Leah Duenas Torres was proud to be the family breadwinner, after growing up in poverty. Then, in the pandemic, she lost her sales job and spent her days overseeing remote school: “It’s crazy overwhelming.”
April Williams had just gotten the promotion, to supply chain director, that she had worked toward for 16 years: “Boom, I had finally made it.” Then her son’s school closed. Soon after, she was laid off.
And Jennifer Park Zerkel followed a dream of starting a tutoring business, but has hit pause to stay home with her two children. “This is my baby, and it may just close,” she said.
This generation of women had achieved what no other had. They were part of a monumental shift in the roles women could play in American society that began in the late 1970s and continues today — “the quiet revolution,” the economist Claudia Goldin calls it. In 1955, women were one-third of the American labor force — they were unlikely to attend college, and if they worked, they were mostly limited to certain jobs, like teacher or secretary. That share slowly expanded until, in January 2019, women achieved a milestone: They made up more of the work force than men.
The pandemic erased that status in a matter of weeks. And just as it took decades to achieve, it could take years to regain. Now, 56 percent of American women are working for pay, the lowest level since 1986.
When the pandemic created a child-care crisis, mothers became the default solution. Even as society starts to reopen, many feel forgotten and shunted to the sidelines. Child care, school and other parts of daily life remain disrupted because young children cannot yet be vaccinated, and government paid-leave programs have expired.
Interviews with 15 mothers in one place, Los Angeles County, reveal the costs when society relies on mothers to be the backup plan. For mothers who have had to stop working, it has been more than the loss of a paycheck. It’s a loss of self-determination, of self-reliance, of complex selves. No matter the jobs they held, the education they had or the backgrounds they came from, they described a loss of identity apart from being a mother.
Women have more options now for what to do with their lives — but that also means that whether they work for pay or stay home with children is considered a personal choice, and one they’re often judged for. It’s different for men, because society expects them to work. Women’s identities feel hard-earned.
“Men who are out of work are still presumed to be workers, but women aren’t, because we frame work for women as a choice,” said Sarah Damaske, a sociologist at Pennsylvania State, whose book, “The Tolls of Uncertainty,” published this month, is about how unemployed Americans’ experiences are shaped by gender and class. “So when they unexpectedly lose a job in a society in which their working was in question all the time, it really throws how they’re thinking about who they are into question.”
What’s happened to America’s working mothers in the last year is not the old story about the tiny subset of women who have the financial choice to work for pay or not. Instead, it’s about what happens when any choices mothers once had disappear.
“It’s not: ‘I had to make a choice.’ The choice was made for me and a million other people,” said Joy Meulenberg, 37, who became a full-time mother when her dog-walking business and acting auditions dwindled and her daughter’s school closed.
Leah Duenas Torres, 37, who lost her sales job, had been the first in her family to go to college. She earned a master’s degree and supported her family as her husband attended medical school. Then, instead of being the “fun mom,” she became “the enforcer,” helping Santino, who is 7 and has autism, and Phoenix, 5, attend online school.
“I wasn’t a stay-at-home mom, and now I’m not a breadwinner,” said Ms. Torres, who is expecting a baby this spring. “I haven’t even said out loud any aspirations. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life anymore besides be a mom.
“I feel lost. I appreciate Zoloft more now than ever.”
Marina Bonilla, 40, lost her job as a hotel housekeeper when the pandemic began. A single mother, she immigrated to the United States from El Salvador to find a better life for her daughter, Genesis, 4. Central to that was earning a living: “I was used to going to work and making money to buy the necessities for me and my daughter,” she said. “I wanted to cry.”
She was grateful for having more time with Genesis, since she didn’t have to take three buses home from work each day. But this spring, when she found a job as a hospital housekeeper, it felt like relief: “I thank God that he gave me the strength to go on.”
Women on the opposite end of the income spectrum also grieved their loss of agency.
One month before the world shut down, Jenna Lecce Streit, 48, an acupuncturist, found a space to open her own practice.
She had taken time off work before her son, Sidney, 8, entered school, and was reveling in being back.
“It was time for me to be my own independent person, to really dive into my career,” she said. “It was like, oh my gosh, I’m finally there. I’m 48 years old and I’m finally there.”
Now, she’s overseeing Sidney’s remote school from their vacation home in Mazatlán, Mexico. Her husband regularly travels for work as a reality TV producer, and has become a Covid compliance officer for film sets, so his career has “blossomed,” she said.
