Tiarra Noblin tried to keep up with her job after the pandemic hit. She had just started working as a health care coordinator helping homeless clients at Bay Cove Human Services. It was, she said, her dream job. But after a few months watching over her daughters, a kindergartner and a high school senior, on her own while struggling to work from home in Roslindale, she felt she had to quit.
Noblin, 35, is among a wave of women who have been forced to scale back their careers in recent months to take care of their children while day care and in-person schooling have been disrupted. In Boston, nearly 12 percent of working mothers had to reduce their hours or stop working between January and October for this reason, according to the workforce solutions company ManpowerGroup, which cross-referenced local jobless numbers with population data and day care closures by ZIP code.
Statewide, more than half of women whose jobs have been affected by child care and educational upheaval said they had pulled back at work or were thinking of doing so, according to an October report by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women; a fifth said they were considering quitting their jobs altogether. Women in lower-income households felt the burden of these child-care-related disruptions even more acutely.
More often than not it’s the mother, not the father, retreating from work to oversee children at home, in part because men tend to have higher salaries. According to census research released in August, among those not working, women age 25-44 were nearly three times as likely as men not to be working because COVID had disrupted their child care arrangements. One in three mothers say she may be forced to downshift or opt out of work due to COVID, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org.
The support systems that have long allowed mothers to have careers — day care, grandparents, after-school programs — have collapsed during the pandemic, putting decades of women’s progress in jeopardy, said Beth Humberd, a management professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies gender in the workplace. The pandemic is shining a light on the fact that a more comprehensive system is needed, she said, including more support from employers until national policies on paid leave and affordable child care can be put in place.
“With a snap of a finger, you see any former signs of progress for working women decline because those systems that allowed it to happen have gone away,” Humberd said. “It’s like a Jenga game.”
For now, Noblin, the Roslindale mother, is getting by on unemployment and child support, assisted by a rental voucher. But there’s not much left after the bills are paid, sometimes not even enough to put gas in the car.
“As long as I’m the teacher and the therapist and all of that, then I can’t get back to work,” said Noblin, whose 5-year-old has autism and needs constant supervision. “I hate to think that I could be homeless in a few months simply because school is not open and I need it for child care.”
As in other crises, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, falling heavily on single mothers, low-income women, and women of color — who are often those least able to afford child care. Among working mothers, women of color have experienced the biggest drops in employment, according to Pew Research: The share of Latina mothers working fell 8 percentage points between September 2019 and September 2020, while workforce participation by Black mothers decreased 7.4 points and by Asian mothers, 7.3 points. The share of white mothers working slipped 4.1 points.
At 6.5 percent, women’s unemployment rate is slightly below men’s, but this doesn’t factor in women who aren’t looking for work, and right now there are many. Nearly 2.2 million women have left the workforce since February, compared to 1.4 million men, according to the National Women’s Law Center — leading to the lowest labor force participation rate among women in more than three decades.
Along with limiting their individual lifetime earnings, fewer mothers working means fewer women getting promoted into leadership positions — and fewer creating policies that could benefit working mothers down the road. The child care crisis could even make managers hesitant to hire or promote women with young children who might be seen as less productive, said Denella Clark, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. “It’s called unconscious bias,” she said. “Businesses are in business to raise revenue, and I think, post-pandemic, people will be looking to catch up.”
Last fall, Annie Hampton was on what she hoped would be a path out of poverty. She had just completed a certified nursing assistant course and started a job at a nursing home in Greenfield. Nursing school was on the horizon. Then, in March, the coronavirus ravaged the nursing home workforce, including Hampton. In June, she tested positive, despite having no symptoms. She didn’t want to infect her kids, or family members who had watched them in the past, and she had no other child care options, so she quit — and put her education on hold.
“I can’t monitor preschool remote learning, elementary remote learning, and work and go back to school,” said Hampton, 28, who recently split up with her husband and is applying for fuel assistance and help with Christmas gifts. Her employer has tried to get her back but “for the kids and for my own sanity, I just couldn’t handle it,” she said. “It was just too much on my plate.”
Many women who quit their jobs aren’t facing this type of financial hardship, but are still struggling. Carrie Murphy, the mother of 7-year-old twins, had recently started her own consulting firm after several years out of the workforce. She was just starting to build up momentum when COVID swept in.
Murphy’s husband, the cofounder of a technology company, wasn’t able to help oversee schooling for the twins, Murphy said. So she took over, sometimes working until 3 a.m. after supervising the children all day. But it was too much. And when her project ended, she didn’t seek out new clients.
The twins are in private school now, and money is tight, but Murphy has been reluctant to take on new clients in case their school goes remote. “My career has certainly taken a hit,” she said. “I feel like right now I’m in a permanent holding pattern.”
Humberd, the UMass Lowell professor, sees a potential silver lining in the fact that the pandemic has made employers realize the importance of flexible schedules, job sharing, paid family leave, and remote work. “In some ways, we’ve ripped that Band-Aid off,” she said. “Now it’s not odd at all for a man or woman to say, ‘I’ve got to deal with the kids today.’ "
Rebecca Wood, 41, had to scale back her work as an organizer to look after her 8-year-old daughter, who attends special education classes remotely from their 670-square-foot apartment in Revere. Her schedule is so intense that Wood has only a half-hour to pick up free lunches twice a week; at 11 a.m., she puts her daughter in a jogging stroller, sprints to school to grab a bag of chicken nuggets, fruit, milk, and pancakes, then hustles back to log into math class by 11:30.
Wood, who is a single parent and has lupus, now works just eight hours a week for Mass-Care, a coalition pushing for single payer heath care. She relies on Social Security Disability Insurance, which she had been trying to get off, as well as child support, and is worried about how she’s going to get by.
“I wake up exhausted and I go to bed even further exhausted,” she said. “It’s not like I can just go out and get a job. I would pretty much take anything, but I have a kid tethered to me.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.