New Old Realities

Everything old is new again. Unresolved issues faced by mothers since the beginning of their return to the work force in large numbers, are making themselves felt with increased pressure during this time of enforced life changes. Adaptations and compromises made to combine careers or outside work with family life are breaking down as old realities reassert themselves.

Back in the ‘eighties (or the “olden days” as my children used to say) – I did a series of interviews with women in various parts of the country about the issues confronting them as they combined work with motherhood. Three issues surfaced repeatedly in those interviews. First and foremost was the question of child care, the lack of availability, quality, and forbidding cost. Second, the idea promoted by the women’s movement that men were to share equally in household responsibility.

The third issue was the recognition that gender disparity in earnings had a great impact on family decisions. For example, some women found to their displeasure that a decision about where to live or move was dictated by their husband’s work requirements and higher income regardless of how this might conflict with their own work or career possibilities.

In the same way, men being higher earners was used to justify giving mothers primary responsible for both child care and domestic responsibilities. A joke long making the rounds was, “who does the school nurse call if a child is sick in school?”

These issues have remained a constant theme in the years since those interviews. Continuing reports and surveys have detailed the greater amount of time spent by women in unpaid work like laundry, grocery shopping and cleaning. Despite increasing responsibility for child care by fathers, mothers continue to be considered primary caregivers.

Even before the crisis created by the current pandemic, these unresolved questions kept surfacing in discussions of handicaps women face in combining work or careers with family life. Now of course, current reality centering life in the home, has put new and unforeseen pressure on the multitude of arrangements that were required to make possible the changes brought by dual careers and working parents.

With women forced back into the home full time they are confronted with full-time motherhood as well as not only the usual domestic chores but in many cases the additional responsibility of maintaining children’s educational development. At the same time, fathers are also confined to working at home and the question arises as to how child care and domestic responsibilities are now divided. Does higher income still operate as a factor in division of labor?

A somewhat newer question presenting itself in light of stay at home requirements is the nature of interactions with children. Children like their parents, are experiencing the stress of confined activity and lack of socialization. But beyond that, working parents are unaccustomed to the stressors of daily interactions with children around a multitude of routines and expectations. The potential for unexpected conflict adds an additional layer to the increased responsibility in many areas.

These new challenges come as more families are likely to depend on a female breadwinner. According to reports, mothers are the primary or sole earners for households with children under the age of 18. Yet more than one-third of working women are employed in two industries in which women are paid less than their male peers. The issue of gender income inequality emerges in sharp relief during this present crisis.

The breakdown of makeshift solutions that women have found to enable their work or career goals points up their inherent fragility. The need for a strong social support system has never been clearer. A positive that could emerge from this crisis would be a determination to fight for such a system.