It struck her one morning last July, when an email arrived from her son’s day care. In a flash of clarity, Emily Way knew her time in the workforce was about to end.
The day care that their 2-year-old, Owen, attended was reopening in August, the email read, and families needed to start paying again if they wanted to save a spot. Way was seven months pregnant and on the cusp of unpaid maternity leave. She knew she and her husband couldn’t afford to send Owen back while she wasn’t getting a paycheck. Even if he did go back, what about the virus? Someone needed to care for both kids full-time now. She knew it would be her.
But why did it feel like being forced to make a choice that was really no choice at all?
For four months, the Ways had balanced their lives on a thin rope as the pandemic raged. That rope kept Way employed while both parents split time caring for their son and working from home in Iowa City. But now, with no child care, no paid leave and a second child on the way, that rope felt like it was snapping. Way was falling through.
She emailed her husband, Jason, that July morning, cursing in frustration. “I won’t be getting paid. And we wouldn’t want to send him when we have a newborn anyway. I would envision sending him when we send the baby, so sometime early December in all likelihood.”
“I’m not upset,” she added quickly. “I’m just trying to figure this out because it looks like I will have to quit.”
That night, the Ways confronted a reality that has unmoored working women across the country. Child care and paid leave, the two cogs in the wheel that keep many working moms employed, had fallen out for them. So, she, a 32-year-old administrative secretary for the county, would have to leave the job she had spent years trying to obtain. He, a research psychologist, with a flexible job and significantly higher pay, would keep his.
Although Way knew it was best for her family, she wondered how it would fundamentally change her path as a working woman and as a person. How it would alter what she understood about who she was.
“My biggest fear,” she told her husband that night, “is that being a stay-at-home mom is something that I’d always left on the table, something I might want to do. But I don’t want to lose my identity as a person.”
So much of that identity was still tied to her work. She knew the privilege and purpose of being a stay-at-home mom, but part of her wasn’t ready to stop working just yet. The pandemic was forcing Way, as it had many mothers, to reconsider her relationship with her work. It largely hasn’t asked the same of fathers.
There was something else nagging at her, too. Way’s work also formed the basis for how others in her life saw her. She wanted her husband, especially, to still see her as a person with her own interests, value and importance, she told him then. Until that point in her life, her work played a big role in informing that view. She had graduated college with an English degree in 2011, just at the tail end of the last recession and cycled through some internships and jobs that didn’t pay much. When she got the county role in 2015, it felt like a breakthrough for her career.
Still, in those early weeks of the pandemic, as Way worked from home from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., her two identities — as a mom and as a worker — collided again and again.
She felt tethered to her desk while her husband, whose more flexible work schedule, was able to spend more time with Owen, taking their son for walks and being with him when he awoke from naps.
“Being a working mom in the best of times is to feel pulled,” she said. “But then at this time, it was just so hard to see it right in my face all day long — everything that I was not doing.”
About four weeks into this arrangement, in late April, she texted her husband from her desk: “My job feels like torture now. Like go sit at this desk and listen to things you have already listened to multiple times while not being able to actually do anything to care for your son or rest or do house chores. And then I spend my time worried about not getting work done or you judging me for not working. It’s awful.”
“I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’m not judging you.”
“It just all sucks,” she texted back.
It felt like the axis around which her life revolved, the things she could count on — work and family — was shifting.
In July, when Way realized she’d have to leave work altogether, part of her remembered those afternoons tied to her desk and reasoned she may be able to be the present mom she had yearned to be. She told herself that she may have chosen this someday.
This situation, though, still didn’t feel like choosing.
When she texted her mom, sisters and friends of her decision to leave work, she described it with the same duality. “It sucks and is exciting at the same time,” she told her friend, Pam. “Happy and sad,” she texted her sisters, Katie and Allie. “I realized my new job would be raising a baby,” she told her mom.
When she placed the call to her boss, Nancy, letting her know of the decision, she cried when Nancy tried to comfort her.
“I don’t want you to,” her boss said. “[But] you won’t regret this decision. You are making a good decision for your family.”