“I literally am bloated when I’m not working because my chi isn’t flowing,” she said. “I know it’s a very L.A. thing to say. But it’s really brought to the forefront the paradox of being a working woman who is a wife and mother. The paradox is so screaming bright shining in my face right now. I love everything about motherhood, and yet it doesn’t feel fair that I should have to sacrifice my career.
“I guess what I’m missing is that thing that’s mine, and what that is is the little piece of my identity that’s my career.”
Loss of Choice
Of the 1.3 million mothers living with babies, toddlers or school-age children and no longer working for pay, some are on leave from their jobs, some are looking for work and others have given up for now, according to census data. Since late fall, more mothers living with school-age children have returned to work, almost catching up with fathers, but mothers’ return to work has stalled. The number of mothers living with preschool or school-aged children who are actively working is down 4 percent, about the same as adults without children at home, though their reasons for being out of work are very different.
A new survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times — of a representative group of 1,001 mothers nationwide who were working for pay before the pandemic began, including 448 who quit — found that 60 percent of those who quit were satisfied with their decision. Another 20 percent had considered quitting for child care reasons. But that doesn’t mean it’s what they would have chosen if they had options. Eighty percent said they were the only parent who considered quitting — their partner did not.
Employment fell more sharply for those without college educations or high incomes; for those whose jobs couldn’t be done from home; and for those who are Black or Latina. But the biggest difference between mothers who kept working and didn’t, the survey found, was simply whether their children’s schools were open.
Nationwide, just over half of districts are offering full-time, in-person learning, and an additional one-fifth are open part time. Los Angeles public schools reopened last month, often for three hours a day, and 55 percent of elementary students have returned. Closures, part-time school schedules and fear of sending children back have left many parents seeing no choice but to quit.
Mothers aren’t the only ones — some fathers, grandparents and others have left the work force, too. In families in which fathers did more of the pandemic child care, mothers were more likely to stay employed, research shows.
But in most cases, it has been mothers who cut back on paid work for child care. Of fathers living with their children, 600,000 are still out of work, though they are much less likely to have left for child care reasons, a census analysis found.
Jennifer Park Zerkel, 42, is running her tutoring business with skeleton staffing, doing the cleaning and administrative work herself.
“If I didn’t have kids, I’d be down there, I’d be full on trying to get my business back up, but I’m stuck at home,” she said. “Who’s going to take care of my kids?”
Her husband works in the film industry, and when he has a job, he often works 12-hour days. Even when he doesn’t, he keeps his own schedule. “I am the primary parent,” she said. “He’d help with evening routines, but he has other things going on. He’d read for a couple hours, and I’m going, like, ‘OK.’”
There are many reasons that mothers are the default caregivers, beginning with centuries of tradition. They are also generally paid less than their husbands. But this is a vicious cycle: The gender pay gap starts when women become mothers — because they spend more time than men on child care, or employers assume they will. Then, when one parent has to step back from paid work for caregiving, mothers do because they earn less, reinforcing the pattern.
The American economy rewards undivided loyalty. Salaried employees who work long hours are paid disproportionately more, and many hourly workers are expected to be available on a moment’s notice. Part-time work, at least the kind offering decent pay and employee benefits, isn’t widely available, and the United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t mandate paid family leave. (For the first time, Congress passed 12 weeks of paid caregiving leave during the pandemic, but it expired at the end of 2020.)
When a child care crisis arises, then, it’s typically mothers who step in.
“We think we’ve progressed so much, and then this pandemic happens and we all just revert back to these traditional behaviors,” said Misty L. Heggeness, a principal economist at the Census Bureau. “And this is a good moment to reflect, why do we do that?”
Delia Hauser, 40, a costumer and artist, had a thriving freelance career she had built from the garage she converted to an office. Now, the office is used by her husband, a creative director. She is in the house, caring for their son George, 7, who has a rare disability and needs help for his Zoom meetings, and Fred, 4, when he is not in preschool.
There was never a thought that her husband would be the one to stop working. “He makes way more money than I probably ever could,” she said. “But also, I was already very much in charge of George’s world. The expectation is just always on us to give up things. No one even has to say it. It just is.
“I started to feel like every part of my identity is wrapped up in my kids, which is just so not what I ever wanted or ever thought would happen.” On her computer, she keeps a quotation from Miranda July, the filmmaker and author, about motherhood: “He hadn’t robbed me of my ability to fly.”
