Reconfiguring Motherhood and Paid Work: The Time- and Space-Based Contexts of COVID-19

Heather Dillaway* and Elizabeth Paré


At the end of 2019 a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) emerged in China. Due to the global nature of our economy, ease of travel between countries, and the infectious nature of the virus itself, “COVID-19” spread quickly. In early 2020, in response to the threat, countries across the world began to drastically shift public health protocols and consider varied measures to contain the virus. By March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the new virus as a pandemic (O’Reilly, 2021, p. 15). In the United States (U.S.), state-mandated shutdowns and other targeted public health protocols began during March 2020; many of these shutdowns and other public health orders have only just been lifted fully during the summer of 2021 (AJMC, 2021). State-level and other local government orders were intended to slow or limit the spread of COVID-19 while ensuring adequate hospital capacity. Orders to shut down paid workplaces were accompanied by “stay home” orders indicating that individuals could only leave their homes to satisfy essential needs (e.g., acquisition of healthcare, food, or necessary household goods). Only the most essential workplaces in the U.S. stayed open while most other workers moved into the home for remote work (Banthin & Holahan, 2020). As COVID-19 rates peaked in Spring, Summer, and Fall 2020, approximately 95% of American were required to adhere to “stay home” mandates (Mervosh, Lu, & Swales, 2020). Especially in the early months of the pandemic, the “central directive of the COVID-19 pandemic [can be] conveyed in two words: stay home” (O’Reilly, 2021, p. 15). Yet, as O’Reilly (2021, p. 17) notes, there is little analysis of exactly how families are coping with these location-based directives or the “forced social isolation” (O’Reilly, 2021) that has existed within the home during this crisis. In particular, there is not enough discussion of how mothers are faring within the new, compressed, time- and space-based contexts of this global pandemic.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our cultural conversations often defined the difference between “stay-at-home” and presumably “full-time” mothers, and “working mothers” or those who prioritize paid work over caregiving. Inferred within this pre-COVID construction was women’s physical location as well—either women are at home or work, not both (Dillaway & Paré, 2008). Experts from all professional backgrounds acknowledge that COVID-19 has dramatically altered ways of life for the global community, and particularly for women. What has not been clear from existing discussions of this public health crisis is how much the time- and space-based contexts of mothers’ lives have changed since March 2020, and how much the pandemic context can tell us about our definitions of home and work as physical locations. In this article, we extend our previous work on stay-at-home versus working motherhood to focus on the compressed time- and space-based contexts of mothers’ lives during the pandemic. To keep in tune with contemporary media conversations about the impact of COVID-19, we also investigate what cultural discourse about mothers illustrates about our definitions of “home” as a physical location. We specifically examine conversations about working mothers who have either found themselves forced to return full-time to the home (with their paid work in tow), or have children who have returned to the home while they themselves have continued to leave that setting. We believe that working mothers can be bellwethers in helping us truly understand the alteration of our time- and space-based contexts during the pandemic. In writing this conceptual piece, our goal is to initiate further feminist research on the time- and space-based contexts of motherhood and paid work, and redefine working motherhood in time and physical space in the ever-unwinding context of a public health crisis.

Throughout this article, and consistent with our past work (Paré & Dillaway, 2005; Dillaway & Paré, 2008; Dillaway, Haskin, & Velding, 2015; Paré, 2016), we utilize recent feminist scholarship as a starting point for our arguments but pull on popular culture pieces from mainstream news sources to ground what we write. Specifically, we discuss popular media articles from a range of publication outlets that we feel are representative of current-day, mainstream or “lay” cultural conversations about motherhood and paid work during the pandemic. In no way do we present this article as a systematic empirical piece or a thorough content analysis of cultural discourse as a whole. In fact, we could not discuss all the important media articles we found in our research due to space constraints. We analyze selected media items mostly for the mainstream examples of mothers and paid workers that they offer and quote from these examples for how they might define women’s time- and space-based contexts as much as their activities and responsibilities. This “think piece” is meant to be preliminary in nature, with the primary goal of initiating more theoretical and empirical research on women’s motherhood, paid work, and the home during the pandemic. We begin with a summary of our past research on this topic.

