners are not providing adequate support with parenting) and mothers whose partners are not extremely supportive of the steps they are taking during the pandemic (because, in many of these cases, partners are dismissing mothers’ concerns about COVID-19, leaving mothers to do the work of managing their families’ health, and sometimes taking actions that put their families at increased risk, e.g., by refusing to wear masks).

In many cases, mothers are blaming themselves for the conflicts they’re experiencing with their partners — and feel responsible for reducing those conflicts, including by leaving the workforce, beginning use of antidepressants, or ignoring their own concerns about COVID-19.

My coauthors and I are especially concerned about the mothers who, because they are unemployed or make less money than their husbands/partners, have been left in a position with limited power to demand that their husbands/partners do more at home. In the paper, we talk about a woman named Audrey. Pre-pandemic, Audrey and her husband were trying to have another baby. But when the pandemic hit, Audrey lost her job and her husband had to work long hours, which led to frequent arguments. Because of those arguments, Audrey no longer wanted another baby. Despite Audrey's wishes, her husband (to use her words) sexually assaulted her by not pulling out during sex, and Audrey got pregnant. The pregnancy and the assault have taken a serious toll on Audrey's mental health, leading her into therapy and onto antidepressants.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has left Audrey without a full-time job, without her own health insurance, and with a toddler and a baby on the way. Essentially, the pandemic has left her in a tremendously difficult situation with very few options for herself and her children.

It’s easy for people on the outside to tell Audrey that she should leave her husband, or that she should demand he treat her better and do more at home. But because of the lack of social support for mothers in the U.S., and because of Audrey’s own limited support network, leaving is a risky prospect — it would leave her without income or health insurance or a place to live, while pregnant, in the middle of a pandemic. Because of her limited power within her own home, demanding that her husband do more could also put Audrey at risk for further abuse. To support mothers like Audrey — and all mothers — we argue that policymakers should ensure that families can access financial resources that aren't predicated on employment. More specifically: making TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] less restrictive, funding universal healthcare and childcare, and extending unemployment relief.

For people who aren’t academics or sociologists, can you explain these studies, why you shaped them the way you did, and the limitations (and bonuses) of focusing on a particular area in Indiana?

Many studies use surveys to determine how common some experience is in the population as a whole: How many women have dropped out of the workforce because of the pandemic; How many kids are falling behind because their schools are closed; How many dads are doing their fair share at home. That kind of research requires large samples that reflect the same demographics as the U.S.

Other studies — “qualitative” studies like this one — use in-depth interviews (and sometimes small-scale surveys) to understand how people perceive their experiences, what those experiences mean to them, and what motivates people to respond to their experiences in particular ways. With our study, we can’t say with certainty what proportion of mothers in the U.S. are experiencing increased stress or increased frustrations with their children or their partners. We can’t say what proportion of U.S. mothers are dropping out of the workforce to deal with these challenges. But we can say — better than any large-sample surveys — how mothers are experiencing pandemic-related disruptions in their normal routines and what motivates mothers to respond to those disruptions in particular ways.

Between our pre-pandemic research and the research we’ve conducted during the pandemic, we’ve spent more than 500 hours interviewing these mothers and conducted nearly 800 surveys with them. This has allowed us to see their pandemic experiences in the context of their pre-pandemic lives, and in the context of the lives of other mothers in the same community.

There are certainly limitations involved in focusing on mothers in one Southern Indiana community. The community we studied, for example, is primarily white. We do have Black, Latina, and Asian women in our study, but we can’t say with certainty whether their experiences are representative of the experiences of Black, Latina, or Asian women in the U.S. as a whole. At the same time, getting to know these women allows us to make sense of their experiences and their decisions in the context of their own lives — and in the context of the lives of other women facing similar challenges in their lives.

What sticks out to you about your findings? What’s the thing you can’t stop thinking about or can’t stop telling people about?

Mothers are blaming themselves for their “failures” in this pandemic — for “failing” to be the kind of perfect worker who doesn’t let her kids distract her from work, for “failing” to be the kind of perfect mother who sacrifices work to meet her kids’ needs, for “failing” to be the kind of perfect wife who never gets angry and always defers to her spouse.

As a sociologist, it’s easy for me to see how that blame is deeply misplaced — how women should be blaming our government for failing to stop the spread of the virus, for failing to pay people to stay home, for failing to provide an adequate social support system with affordable childcare, affordable healthcare, and sufficient financial protections for people who can’t make ends meet…how women should be blaming their employers for putting profits before people, for setting unrealistic expectations, and for failing to provide the support that workers need…how women should, in many cases, be blaming their own spouses or partners for prioritizing their own careers, for not doing enough at home, and for denying the science about COVID-19.

In the U.S., most of us aren’t taught to use our sociological imaginations. We’re not taught to think about social problems as structural problems. We’re not taught to see the forces that operate beyond our control – forces like capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. And we’re not taught to see how those forces create many of the challenges we face in our lives and constrain our ability to make choices that could help us overcome those challenges.

Instead, we — especially women and people from other systematically marginalized groups — are taught to self-help-book our way out of structural problems. To believe that all our problems would go away if only we were to strictly follow some seventeen-step plan.

