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How the pandemic turned parenting on its head for these mothers

A nationally representative survey by Motherly found that working moms need sleep, some time to themselves and more support from workplace and government policies

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Illustration by Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Lauren Schneider got pregnant and had her baby, now 11 months old, during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, COVID-19 had an outsize voice in how everything went.

Her husband couldn’t be there for ultrasounds, including the one at 20 weeks where Schneider first saw their daughter’s tiny feet on the monitor. The doctor didn’t allow her to FaceTime during the ultrasound, so she brought a few pictures home and they tried to pretend it wasn’t a flatter version of an exciting milestone. Even her baby shower was virtual. 

She wore a mask as she gave birth and though her mom worked in the same hospital, she wasn’t allowed to meet her new granddaughter sleeping a floor away. Instead, the family had a “strange ‘Lion King’ moment” during which Schneider stood at the window and held up her baby while her mom peered and waved from the top of the parking garage across the way.

“I felt like I didn’t get to fully enjoy the experience as other mothers have pre-COVID,” said Schneider, who lives in western Pennsylvania. But, gradually, things have gotten better.

“Life in comparison to this time last year is much different. I feel more comfortable taking my daughter to the park or visiting family,” she said.

It’s a welcome change as she approaches her first Mother’s Day.

Schneider is far from the only mother whose parenting journey was impacted by the pandemic. COVID-19 disrupted moms’ lives perhaps more than that of any other group, though there have been plenty of jolts to go around, according to Motherly’s latest State of Motherhood survey. Taken two months ago, the survey asked 17,000 mothers — mostly millennials and Gen Z — about work, mothering and family life.

Motherly found twice as many women as men left the workforce in 2021, with a huge share of them dropping out because of parenting responsibilities. Many of those who stayed employed went home, too, where they juggled work with helping their children learn and other responsibilities.

Jill Koziol co-founded and is CEO of Motherly, a website about motherhood that has drawn in more than 50 million women to watch videos, hear podcasts and read content designed to help mothers thrive. Her own experience as a mother during the pandemic has echoed some of the findings of the survey she helps oversee.

She and her husband left the Bay Area for Park City, Utah, in August 2020 when they realized they needed the stability of schools being open as they tried to flourish both as parents and as workers. Finding balance and figuring what works best for your family is at the heart of the survey, she said.

Motherhood today

Motherly’s survey found a significant share of mothers struggle to balance parenting with other aspects of their life — and everyone experienced challenges, or at least change, during the pandemic. Nearly 1 in 4 of those surveyed said they aren’t sure it’s even possible to juggle work and motherhood well.

The survey focuses primarily on millennial and Gen Z moms, because they’re generally the moms with minor children, though it adds some data on Gen X. 

Millennials have been featured all five years of the State of Motherhood survey because they are different from older generations of moms: They’re the first generation of digital-native moms, the first where more women have college degrees than the men of their age and the generation where women in droves went to work (7 in 10 millennial women are employed).

“They’re truly representative of today’s dual-income world,” Koziol said.

American motherhood has seen other changes recently, too. Since 2018, more babies have been born to minorities than to whites.  

And this year, “we’ve gotten to the point where nearly half of mothers are actually the primary breadwinner” in their household, at 47%, Koziol said.

That springs naturally from the fact more women go to college, said Koziol, who believes that society needs to learn how to support working mothers “because they’re actually an important part of the economic engine driving the United States right now.”

She added, “It’s not so much that we focused a study on working parents. It’s just that most mothers are working. And women are being asked to nurture in a society that is not nurturing them back.”

But as Barbara J. Risman notes, mothers didn’t all fare the same or have equal problems during the pandemic, working or not.

Mothers in states where schools were shut longer were more likely to have to cut back work hours or quit their jobs, said Risman, editor of the journal Gender and Society and a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She called the pandemic “dramatically difficult for every caretaker,” but said that “how dramatically difficult depends.”

The Deseret News didn’t have to look far to find women across the country with different experiences.

Consider these women:

  • Katie Lyon of Charleston, South Carolina, became a mother in the middle of the pandemic, in March 2021. At the time, she was running her own business, Allegiance Flag Supply, with her husband and a friend. “I had to find child care,” she said, noting challenges because of the unknowns COVID-19 brought. Lyon and her husband worried they could become sick — or the child care provider could. They didn’t know if they’d have to be off work.

Lyon said the baby dominates their thoughts morning and night, but they have to make a living. Having her own company is, like being a mother, a round-the-clock kind of job, she said.

  • Melanie Anderson, a teacher and mother of daughters 5, 8 and 10 from Winona, Minnesota, who also blogs on Loopy Little Letters, described her experience parenting during the pandemic as more good than bad.

“While I have many regrets about the toll COVID-19 has taken on the world, my family’s experience during the pandemic was very eye-opening for us,” she wrote in an email. That first year, both parents worked from home right next to their children, who were doing school remotely. 

“We enjoyed being together and the slower pace life took. The main struggle I have is life returning to the way it was before,” she said. 

She still works from home, but he went back to work, so home responsibilities fall largely on her shoulder — and she misses the togetherness they had.

