Where’s dad? Third of women are shouldering all child care duties during COVID shutdowns

ATHENS, Ga. — Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, American families have been scrambling to keep their work and home lives from crumbling under the strain. Researchers at the University of Georgia thought this unique crisis might change some of the traditional family roles as parents in lockdown struggled to work from home without a babysitter. However, their study reveals one in three American mothers are shouldering the entire burden of child care for their families. Even worse, that stress is pushing many couples to their breaking points.

Researcher Kristen Shockley says previous studies have suggested that gender roles tend to get upended during a crisis. During the early months of the global pandemic however, this did not occur.

“Most people have never undergone anything like this before, where all of a sudden they can’t rely on their normal chil dcare, and most people’s work situation has changed too,” Shockley, an associate professor of psychology, explains in a university release. “We thought this would be a chance for men to step in and partake equally in child care, but for many couples we didn’t see that happen.”

Starting in mid-March 2020, schools and day care centers around the U.S. closed, leaving parents to juggle their work and their kids without much help. Shockley’s team quickly started looking at how families with two working parents and children under six years-old handled the emergency.

“My son was 15 months old when this all started, and I know firsthand that you can’t just plop younger kids in front of a TV or expect them to do their schoolwork,” Shockley says. “We were particularly interested in people who really had to provide active child care.”

‘When the wife does it all… the outcomes are bad for the couple’

Researchers surveyed 274 couples during the first few weeks of America’s COVID shutdown. The team then followed up with 133 of these families in May to examine their marital tension, health, job performance, and child care strategies.

“When the wife does it all, not surprisingly, the outcomes are bad for the couple,” Shockley reports. “It’s not just bad for the wife, it’s also bad for the husband, including in terms of job performance although his work role presumably hasn’t changed. When one person’s doing it all, there’s a lot of tension in the relationship, and it’s probably spilling over into the husband’s ability to focus at work.”

The results reveal 36.6 percent of couples relied on the wife to handle most of the child care duties. On a positive note, nearly half the survey (44.5%) figured out a way to equally share the burden of raising their kids in quarantine. Another 18.9 percent used a different strategy that wasn’t exactly equal but didn’t burden only one parent.

For couples sharing the child care duties, the study finds parents tried to alternate working days, planned daily mini-shifts which include both work and child care, and changed schedules based on each parent’s work needs.

“When you look at the more egalitarian strategies, we found the best outcomes for people who were able to alternate working days,” the UGA researcher adds. “The boundaries are clear. When you’re working, you can really focus on work, and when you’re taking care of the kids, you can really focus on the kids. But not everybody has jobs amenable to that.”

Couples quickly reaching the ‘breaking point’

Shockley notes that the strain of quarantine quickly impacted the mental health of many American parents in the survey.

“People were saying, ‘I’m at my breaking point,’ and this was just two weeks in. A lot of people said, ‘I’m just not sleeping.’ You could feel people’s struggle, and there was a lot of resentment, particularly when the wife was doing it all.”

“This really highlights some infrastructure issues we have with the way we think about child care in this country. The default becomes, ‘Oh well, the wife is going to pick up the slack.’ It’s not a long-term solution,” she adds.

Study authors caution these results come from couples with a relatively high income; meaning middle to low-income families may be under even more stress to provide for their children during the pandemic.

“This might look different in lower-income samples. We might see totally different strategies emerging, particularly if there’s less possibility for remote work,” Shockley concludes.

The study appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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