By September, when Way gave birth to her daughter, she had become one of the 863,000 women who left the workforce. An additional 275,000 left in January. Both times coincided with the start of new school semesters, when children typically return to classrooms. By March 2021, an estimated 1.5 million were still out of the workforce.
In an economic fallout unlike any in American history, women like Way were not just kicked out of the labor force when jobs were cut, hours dwindled and layoffs began following the start of the pandemic in 2020. Many left of their own accord, forced out when the gaps in the social safety net — access to paid leave and child care — became gaping holes.
The worst of the job losses began one year ago, in April 2020, the month that kicked off the nation’s first women’s recession.
That month, about 3.5 million moms of school-age children shifted out of active work, moving into paid or unpaid leave, losing their jobs, or leaving the labor force completely, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly half of all mothers were not working last April.
“This horrible April milestone — it’s the worst month in our labor market since we’ve been keeping track of the data since World War II,” said economist Kathryn Anne Edwards, with the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank. “It’s hard to express the scope of how bad it was.”
The losses in that time hit women-dominated fields like hospitality, which as an industry lost almost half of all its positions in April 2020. But the women’s recession has continued even as those jobs have returned because of the unequal impact on mothers, in particular, according to several studies of the recession published in the past several months.
One, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that while many countries were also gripped by their own women’s recessions, few were as severe as the one in the United States. Women in the U.S. had less flexibility to work from home, less access to paid leave and fewer furlough options that would keep them employed while reducing their hours. Limited access to child care was also a key driver.
“The [gaps in] child care need, before the pandemic it was inches,” Edwards said. But during the pandemic? “It was miles,” she said.
From March to April 2020, 1 in 3 child care workers lost their jobs. Only about half of those losses have been made up, and gains have largely plateaued since September.
In the past year, moms of school-age kids, those between 6 and 14, have spent three-quarters of their work time simultaneously taking care of children — 30 percent more than fathers, the study found. Moms were interrupted 50 percent more than dads during work hours in the pandemic, almost always because of child care.
That reduction in productivity could have dramatic consequences in years to come, contributing to the already existing “motherhood penalty,” or the gap in pay that hurts mothers more than fathers and women without children.
“It is quite clear that the difference in the market behavior of women in the first place is closely related to combining careers and families — the difficulty of having accessibility to doing both is really what generates the motherhood penalty,” said Matthias Doepke, an economist at Northwestern University who co-authored the study. “Anything that addresses that more fundamental problem is going to be helpful for women in general, but for those, in particular, who were affected by this crisis.”
Another study, from researchers at the University of Utah, Ball State University and the University at Buffalo, found that when moms took on all or almost all of the child care during the pandemic, they had a 50 percent chance of leaving the workforce or reducing their hours. When the child care was split more evenly between different-sex parents, the probability decreased to 15 percent.
Especially for parents of young children, the loss of child care was connected to a loss of employment for moms — but not dads, the study found.
Now, even as jobs trickle back, net job growth is still twice as large for men as for women, according to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). As of March, women still needed to regain 4.6 million more net jobs to get back to the levels of employment they saw before the start of the pandemic. Men need to regain 3.8 million.
That reality has created space for a conversation unlike any in American history about an unspoken truth regarding the nature of work and care, and how critical it is to keep the economy running, said C. Nicole Mason, the president and CEO of IWPR.
“The silence has been broken,” Mason said. “The pandemic has shown us that the intersection of both those things are really important for women in the workplace and women in the labor market.”
Way acknowledges the ways in which she has been lucky. Her parents supported her in those first few years post-college. And she had something to fall back on, the kind of safety net some White women have access to but many women of color don’t. She was acutely aware of that.
“Even though I’ve tried to make it on my own and been stressed, it has also made me very empathetic and aware of what other people don’t have and just how hard it is,” she said.
More than a year into the pandemic recession, it’s clear Latinas and Black women, especially, continue to lag behind, even as other groups of workers start to rebound. Mothers of color are struggling even more.
“One of the big toplines for this year is that women of color have been disproportionately impacted, and that many of the conditions or circumstances that makes them the most impacted group have been long-standing — low-wage jobs, no benefits, job insecurity, the pay gap — all those things made the economic and unemployment losses for women of color that much worse compared to other groups of women, White women specifically,” said Mason, of the IWPR.