  • Vi-Zanne Ho of Philadelphia is an actuary for a consulting firm and blogs on Aroundtheclockmom.com. When the pandemic started, her oldest, now 4, was really little. And she had her second child during the pandemic. She learned while she was pregnant her baby had a congenital heart condition, but because of COVID-19 she had to go to all the appointments herself. She cried a lot, she said. Then her husband was laid off and she became the sole breadwinner.

The baby was born prematurely, she added, but, aside from the heart condition, is healthy. Still, her family found the pandemic seriously challenging.

When Ho was working remotely, she couldn’t give her kids an activity and expect them to be self-sufficient. Often, they’d interrupt Zoom meetings. She’s thankful her co-workers were understanding. But as things reopened, she’s had to decide whether to send them to get outside caregiving help.

“It was a very difficult decision because I’m terrified that my kids could get sick, but on the other hand, it’s really hard to have kids out of school because they need to learn and I need to work, too,” Ho said.

She decided on day care, but notes it operates with limited hours and fewer staff because of pandemic limitations. If a child shows any sign of sickness, that child stays home. If someone in the day care gets COVID-19, they all stay home. She ends up doing a lot of her work after the kids are asleep and, when she goes to bed, she’s exhausted. Quitting isn’t an option for financial reasons, she said.

Child care challenges

The challenges of day care closures is something Leah Rockwell, a licensed professional counselor in Frederick, Maryland, has seen in her practice, which specializes in maternal mental health.

“Moms have consistently shared that having a Plan B or C or D for care options for kids or unlimited leave days would be helpful, as caretaking and working during this time period have been impossible. Parents also desire the freedom to make their own schedules; remote work alone isn’t the answer,” she said.

Several moms told the Deseret News they now spend more time with their children because the extra time together during the past two years made them realize how important it is — to them and to the kids.

Risman believes America is going to end up reinventing work as a result of the pandemic. “It won’t return to the old normal. Flexibility will be very important,” she said.

She notes that nearly all workers have caregiving responsibilities at some point in their lives; it’s not just parents who need flexibility. Workplaces generally were developed around a 20th-century model where most employees had someone at home to take care of home and caregiving responsibilities. That’s not true now.

“Mothers in particular are canaries in the mine,” Risman said. “But they are not the only ones who realize” workplaces have to do some adapting.

Sleep and solitude

If you want to give moms something they desperately crave this Mother’s Day, send them off to take a nap or do something they really enjoy. Alone.

One of the Motherly study’s striking findings is that stay-at-home mothers reported more burnout than working mothers for the first time in the survey’s history. Fifty-five percent of stay-at-home moms say they are very or extremely burned out, while the share who are employed and feel that way dropped 5 percentage points to 38% over the past year.

“That tells us that working mothers are getting a bit more support — they are able to advocate and demand a bit more. And that being able to separate their time between caregiving and work provides some separation mentally, emotionally and physically from caregiving that stay-at-home moms are not getting,” said Koziol. “They are not getting a break from any of this. They’re bearing all of the household and caregiving responsibilities without the consistent backstop of school and other childcare support.” 

Burnout levels were highest among Black, Hispanic, Asian and Indigenous moms compared to their white peers, the report found.

One reason women gave for feeling burnout is the sense that they have no alone time that isn’t used for work or family. A whopping 67% said they had less than an hour alone in a day.

“Remember, things like showers and grocery shopping aren’t self-care activities,” the report said. “Our data show that moms are craving alone time and more sleep.” 

You could also pick up a broom and help moms out. Research has shown that a majority of breadwinning moms still manage their households — and that their workload has grown since the pandemic began. 

Risman and other researchers interviewed over 100 caregivers nationwide for a study to be presented in August. They found that households where both partners had flexible work were more likely to be egalitarian in terms of household chores, too. 

There’s a sweet spot, said Koziol, where women earn about 40% of household income and the household tasks are shared more evenly with spouses. When women earn more than their partner, studies say women also do more at home.

Choosing motherhood

Two big headlines about family life are intertwined right now, according to Koziol: the “Great Resignation” and the “Great Baby Bust.” She said the main reason women changed jobs last year was to deal with child care needs. Meanwhile, 9% of mothers are less likely to want another child than they were in 2021, the survey said — and 13% less likely than they were two years ago.

When they asked working women who had just one child about future parenting plans, nearly 7 in 10 said they didn’t intend to have any more. Koziol said it’s possible they just feel overwhelmed with new motherhood and will change their minds. But financial strain and child care issues impact those decisions, too.

Women are “just feeling burned out and not having confidence they can make it work,” she said.

Many, Koziol noted, don’t know if they make enough to make it worthwhile hiring care. Oddly, when couples look at the cost of child care, they don’t usually consider its share of total household income, but rather tend to deduct it from the mother’s income, she said.

“That detracts from the value that the mother sees of herself in the workforce,” she said.

Almost half of the moms who stopped working in the pandemic and haven’t gone back cite child care issues, which is a real pain point for a lot of working moms. Nearly 60% aren’t happy with their child care and a third say child care needs create financial strain. 

The hardest hit appear to be Black moms: One in 10 Black said they have no child care support — twice as many as white moms and three times that of Latinx moms.

Koziol said the survey shows moms want more support around paid leave to take care of family, as well as child care supports. “That’s where you’re really seeing women align,” she said.

The child care issue is less about someone paying for it, she added, than about supporting the value of caregiving so that it attracts workers and the stock of affordable child care grows.