Family life has largely rolled with pandemic punches, according to a pair of briefings released by Pew Research Center this week that examine what changed as families hunkered down amid employment turmoil, activity restrictions and school closures.
Moms are still more likely than dads to feel pressured by the child care needs of their young children, though both men and women say managing child care has gotten more difficult with the passage of time in the pandemic. Parents still disagree on who’s helping more around the house. And couples who went into the pandemic in strong marital or cohabiting relationships say those links haven’t frayed. Both before and during the pandemic, men were slightly more apt to rate their relationship with a partner positively.
But the picture that most people have of life in COVID-19 is anecdotal — a sharing of individual experiences between family, friends and colleagues, rather than a more robust view based on representative surveys, said Juliana Horowitz, associate director of social and demographic trends at the Pew Research Center.
Researchers at Pew decided to quantify the actual experience of American families. They compared what adults said in surveys on key topics before the pandemic with a survey conducted in October, well into the pandemic. The findings are contained in reports on working parents and on relationships and how couples split their chores.
“Sometimes, change is what’s really interesting,” said Horowitz. “In this case, I really do think that the lack of change is just as interesting, considering everything that’s happened in the last year and how the pandemic has changed so much in terms of how people work, how children go to school and how people connect with each other.”
In the early days of the pandemic, most working parents said managing child care needs was pretty simple. Just months later, far more of them found the task at least somewhat difficult, jumping from 38% in March to 52% in October.
Work-life balance in general has become harder as lines have blurred, especially for parents who’ve been working from home while balancing such tasks as keeping kids on track with homework or dealing with child care.
Ruth Igielnik, one of Pew’s senior researchers and the author of the family and work report, said parents worried they could not always give 100% to their jobs because of family needs. Some have had to reduce their work hours or turn down important assignments or promotions. Lots experienced a variation of what she called “extreme challenges that teleworking parents who have child care responsibilities run into while they’re working.”
Many of the challenges faced by parents with kids younger than 12 stem from the need to do something for their children while they’re trying to work. Nearly two-thirds of working parents said they had to juggle at least some of those responsibilities.
What varied is how much. Women, especially, felt some collision between family responsibility and taking care of family-related tasks. More than a third of moms say they have “a lot” of child care tasks while they’re working, compared to 16% of dads.
Toggling between meeting the needs of her children and those of her employer is familiar territory for Kim Millard, a Layton mom who works part time from home and has children in every school age range. She and her husband, Miles, have a preschooler, a grade schooler, a middle schooler and a high schooler. And Miles now works from home, too, so Kim Millard has set up a temporary office in the kitchen.
School schedules contribute to the chaos. Her sophomore daughter Mia’s school has been on soft closure three times since the school year started, sending the students to study online at home.
Still, Millard feels pretty lucky, because the flexibility to work from home has worked for her family. Remote work isn’t possible for everyone. In Pew’s survey, “some 43% of employed parents say they have jobs that can be done from home, while 57% say their jobs cannot be done remotely. Of those who have the option, roughly 7 in 10 say they are, in fact, working from home all or most of the time,” Igielnik wrote.
The majority of married or cohabiting adults gave their relationship high marks. Fewer than 1 in 10 told Pew researchers they struggle, while 53% say their marriage or relationship is going “very well” and another 37% say “fairly well.”
Other surveys report similar findings, deepening understanding of how important high-quality relationships are to life satisfaction.
The 2020 American Family Survey found that relationship status was the primary predictor of whether someone is lonely. “On the whole, family relationships appear to provide resources and support for navigating the coronavirus, not cause for emotional stress and difficulty,” the survey report said.
Nearly half of adults in relationships reported that the pandemic had deepened their commitment to their partner. Just 9% disagreed. That survey, which was conducted by YouGov for Deseret News and the Brigham Young University Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, found other good news from the homefront, as well. Thirty-two percent said household members were getting along better, while just half that many said tension had increased.
Concerning other family relationships, the pandemic may have given dads more time with their children. Fewer dads told Pew researchers during the pandemic that they wish they could spend more time with their kids, compared to earlier surveys. In 2017, 63% wanted more time with their children, compared to 48% in October. Just 5% say they spend too much time with their children, Pew found.
Even so, most of the dads said they’d like to carve out even more family time.
While satisfaction with the marital or cohabiting relationship has been steady since 2019, men told the Pew researchers they were more satisfied with one facet of family life than before: More of the men like the current division of household labor than in the past. The women are somewhat less satisfied with that division.
In 2019, 49% of the men and 39% of the women said they were satisfied with the division of household chores between themselves and their partner. What was a sizable gap has got wider. In October, 55% of men described themselves as very satisfied with how household tasks are split, while only 38% of women agreed.
The Pew study found men and women do not agree on how labor is actually shared — a he-said, she-said view that is old news to researchers, since versions of that question have been asked for years with significant disagreement between the genders about who does how much.
In the new Pew research, 6 in 10 women say they do more household chores than their partner and just 6% say the man does more. Those numbers don’t line up when men are asked. Nearly half of men (46%) say they share tasks about equally, while 20% say they do more and just over a third credit their partner working harder on household chores.
University of Utah researchers also recently contributed to the conversation on housework and gender. Bethany Gull and Claudia Geist found that, perhaps contrary to some expectations, religious men do more household chores like laundry, cleaning dishes and shopping than even secular “progressive” men do. Both groups do more than the guys in the middle of the faith spectrum.
Kim Millard said her husband has definitely tried harder to help around the house now that he’s working from home, which she appreciates since school and other schedules have created “constant change all the time.”