Latinas had the highest unemployment rate of any group last year: 20.1 percent in April 2020. One in three report being hit severely by the pandemic recession and having yet to recover. About half of all Latinas have reduced their work hours or quit jobs to take care of a child, compared with 29 percent of White women, according to a report from UnidosUs, the country’s largest Latinx civil rights and advocacy organization.
Even as of March, the most recent month for which data is available, the unemployment rate was 7.3 percent for Latinas, 8.7 percent for Black women and 5.7 percent for Asian women. For White women the rate was down to 5 percent.
Much of those losses was driven by the low-wage jobs that Latinas and Black women dominate and the kinds of support they have to weather economic downturns. Even mothers of color in more secure positions felt the constraints of the past year and questioned how the losses could set them back even further.
Latinas like Jennifer, a former executive in Oakland, found themselves without work for more than a year. Jennifer left her high-ranking position in fall of 2019 to find something that was a better fit closer to home and had four interviews lined up by March 2020. When the pandemic hit, all of her prospects disappeared.
For months, as her three school-age kids turned to online school from home, she looked for jobs in between their Zoom classes, but nothing stuck. And even if something had worked out, she wasn’t sure she could have taken a job then. It had fallen largely on her to care for her kids until some semblance of school returned in the fall of 2020.
She wouldn’t find a job until just this month.
That period, nearly a year and half, was the longest time she has spent without working since she was 15. Her pathway to leadership was interrupted in a way she worries could upend her career long-term.
“Even though you know there is a recession and the economy, you still can’t help but internalize that, somehow, something is wrong” with you, said Jennifer, 45.
She calls the dark periods earlier in the year when she worried about her self worth, her career and her decision “the tunnel.” Would she be able to stay on the same trajectory? Will this set her back years? She saw herself reflected in news story after news story detailing the collapse of women of color in the workplace.
“When I was in the tunnel, all those things went through my mind. I am the article. I am a Latina,” she said. “Everybody says the white-collar people snapped back. I was like, ‘Wait what about me?’”
Jennifer’s new job is a lower-level director position at a nonprofit outside of her field — not the public policy and diversity and inclusion work she was doing before. (The 19th is omitting her last name so she can speak freely of her work without fear it may affect her prospects.)
She took a significant pay cut.
“Right now is not a time of finding my dream job. It’s what I can do to have a job now,” she said. “[But] it’s always hard, as a Latina woman of color, getting into those positions.”
Years from now, the pandemic recession will likely be the low point against which women in the workplace will be measured — the dip in the graph from which they rose. But how long will that rise take?
By March of this year, the unemployment rate of all men and all women was essentially the same: 5.7 percent for women and 5.8 percent for men. By that measure, the women’s recession was effectively over.
But so much of the real damage — and danger — is beneath those numbers.
For mothers who stayed in the workforce, the danger to their careers is in the hours of lost productivity, the perception that they are less available, even if companies shift to allowing more flexible remote work.
For mothers who left, the danger is in the months out of work, the belief from employers that their skills atrophy and their value decreases, even as attempts are made to begin a larger cultural shift toward valuing the work parents do outside of the traditional labor force. Professional networking site LinkedIn, for example, recently added an option for “stay-at-home-parents” to help more employers see that those skills are valuable and transferable to the workplace.
Solving the problem also means understanding that women leaving the workforce makes the economy considerably weaker. In a typical recession men lose more jobs; this often pushes women to leave their stay-at-home positions or part-time work and join the labor force full-time. This dynamic can help boost the economy during a slump. In this recession, men are near full employment already and the industries that employ primarily women are the ones that suffered most, so families with different-sex parents don’t have the same options they once might have had. This time, the broader economic boost is missing.
Women who leave the workforce are also more likely to stay out of work for a longer period of time or return in only a part-time capacity. That dynamic means a women’s recession stays with the economy longer, and women’s labor force participation takes a hit beyond the start of a recovery.
It’s catastrophic enough that women are rising up to address it, Mason said.