Summarizing Our Past Work (Pre-Pandemic)

As discussed in our previous work (Paré & Dillaway, 2005; Dillaway & Paré, 2008; Dillaway, Haskin, & Velding, 2015; Paré, 2016), cultural discourse commonly depicts individual women as choosing between being “at home” or “at work.” The presumed choice is conceptualized as either/or: one is either “stay-at-home” mother and thus a “full-time” mother or, conversely, one is a “working ” and thus “part-time” mother. The choice to be a “working mother” comes with the inference that women consider paid work as more important than caregiving because women are socially constructed as either “work oriented or family oriented,” not both (Garey, 1999, p. 6). An extension of this dichotomy is women’s physical location—women are either present in the physical space of the home or the paid workplace, not both. We have argued that feminists and other inequality scholars have concentrated more on documenting individuals’ social “locations” (social positions) in society but have invested less time analyzing individuals’ actual physical locations and how the latter type of location might shape their lived experiences. As we have discussed elsewhere (Dillaway & Paré, 2008), it is time to directly focus on the impact of our physical locations, their associated activities, and the social constructions and experiences of individuals (e.g., women, parents, paid workers) in certain physical locations. Finally, we have proposed that the social constructions and physical locations of individuals may mutually reinforce each other in determining lived experiences (Dillaway & Paré, 2008).

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, and as documented by many feminist scholars before us, “intensive” and/or “good” mothering ideology endorsed the home location as optimal for caregiving and confirmed motherhood as a place-specific, full-time job (Arendell, 2000; DeMeis & Perkins, 1996; Garey, 1999; Hays, 1996; Dillaway & Paré, 2008; Paré & Dillaway, 2005; Dillaway, Haskin, & Velding, 2015). According to this ideology, the act of caregiving must exist in a separate space from paid work because caregiving stands in direct opposition to paid work within a gendered division of labor. The cultural assumption, then, is that women’s paid work and family lives exist in separate spaces or, at the very least, in very different hours of the day (Dillaway, Haskin & Velding, 2015; Garey, 1999). In this scenario, one’s physical location becomes synonymous with a lack of specific activities (paid work) as much as it signifies a presence of other activities (caregiving). In our imaginations, we uphold this spatial equation almost regardless of whether mothers are really in the home all the time or not (Dillaway & Paré, 2008). 

Constructions of paid work as a “first shift”, childcare and housework as the “second shift” (Hochschild, 1989), and the upkeep of relationships and the emotional wellbeing of family members as a “third shift” (O’Reilly, 2021) help to uphold the notion that paid work and family exist in different physical spaces. Mothers who work a “first shift” also highlight their presumed prioritization of paid work over mothering and their “absence” from the home. Within this ideological framework, working mothers must work harder than stay-at-home mothers to be “adequate” mothers as they leave the physical location designated for children and caregiving (Dillaway & Paré, 2008, p. 445; Paré, 2016).  As a result, a “good” working mother is often declared a “supermom,” a woman who does not sacrifice children for her career or her career for her children. She moves seamlessly between roles of paid worker and mother, accomplishing both with ease– almost as if she is in two locations at once (DeMeis & Perkins, 1996; Hays, 1996; Dillaway, Haskin, & Velding, 2015; Christopher, 2012). But, the “supermom” works so hard to manage both roles because she is assumed to be and must conquer the image of herself as a “lesser” mother. 

Cultural conversations about working mothers therefore confirm that the equation of mothers with caregiving and the home remains intact even for working mothers. We acknowledge now, as we have in the past, that mothers must compete against idealized, unattainable, and potentially damaging versions of motherhood (Dillaway & Paré, 2008; Dillaway, Haskin & Velding, 2015; Paré, 2016). We also acknowledge that, as much as mothers have left the home setting for paid work, we have not moved beyond the “separate spheres” of family and work that feminists have attempted to challenge for decades (Osmond & Thorne, 1993; UN Women, 2020; Borda, 2021). Caregiving remains ideologically pinned to women in our imaginations and in our cultural conversations. Mothers do the unpaid caregiving work associated with the home location even when they do not reside in that location most of the time.