“Can I just have a little bit,” Ms. Hauser said, “just a little bit that is me?”
Loss of self-reliance
Mothers described devotion to the jobs they had. This was true of professional women, who had invested in college and made names for themselves. But it was equally true of hourly workers.
Ana Recinos, 32, had worked several jobs at once since she was 18. When her daughter Josephine’s school closed, she quit her full-time jobs, as a waitress and at Target, while her wife continued working in retail.
Now she spends her days caring for Josephine, 10, and researching food banks.
“I feel like I let my family down,” she said. “I work two jobs so I can give my family what they need. I enjoy the time with my daughter. But we call the house a jail now.”
Professor Damaske, from Penn State, said that in her research, low-wage women had stronger attachments to work because of the effort it took to arrange adequate child care. “Researchers and the public alike can look at low-wage workers and not see the effort that goes into keeping and doing those jobs, especially for women with kids,” she said.
They’ve been entrepreneurial, finding informal ways to earn a few dollars. Reyna Frias, 50, used the internet hot spot provided by her sons’ school to watch videos on sewing masks, and began selling them in her neighborhood. Her younger son, Jose, 13, has special needs and couldn’t be home alone. (She no longer lives with their father.) “We either ate or paid rent,” she said. “I had to do something to help pay the bills.”
Many people in poverty were unable to receive federal pandemic aid, whether because they were undocumented or because of bureaucratic hurdles or a distrust of the system, according to nonprofits who work with them. For many mothers, work had been their path out of difficult circumstances. Losing it felt like losing their newfound independence.
Guadalupe Villegas, 28, had been homeless but had regained custody of her two children, and was working multiple jobs as a prep cook. Those jobs disappeared with the shutdowns, and her biggest fear is losing her children again. Yet she’s working harder than ever, with unpaid work. Besides caring for her children, she cares for her mother, who was found to have cancer last year.
“I am an overloaded ship right now,” she said. “Basically I had to have multiple hats for everybody in the family, except for myself.”
Da’Chante Bowers, 28, had also been on a path out of poverty. The single mother of Victory, 4, Ms. Bowers was attending community college.
Last fall, she was accepted to the University of California, Irvine, her “dream school.” But three weeks into the semester, she had to drop out — Victory was too young to attend preschool online.
They live on county aid, “and that is not enough to feed a Fifi bird.”
Victory’s father is not around. Ms. Bowers re-enrolled this spring, and her father helps watch Victory when she has class. “Being on the path I wanted to be on, I’ve worked so hard to get there, and for it to come to such a halt, it’s mind-boggling,” she said. “I think that’s the best way I could describe it without getting too emotional.”
Loss of a worker’s purpose
Working mothers’ dual identities have always affected their careers. In a study in which researchers sent out fake résumés — identical except for a line about being a member of the P.T.A. — parents were less likely to get interviews. Mothers receive less pay and fewer promotions. Workers who ask for flexibility for family reasons are often penalized; those who hide the reason are not.
The pandemic made it impossible for parents to hide that part of their identity at work.
Marisa Smith, 40, who worked as a business manager, said she was the only person in her office who was furloughed — and the only parent. Shortly after she returned, someone at her 6-year-old son Kai’s day care contracted the coronavirus, so she had to stay home with him to quarantine. After that, she was laid off.
“I have to kind of wonder if it was because I had a son,” said Ms. Smith, who is divorced from Kai’s father. “It does definitely feel like there was sexism involved.”
She applied for jobs for months before she found a new business manager role. “It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you’re not feeling like a productive person in society,” she said.
Many American women have carefully planned their working lives to accommodate children. They choose jobs with more flexibility or fewer hours, even if they earn less or are overqualified, or start businesses so they can control their schedules. The new survey found that self-employed women were much more likely to quit in the pandemic.
Lola Keyes Wood had co-founded a Hollywood travel and event company, now closed with no plans to reopen. Her husband, founder of a consulting company, has continued to work, often traveling. To get help with their children, Hendrix, 6, and Lenox, 2, Mrs. Wood decamped to her parents’ house in Virginia: “It’s what my grandma would call family living.”
Her children are too young to do remote school without help. The 30 hours a week she worked prepandemic is now 10 if she’s lucky. She works on business ideas two and a half hours a day while Lenox goes to a play group. But many days, catching up on household logistics comes first.