“Historically, women haven’t come together in this way to examine who we are in our work life and our family life and what we need. You now have corporate moms in conversation with frontline moms at the grocery story,” Mason said. “We all have this connected experience, which is pretty powerful.”
Ultimately, the scope and breadth of policy response is what could change the course.
Coming into the pandemic, the United States was one of the only industrialized nations in the world without a universal paid leave policy. It was also one of the few that hadn’t fully tapped into direct payments for children as a way to curtail child poverty, making it one of the countries with the highest child poverty rate in the world. And its child care safety net was a fish net, with glaring inefficiencies and inequities that kept many from accessing it.
A lot of that is cultural, stemming from a long-held belief that policies that benefit women are somehow niche and less pressing.
“It’s not that Germany has the best leave or Sweden has the best leave because they’re protofeminist and they’ve won something that American women have not,” Edwards said. “It’s only in the U.S. that family leave policies are framed in a feminist aspect because in all other countries it’s truly framed as what it should be, which is an economic one: This is a necessary infrastructure investment for women and children.”
President Joe Biden’s administration is working to change that narrative, specifically calling care “infrastructure” for families and lumping a $400 billion investment in home health care jobs within an infrastructure package that has for weeks been drawing criticism from Republicans as too wide ranging. The latest American Families Plan, announced Wednesday, goes further. It would invest $225 billion in the child care industry, $225 billion in a national paid family and medical leave program, $200 billion in a universal pre-kindergarten program, and extend the current expansion of the child tax credit through 2025. Those would all be first-of-their-kind investments.
The ambitious — and expensive — plan will likely come against even steeper opposition from Republicans than the infrastructure plan because it contains costly elements that are almost all major Democratic priorities. But they’re the kind of changes parents could take advantage of right away, and many enjoy bipartisan support among voters.
“We are talking about structural changes,” Mason said, “as opposed to tinkering around the edges of a broken system.”
One of the things that has already passed is the expansion of the child tax credit, an idea that has been two decades in the making, and increases the credit amount from $2,000 to as much as $3,600 per child. The change made the credit fully available to the poorest families, something that is expected to cut child poverty in half — the first time the United States has taken this approach. And it will also send the money to families monthly or quarterly, instead of annually, so they can access the dollars quicker. That’s the kind of big-scale, tangible change that could alter the course for many families, including the Ways.
“I cried when I heard that was in [the stimulus package],” Way said. “To finally have them just give me something after everything I’ve been through and that would help with our children, it was just overwhelming.”
They’ve sold her husband’s car, and money feels tighter these days. The money from the credit can go to baby formula, clothes, things they need for the kids.
And, if she wanted to, it could help in the transition back into the workforce. The checks could help her bridge the gap between her first day of work and her first paycheck two weeks later, she’s thought. It could help pay for day care for Owen again in those first two weeks.
For months earlier this year, there were nights when Way dreamed she was at work again. Mundane things like her sitting in the county auditor’s office where she worked, people from her old job milling around. Other times she’s found herself halfway through the day looking at job ads for administrative positions like the one she had.
She just wants to know they’re there, if she wanted them. And then it hits her and she closes the listings. “OK, I don’t need to be doing this right now,” she tells herself.
In more recent months, things have settled into a new rhythm. She and her husband got vaccinated, and the tides of the pandemic started to shift, allowing her to find newfound comfort in her role. Her husband has put in a notice at work that he will be working remotely permanently. They have lunch and dinner together every day with their kids now.
She’s also started thinking about the value she could bring to her community, in a similar way to the value she used to bring to her work.
“Society needs non-working parents to be participants in the school system, in the community. There is a real value there we don’t think about,” she said. “It’s a lot of free labor and important labor.”
But even as time has passed, Way still holds dualities in her mind.
She wants to be a good mom to her kids. Not a burnt out one. She wants to be available to care for her parents as they age.
She wants to maybe work again. Maybe part-time.
It’s possible she’ll never go back to work. It’s possible she’ll want something more than being a caretaker. It’s possible this is enough.
She doesn’t want to choose which path she’ll take just yet, in case she changes her mind or the world changes it for her.
That feeling, that she’s suspended between two identities, is “always there,” Way said. “I don’t know that it will ever go away.”