Another part of this I can’t stop thinking about is how our lack of a social safety net is putting women’s health and relationships at risk. So much of the public conversation has focused on the women who are dropping out of the workforce. Those stories are important, but to me they signal the centrality of capitalism in all of our public concerns.

Meanwhile, we’re paying far less attention to the challenges faced by mothers who are struggling to stay in the workforce while caring for their children at home. These women may face penalties in the workforce — being passed over for promotions or salary increases or being chastised by their bosses for failing to get work done. But these women are also taking serious hits to their relationships, their health, and their wellbeing.

I’d say we’re also not paying enough attention to the mothers (and the families more generally) who are struggling to make ends meet. Early in the pandemic, because of the CARES Act payments and expanded unemployment benefits, many of the low-income mothers we talked to were doing okay. Not great. But most had enough to pay their bills and keep a stable situation for their kids. Now, with that extra money gone, and with the pandemic dragging on, those families are facing dire challenges with no end in sight.

Can we talk a bit about “intensive” parenting expectations? I don’t know how to talk about intensive parenting in a way that doesn’t feel blamey — I want to simultaneously acknowledge the fact that these are standards that we reinforce ourselves, but also that it can be very, very difficult to opt out of them.

As we find in our research, intensive work and intensive parenting can lead mothers to experience more stress, more anxiety, and more frustration in navigating disruptions to their normal routines.

But mothers should not be blamed for attempting to remain engaged in intensive work or intensive parenting. Both are social norms in the U.S.: Workers, especially elite professional workers, are expected to devote their whole lives to their jobs. Meanwhile, mothers, all mothers, are expected to devote their whole lives to their children and do whatever it takes to meet their children’s needs (usually while being devoted, supportive partners, as well).

And these norms, like all norms, exist to keep people from challenging the status quo. People who break norms judge themselves. A minor breech might make them feel awkward, the way you might feel if you stood backward on an escalator packed with people. A more serious breech might make them feel like failures. As people, we’re taught to judge ourselves – to feel embarrassment and shame for breaking norms – to push us back into compliance with norms and to prevent us from breaking norms in the first place.

Intensive work and intensive parenting norms are especially powerful because they serve the interests of powerful actors in our society, including corporations and (white) men. It’s easy to see how intensive work norms benefit corporations—the harder workers work, the more money corporations stand to make. Especially if workers, because they’re so “committed” to their jobs, don’t demand higher salaries to compensate. But these intensive parenting norms are directed primarily at women. And they make it more difficult for women to manage having kids while also having demanding careers.

That serves men’s interests in two ways: Intensive parenting norms push some women to become stay-at-home mothers, which often leaves them financially dependent on their (male) partners and gives those (male) partners more power in the home. Meanwhile, intensive parenting norms also push women to put their children ahead of their careers. In the workforce, that makes it harder for women to compete with men for top positions, because they’re seen as less committed to their jobs (violating the intensive worker norms). At home, that means men also remain (at least in most families with different-sex partners) the primary breadwinners, which gives men more power and authority in that personal sphere.

If people in power want to stay in power, they have an interest in enforcing social norms. (Meanwhile, people with less power also tend to be complicit in enforcing norms, especially if they have followed those norms themselves. They do so because it allows them to feel validated in their own choice to follow the norms. And because it validates the idea that they deserve the benefits they’ve received for following the norms). This also means that for mothers, as for all people who want to participate in society, not following norms comes with very real risks.

For mothers, the feelings of judgment and failure that can come from breaking norms are especially threatening right now. Many mothers are already feeling isolated because of the pandemic, and breaking norms runs the risk of making them even more disconnected than they already are. Many mothers are still holding themselves to those standards, even when it undermines their wellbeing.

Mothers who are struggling to meet intensive worker and intensive parenting norms report feeling like failures, and they sometimes face consequences from others, including criticism from their bosses or snide comments from their mother-in-laws. The title of our first paper, “Let’s Not Pretend It’s Fun,” comes from a mom who was working full-time while also trying to provide full-time care for her toddler in the home. That mom was frustrated with her mother-in-law, who was pressuring her to “cherish these special times” being home with her 17-month-old daughter. [As a side note, I’ve gotten very similar comments and pressures from my own mother during the pandemic, and even though I study this stuff, it’s hard not to judge myself against the standard she sets].

We also found that these norms served the interests of the powerful, even during a pandemic. Faced with intensive worker norms, many professional mothers found ways to get their work done, even if it meant sacrificing sleep or sacrificing their relationships or sacrificing their own wellbeing. Meanwhile, many mothers also became the default parent, even when they and their husbands/male partners were both working from home.

Erica and her husband, for example, were both working from home during the pandemic while caring for their first grader, preschooler, and toddler. Explaining why she was doing the bulk of the pandemic parenting, Erica told us: “My husband’s job is very demanding, and they talk a lot about flexibility, but at the end of the day if [his boss] sets a meeting, he sets a meeting. You can’t not go, even during a pandemic, if you want to keep your job…. [So] it’s primarily me.”