“Even with the help of a babysitter, laundry piles up, the kitchen’s dirty,” she said. “When do you open your bills? Did you respond to the stuff that came in the mail? No, I did not, because I only have two and a half hours a day.”
Loss of a mother’s confidence
It can be hard for mothers to admit that spending all day with their children isn’t what they want. Even in normal times, American mothers, more than those in other rich countries, describe feeling guilty and stressed. They worry they’re not giving either of their jobs — paid or unpaid — enough attention. The pandemic seemed to sharpen that self-doubt.
Joy Meulenberg, the dog walker, and her husband, a set dresser, had taken turns being the primary earner.
When the pandemic began, he was earning more, so she took over the care of their 5-year-old daughter, Madeleine.
She’s grateful her husband has work, but feels her life is on hold: “I’m not a housewife person. I’m not very good at being home doing domestic things. I want to be out and dirty with the animals. So my hesitation comes from: Now we’ve created the pattern.”
The stresses of parenting during the pandemic made some mothers fear they weren’t able to keep up with that job, either.
Joy Stallworth, 39, a mother of four who is separated from the children’s father, started family board games, but fears her children still spend too much time on screens. One son keeps growing out of shoes, and she hides food because they’re eating so much. But she doesn’t want to return to prepandemic jobs like bartending that expose her to lots of people.
“I have my concerns both ways,” she said. “It’s like, which one outweighs the other? Which one is more threatening?”
She said of her children: “Right now they don’t see a tomorrow. And it’s hard for me as a parent to promise them things, because I don’t know.”
Yet with loss, something gained
The pandemic sent many working mothers into crisis mode, and they did what they have always done — cared for their children when they needed it. As the weeks wore on, the shock turned to despair at the drudgery of the days, the loss of their professional purpose, the lack of choice in it all.
Now, with vaccines available for those 12 and older and with more schools open, mothers in Los Angeles said they still couldn’t see the future — school and camp schedules aren’t back to normal, and some didn’t feel school was safe yet — but they could begin to contemplate it.
In the national survey, 70 percent of mothers who had quit said they planned to return to paid work. Fifteen percent didn’t know, and the same share didn’t plan to return. But research suggests those who wish to return will encounter obstacles. American workplaces frown on gaps in résumés, especially for women doing caregiving.
“This isn’t just career women climbing the ladder and getting pushed down two rungs,” said Professor Goldin, the economist. “I am very, very concerned about women working in sectors that have been imploded and probably won’t come back anywhere near where they were.”
There are things that could help, starting with fully opening schools and child care centers. Incentives like tax credits could encourage companies to rehire mothers. Job search and retraining programs could help workers find jobs outside the service industry. Longer term, researchers say, the predicament could be blunted with policies like paid sick and family leave, affordable child care and financial support for unpaid caregivers.
The pandemic created an awareness of: “‘I’m struggling. Imagine those that have less than I do — how are they getting through?’” said Michelle Rhone-Collins, chief executive of Lift, a nonprofit that helps mothers and children living in poverty. “This offers,” she said, “the opportunity to really reimagine how things can operate differently.”
For their part, the women interviewed in Los Angeles County said they were determined to make their way back to paid work. Some were grateful for the detour.
Mrs. Wood, who closed her events business, said the pandemic gave her the first chance since graduate school to pause and evaluate her career. She is starting a new business, inspired by her children, starting with a line of pajamas with Black Santa that she wants to expand.
April Williams, 40, who was laid off after achieving her dream promotion, is also starting a business. Her son Zell, 9, has made her a “basketball mom,” and she’s planning to open a high-end gym in their neighborhood.
“This pandemic really shined a light on how little time we get to just sit and think anymore; we’re always going and going,” she said. “I guess we were supposed to go a different direction, even myself with my career. And if this is what it took, it’s OK.”
Ms. Hauser, the costume designer, is considering becoming a disability advocate, using the experiences she has had helping her son. Ms. Recinos, so accustomed to working two full-time jobs, has started an online training course to become a medical assistant.
Ms. Zerkel, who started the tutoring business, wants to open a preschool as well. Ms. Villegas is trying to get certification as a home health aide, the work she has been doing for her mother.
When Ms. Bowers finishes college, she plans to use her education to become a social worker: “I want to be able to help people, give people a person to relate to, to know that they can make it through anything.”
The photographs were taken remotely using video calling apps.
Produced by Crista Chapman and Rebecca Lieberman.
Ana Facio-Krajcer contributed reporting.