Of course, the dichotomous, heterosexist construction of mother/caregiver versus father/paid worker oversimplifies the complexities of parenting and paid work and denies individuals’ realities (Dillaway & Paré, 2008; Dillaway, Haskin & Velding, 2015; Paré, 2016). In previous work we have also documented that women and their partners devise many strategies for maneuvering paid work and caregiving that defy cultural images of who and what exists in each physical location. For example, some women have worked for pay in the home even before the pandemic, or worked at night to take care of children during the day (e.g., Garey, 1999). Others enlist nannies and other female members to act as substitute mothers in the home (to minimize their absence), and others purposely work in childcare to remain around small children. As children age, mothers sometimes choose to work only during the hours when children are in school to minimize the time when they are gone from the home. And sometimes men decide to be “stay-at-home” dads while partners go to paid work settings. Other parents attempt to set up egalitarian co-parenting practices, with balanced participation from both partners (Johnston, 2007; Kendall, 2007; Kendall, 2008). Nonetheless, before our contemporary moment, most mothers have maintained both caregiving and paid work activities simultaneously, in both the home and the workplace (if indeed those are separate locations), negotiating the boundaries for each set of actions and each physical location every day (Dillaway, Haskin, & Velding, 2015; Dillaway & Paré, 2008; Paré, 2016; Christopher, 2012). In addition, most women cannot decide to be purely “stay-at-home” mothers or “working” mothers; this culturally defined “choice” is faulty to start with. These realities could not be truer in our current public health crisis. Realities of family and work notwithstanding, the images of “stay-at-home” and “working” mothers remain and guide our expectations. 

We now apply what we have learned from our past work to a discussion of our new COVID-19 context and to the specific case of working mothers. In what follows we first review how time- and space-based contexts of motherhood and paid work have changed considerably since March 2020. We then explore how the pandemic has reinforced a gendered division of labor, as mothers attempt to multi-task across paid work and caregiving responsibilities in the same space and hours of the day. We also discuss the increased responsibilities within the home setting during the pandemic, and how this increase in workload affects mothers’ mental health. Finally, we discuss mothers who have had to continue reporting to paid work settings during the pandemic as well as those who were forced out of the workforce due to pandemic-related layoffs. Throughout this analysis our goal is to highlight how the public health response to COVID-19 has been largely dependent on the home as a physical location as well as the activities and individuals culturally assigned to that location, and that we have not raised consciousness enough about the large-scale impact of the new, compressed, time- and space-based contexts on women and families.

New Contexts for Paid Work and Motherhood: “Stay Home, Stay Safe”

The time- and space-based contexts of this public health crisis are glaringly real for families. As of March 2020, the home was quickly redefined as the only “safe” location in individuals’ lives, and all other locations were redefined as full of risk – risk to self and risk to family. Thus, the pressure to maintain the safety of the home space became critical, harkening back to past time periods when the imagery of the home was primarily of a protective “haven” against an “evil” world (Baca Zinn & Eitzen, 2005). The directive was to “stay home” and “stay safe.” Parents who could work for pay from home felt that they had to keep themselves and their family members confined to this space, and began to juggle paid work and family more intensely than before the pandemic (even though there is considerable evidence of juggling pre-pandemic (Dillaway, Haskin, & Velding, 2015)). As O’Reilly (2021, p. 18) aptly notes, “when there is no separation between work, family and home, pressure inevitably builds.” As schools and daycare settings closed Miller (2020, p. 261) explains how “working parents . . . found the color, form, and sounds of their days changed dramatically, the hours filled with tending to the needs of others, the doing centered around a life at home.” Parents who continued to work outside of the home found themselves faced with the additional pressure of putting the home location at risk as they left and returned (Zierlein, 2021; Bateman & Ross, 2021). When parents did leave the home for paid work, children did not have any other place to go. Thus, parents working for pay both inside and outside of the home have not had the caregiving or school support systems available that they had counted on for support before the pandemic (Zierlein, 2021; O’Reilly, 2021; Bateman & Ross, 2021; Gajewski, 2020; Grose, 2021; Chemaly, 2020; Ferguson, 2020, Featherstone, 2020). 

A Reaffirmed Gendered Division of Labor

There is growing evidence that work-family tensions have been felt mostly by mothers, however, because of the gendered division of labor – a division that was reaffirmed very clearly during the pandemic (Petersen, 2020; Daniel, 2020; Lewis, 2020; Whiley et al., 2020; Hillier & Greig, 2020; OECD, 2020; Ferguson, 2020). Specifically, it is mothers who have sustained families and handled the intense time- and space-related alterations of caregiving and paid work during this crisis. Speaking to the intensity of work-family pressures for mothers during the pandemic, O’Reilly (2021, p. 45) quotes a mother as proclaiming, “I am required to make big changes and lose my freedom, while my husband’s life remains unchanged.” We surmise, based on our previous work, that this is because we have always had difficulty separating our notions of motherhood (as activity and role) and home (as physical location) (Dillaway & Paré, 2008). Even when fathers have been at home too, they have not defined by caregiving or the home location as much as mothers have been, because of our ideological equations of mothers and caregiving and fathers with paid work. To be fair, fathers have become more involved in childcare during the pandemic (because their paid work locations have also often been altered by “stay home” orders), but mothers are still doing the bulk of the (unpaid) carework around the home (O’Reilly, 2021; Petersen, 2020; Whiley et al., 2020; Hillier & Greig, 2020; OECD, 2020; Ferguson, 2020; UN Women, 2020). 

Whiley et al. (2020, p. 4) suggest that “lockdown brought down the fragile façade of separation between home and work that allowed women to be mothers at home and transform into professionals at work.” These researchers further propose: 

[t]he conflict between “good” mother and “good” worker became all the more apparent during the COVID‐19 lockdowns as [women] found ourselves forcibly sent back into being homemakers, potentially “undoing” what decades of feminism fought against (Whiley et al., 2020, p. 3). 

Petersen (2020, as cited in O’Reilly (2021, p. 20) agrees that “the pandemic has [simply] shone a glaring light, neon light into a situation that has always been impossible”: a very strict and ideologically defined gendered division of labor.  Furthermore, many mothers are experiencing this reaffirmed gendered division of labor at the very same time as they are attempting to complete paid work tasks.

Altered Time- and Space-Based Contexts for Working Mothers

An analysis of the situation of mothers working for pay during the pandemic illustrates the unique time and space dimensions of the last 16 months. The shutdowns moved many women from paid work settings — where they upheld at least the appearance of boundaries between paid work and family – back to the home to navigate working for pay, caregiving, housework, safety concerns related to the pandemic, remote schooling, emotional work, and their own health and wellbeing within a singular physical space. Whereas in pre-pandemic times many women had hours that were mostly defined for paid work and hours mostly defined for carework, even if these lined blurred and true boundaries between work and family were unattainable (Dillaway, Haskin, & Velding, 2015), the declaration of a global pandemic and assorted “stay home” orders meant that work-family activities had to exist within the same space and in the very same hours of the day. While many of women’s decisions and activities during the pandemic have been more about basic survival than anything else (Repke, 2021), working mothers have had to strategize how to best multi-task across their work and family roles. 

The impossibility of multitasking across paid work and mothering activities – within both the same time and space — has been apparent in many of the news articles about mothering during the pandemic, however (Petersen, 2020; Hillier & Greig, 2020; Joyce & McCarthy, 2020; Grose, 2021; Featherstone, 2020; Ferguson, 2020; Chemaly, 2020). In addition, this burden is ever-changing with varying public health orders and children in and out of school and childcare settings over time. With paid work responsibilities often being completed within the home space during all or part of the past 16 months, paid work activities often conflict more than ever before – both in time and space – with the activities and locations of caregiving. Or, at the very least, the conflict between these two greedy sets of responsibilities are now felt in every moment of every day; there is no reprieve for mothers any longer (if there was before). The second shift and third shift became harder during the pandemic as many women attempted to complete all paid work in the location where these second and third shifts typically occur. That is, holding the demands of the second and third shift at bay, while in the location where those shifts happen, has been impossible for many women. Furthermore, any increases in time spent in the home due to shutdowns are likely to lead to increased routine housework, including cooking and cleaning, just because more individuals exist more often in the home location (OECD, 2020). Mothers know that in the home they are supposed to be fully attentive to the activities of the second and third shifts and not the activities of the first shift, but they find themselves scrambling for hours and for physical spaces within which they can accomplish at least some paid work. “Practically,” then, the shift of paid work to the home has “engendered a crisis for [mothers] who are genuinely being asked to accomplish more than twenty-four hours worth of labour [sic] in any given day” (Friedman et al., 2021, p. 6).

Mothers have shared endless individual accounts of attempting to engage in paid work while caring for small children in the home. For example, Joyce and McCarthy (2020) describe one mother’s struggle to make sales calls for her paid job while helping her kindergartener with remote schoolwork; a few months later her bosses told her she was “underperforming” and fired her. Other women have also told stories of children showing up to ask for food during a Zoom meeting for their paid work (Whiley et al., 2020), and having to try to make their children as invisible as possible during these moments. Friedman et al. (2021, p. 5) shared stories of mothers who explained:

It seems like we should be homeschooling, not working, making sandwiches shaped like whales, baking bread, and watching movies with partners (and we should have partners). . . . But I want to work and I have to work.

The strategies that working mothers use to survive the lack of physical separation between home and paid work and the competing demands of paid and unpaid labor reveal the true time and space contexts of the pandemic. Mothers have consistently reported how difficult it is to get paid work done while simultaneously caregiving in the same location (Whiley et al., 2020; Miller, 2020; Bateman & Ross, 2020; Brower, 2020; Repke, 2021), and how their main priority becomes devising strategies to protect their paid work time from caregiving, if they try to maintain both responsibilities. For example, O’Reilly (2021, p. 43) discusses a mother who purposely kept her child from napping so that she could garner longer stretches for paid work (having her child sleep for longer at a time). Friedman et al. (2021, p. 5) quotes one mother as she says:

Last year, I considered myself a good mother. I made my son’s food, I limited screen time, ensured we got out of the house, engaged in playdates and mothers’ groups. None of that applies during the pandemic. 

In short, to handle the demands of paid work within the hours and physical space as caregiving, this mother reduced her efforts to be a “good” mom. 

Friedman et al. (2021) note that many women indicate that they have felt themselves falling short of even “good enough” motherhood during the pandemic, even though they are physically present in the home with their children. Since “good” motherhood is “predicated on a deep degree of maternal attention” and both time and space that is free from paid work (Friedman et al., 2021, p. 5), working mothers understand themselves to be inadequate and judge themselves for their inability to dedicate quality time to children while working.  Even if children’s basic needs have been met during the pandemic, they have had to prioritize paid work to the detriment of a more attentive kind of caregiving. While they have been able to cut corners here and there to attempt to balance paid work and motherhood, they do not feel good about themselves in the process. But, cutting corners in caregiving may be safer at times than cutting corners in paid work, as women have been at serious risk of layoffs during the pandemic (Joyce & McCarthy, 2020; Dias et al., 2020; Neely, 2020). That is, employers only empathize with mothers’ new time- and space-based constraints to a point. Working mothers have no choice but to prioritize paid work in the home setting in many cases. The disconnect between what is supposed to happen in the home setting, and what happens in the home setting, leads to heightened work-family tensions and increased guilt and stress for working mothers.

Increased Responsibilities in the Home Location

The new pressures on mothers during the pandemic also result from the fact that the burden of caregiving within the physical location of the home literally increased (Hillier & Greig, 2020; O’Reilly, 2021; Bateman & Ross, 2021; Chemaly, 2020). O’Reilly (2021, p. 20) and Chemaly (2020) note that a “fourth shift” of remote schooling has fallen to mothers in the home location as schools have shut down intermittently throughout the last 16 months. Daniel (2020, as cited in O’Reilly, 2021) also suggests that 80% of mothers surveyed for a New York Times article report having the primary responsibility for homeschooling during the pandemic. Furthermore, Lewis (2020) explains that the pandemic caused outsourced caregiving and educational services (e.g., babysitting, childcare services, elderly caregiving services, disability services, tutoring, free or reduced cost breakfast and lunch programs) as well as schooling itself to shift from the public sphere to the private (and unpaid, unsupported) sphere of the home. All caregiving and educational activities were handed back to families (read: mothers) and assigned to the physical location of the home once again. 

O’Reilly (2021, p. 26) also urges us to think about how motherwork intensified in part because mothers and children lost their connections to the outside world during the pandemic: “Support system and relational connections dwindled or stopped completely due to pandemic protocols.” Not only did children lose their relationships to teachers and peers, but mothers also lost their connections to other mothers, educational institutions, and care providers. With this lack of contact and connection came increased pressure on mothers to keep up digital connections with those outside the home – yet another job for mothers as maintaining relationships has always been part of the gendered division of labor (O’Reilly, 2021). Mothers have also lost their own previous outlets for protecting their own health and wellbeing, such as leaving the home for paid work settings, seeing coworkers or family and friends in person, exercising outside of the home setting, enlisting babysitters or outside caregivers when needed, carpooling with other families, attending postpartum and breastfeeding support groups, enlisting therapy services, etc. (e.g., Gajewski, 2020). Indeed, by all reports the lack of connection to other spatial locations and the supports and freedoms that exist in those other locations means that mothers are “not okay” during the pandemic (Joyce & McCarthy, 2020; Gajewski, 2020; Grose, 2021; Friedman & Satterthwaite, 2021). Mothers voice that they are burned out, stressed, “barely hanging on,” facing overwhelming pressures, juggling in increased ways, “treading water,” and trying to survive silently on “unsustainable hamster wheel” (O’Reilly, p. 48). As Guy and Arthur (2020, p. 897) note:

Being a working mom is tough, but being a mom during COVID is more difficult than we could have ever imagined. . . . [H]aving [other] humans at our beck and call has made it all the more challenging to do our work and take care of ourselves. 

Friedman et al. (2021) similarly shares her perspective that “[t]here is no ‘good’ right now” for mothers, and how the context of forced social isolation in the home not only exacerbates work-family tensions but also strains on individuals’ health and wellbeing.  These researchers continue on in proposing that “The web of supports for families and mothers are gossamer-thin, providing the barest scaffold . . . . By contrast, the expectations placed on mothers are suffocating, drowning out agency and instinct” (Friedman et al., 2021, p.9). Friedman et al. (2021, p. 6) goes on to quote one mother who explains that she “was already treading [water] furiously but now [during the pandemic] feel[s] close to drowning.” Repke (2021, p. 5) also explains how part of the crisis is related to a working mother’s inability to ever stop feeling guilty about paid work: “when you physically go to a workplace, it’s much more feasible to leave your work there – it’ll be there tomorrow. But when [mothers are] always at home,” they remain focused on both paid work and mothering regardless of the time of day, which increases stress, guilt, and lack of ability to concentrate fully on either.

Friedman and Satterthwaite (2021) share survey results that suggest mothers’ mental health has declined more than fathers’ during the pandemic. Joyce and McCarthy (2020) go so far as to say that “America’s public health crisis has created a parallel mental health crisis,” and both Grose (2021) and Joyce and McCarthy (2020) pinpoint this as a mothers’ mental health crisis. Joyce and McCarthy (2020) quote mothers who talk about “not being able to take it any longer,” telling stories of going to the bathroom to scream or staying up late at night to cry. Others spoke of increased depression and anxiety, and even thoughts of suicide. 

Khan (2021, p. 102) describes how women, “much like [trees], if careworn and compelled, will eventually wither and droop.” While there is research documenting how spatial isolation can be damaging to certain groups’ health and wellbeing (e.g., the elderly) (e.g., Klinenberg, 2002; National Council on Aging, 2021), we have not yet explored how time- and space-based constraints might weigh heavily on mothers with altered and more intense responsibilities within the home, and how they might be working more hours than they even had been in the past (Brower, 2021). Lewis (2020) also makes the point that “isolation is less taxing in a spacious house than a cramped apartment”; thus, we need to think about the disparate impacts of forced isolation on mothers depending on their actual physical space constraints. In addition, while we may assume that each household has enough technological devices to accommodate paid work and remote schooling, some mothers and children may be sharing the very same computers or other devices to perform their paid work and schooling each day, or even lack access to computers and the internet (Ketibuah-Foley, 2021; UNICEF, 2020). These disparate time- and space-based conflicts are very real for some families. Thus, not all mothers may be facing the same mental health crisis even though all mothers are dealing with increased responsibility, altered time- and space-based contexts, and the effects of isolation.

Some Mothers Continued to Report to Paid Work Settings

Mothers who have been forced to return home to engage in both paid work and caregiving in one location represent the group that has received the most attention in the media, and an analysis of this group’s experiences can easily illustrate the time and space contexts of this pandemic time period. As mentioned earlier, however, even mothers who have worked outside of the home as essential workers have had to deal with heightened stresses associated with their (essential) workplaces and the safety risks for their families when they return to the home after each paid work shift (e.g., Zierlein, 2021). Missing from discussions about essential workers is the fact that most essential workers are women and, thus potentially mothers and/or caregivers (Hillier & Greig, 2020; Anderson & Lafreniere, 2021). Globally women make up 70% of first-responders and essential workers including those in hourly, low-wage positions (e.g., cashiers in grocery stores and pharmacies, elder care workers, child care providers, delivery workers, bus drivers, warehouse workers, mail carriers, etc.) and those in both low-wage and salaried healthcare positions (UN Women, 2020; Hillier & Greig, 2020; