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A ‘new normal’ should treat working mothers better than the pandemic did

Mothers bore the brunt of pandemic job loss, but feminism did not fail women. Society failed families. 

Parents accompany their children outside PS 179 elementary school in the Kensington neighborhood, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Mark Lennihan, Associated Press

As I write this, I’m bouncing my 3-month-old on my knee. Last February, when I learned I was expecting, it seemed unlikely that there would be a way to make motherhood and work coexist.

It’s an experience shared by millions of women around the country — choosing between being a good parent or a good employee. Women who wanted to do both relied on daycares, domestic workers or after school programs.

Then a pandemic hit.

As I discussed in August, daycares closed. Schools switched to virtual learning. And mothers were expected to pick up the slack. For many, it proved too much. Unable to juggle the combination of societal and professional expectations, many women were forced to choose between sending children to school and risking the children’s health, or keeping them home and leaving the workforce.

A New York Times opinion piece declared that feminism is a failure if a single year could undo decades of progress.

It got it wrong.

Feminism did not fail women. Society failed families.

When disaster struck, America’s only backup system was its societal expectation of mothers, leaving them to bear the brunt of the fallout, as reported by Deseret News. And even when they stepped up to the plate, no help came. No bills were passed or workplace cultures reworked to give families the time they needed to survive.

As writer Meg Conley put it, “Whether we labor in our homes or outside of them, every mother will wake up every morning remembering that when it comes to their needs, America just can’t really be bothered.”

In September 2020, 865,000 women left the workforce — four times the number of men.

An unspoken truth and paradox about American society is that, while we consistently place families at the center of our values, we place little value in giving them enough time to flourish.

Consider this: During the pandemic, the survival rate of infants has increased. Early reports also indicate that premature deaths have fallen. Many attribute this good news to moms being able to stay or work from home during their pregnancies.

Clearly, giving parents time and space has significant benefits. Yet extended absences related to child rearing are still considered taboo. It’s still viewed by many as unprofessional or as a lack of dedication to work. If a mother or father decides to leave the workforce, there’s often no going back.

Flexibility, a trait praised for raising a family, is apparently not compatible with American life.

In a post-COVID-19 world, that needs to change.

Writing for The New York Times, Anne Helen Petersen says that a new work from home culture could greatly benefit parents, but too many companies are still in survival mode, rather than thinking about what the future holds and making adjustments.

“If the structures aren’t in place, piecemeal hybrid schedules will fail, and we’ll end up right back where we were before,” Petersen said.

Expecting every family to have a full-time stay-at-home parent is outdated and uninformed. Two-income households are not just more normal, but necessary for many families to stay afloat.

America must stop treating having a family as a special privilege only open to those who can afford it. Doing so has only contributed to the current childcare crisis. Allowing parents to take care of their children does not hinder society. It furthers it. Improves it.

Professor Robert Kelly and his family went viral after his children appeared in the background of an interview he was doing for the BBC in 2017. The world laughed and enjoyed what was then seen as an anomaly, but three years later, interviews and work meetings were filled with kids, pets and partners making regular appearances in the background of our video calls.

Even with all this so-called interference, the world continues to function. In many cases, companies have seen business improve.

The world is eager to return to normal, but we mustn’t be hasty. After all, “normal” is what perpetuated some of these problems in the first place. We must learn from our mistakes and adjust.

Maybe the next health crisis won’t fall onto the backs of working mothers, but onto a solid foundation of inclusive policies that can survive the weight of society.