Erica went on to tell us that, because of that role, she’s “been the one that’s been more frustrated and a little less patient with the kids,” and she’s also planning to leave the workforce, at least temporarily, so that she can just focus on her kids and not have to juggle parenting with paid work. In another family, Natalie and her husband were both PhD students – they literally had the same job and were both working from home while caring for their toddler. They also tried to split the number of childcare hours evenly. Yet Natalie still felt pressured to give her husband the more desirable morning work shift, taking the afternoon work shift for herself, even though she was often too tired after a full morning of parenting to get any work done in the afternoons.

There were some moms who were able to push back against or reject intensive parenting norms — but those moms tended to be less socially connected before the pandemic. With fewer social connections, they didn’t feel as beholden to other people’s expectations for what “good parenting” should look like. They didn’t stress as much if their kids were watching Moana on loop, because they didn’t have other mom friends to compare themselves to. And they didn’t stress as much if their kids weren’t doing much academically during the pandemic, because they weren’t comparing themselves to other families they knew at their kids’ schools (in some cases because they were already homeschooling pre-pandemic).

At the same time, having fewer social connections often meant these mothers had to do more on their own with less support (e.g., less support from extended family members or friends who might serve as a sounding board or step in to offer resources or assistance when needed, etc.).

I don’t think the pandemic has necessarily created new problem so much as exacerbated, amplified, and highlighted old/chronic ones. How much of what you’re seeing is connected to chronic patriarchy, chronic undervaluing of women’s unpaid work in the home, chronic inattention to cultivating affordable childcare options?

Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women. Women in the U.S. have long done a disproportionate share of the unpaid service work in institutions and at home. They’re the ones who run the bake sales so the school can have an art teacher or enough books to go around. They’re the ones who run church outreach programs to attract new families and serve community members in need. They’re the ones who check in on sick coworkers, remember birthdays, and help their colleagues feel like part of a team. Women do all of that unpaid service for the institutions in their lives, and then they go home and do even more.

Women serve as the social safety net because norms (norms that serve capitalistic, patriarchal, and white interests) in the U.S. tell them that’s their role. And because breaking those norms leaves them open to judgments (or worse) from others and judgments from themselves.

The pandemic came along and ripped a giant hole through what little safety net we did have to support women and especially mothers in the U.S. It’s closed the childcare centers and schools mothers rely on for childcare; it’s made it more difficult for mothers to rely on other people and organizations they might usually turn to for support. And because of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women’s careers, it has also made it more difficult for unpartnered mothers to support their families and for mothers in difficult or dangerous relationships to consider leaving and going out on their own.

Our society has long failed to support mothers in meeting the demands of paid work and parenting. And this pandemic has made painfully clear the need for adequate support. That includes universal access to affordable childcare. It also includes policies that reduce intensive work and parenting pressures and ensure that all families have access to the resources they need.

I first heard about your work within the framework of “un-gaslighting” — aka, sociology helps us un-gaslight ourselves when it comes to thinking that everything is our own failing, our own problems, instead of linked to massive structural issues, ideologies, etc. What sort of takeaway would you hope to give people who are parenting during this pandemic?

The U.S. is a deeply individualistic society. And that culture of individualism is reinforced by the lessons we’re taught at home, in schools, and in the media. So many of those lessons, in turn, are dominated by a pop psychology narrative that promotes individual solutions to deeply structural problems. Pull yourself by your bootstraps. Wash your face. Lean in.

Sociology turns that narrative on its head. Sociologist C. Wright Mills, for example, described using a “sociological imagination” as seeing how individual human lives are shaped both by “history and biography.” This means recognizing that people’s experiences, decisions, and outcomes are shaped by the larger social contexts in which they live and also their status within those social contexts, as determined by forces like racism, sexism, and economic marginalization. Certainly, people have agency. But that agency is enhanced or constrained by their social status and by the larger contexts in which they live.

As a sociologist, then, I can see that offering “tips and tricks” for mothers about how to parent during the pandemic would be ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Sure, some mothers might benefit from that kind of advice. But they’re probably going to be the mothers who already have plenty of resources and plenty of people on whom they can rely for support.

The people I’d much rather target for recommendations are the people with the power to ensure that mothers get the resources and support they need. Because moms don’t need advice right now. They need politicians and business owners and community leaders and their own partners to step up and give them the support they deserve.

In the long term, we need to ensure that families’ access to resources and support isn’t tied to or predicated on employment. This means making TANF less restrictive, funding universal healthcare and universal preschool, ensuring universal access to affordable childcare, family leave, and sick leave, and also extending the expanded unemployment benefits put in place through the CARES Act.

In the short term, we need policymakers — and individuals — to take steps to stop the spread of the virus and make it safe to reopen schools, childcare centers, and businesses. These sorts of solutions will be difficult to achieve given politically entrenched disagreement about COVID-19, which means we also need clear, scientifically-informed communications from political and public health leaders about the steps necessary to reduce the spread of the virus. As mothers like Cassidy suggested in our interviews, seeing leaders like President Trump take the pandemic seriously can persuade skeptical men that the pandemic is actually “a big deal.” 

Follow Anne Helen Petersen on Twitter here, and Instagram here.

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This post originally appeared on Culture Study and was published November 11, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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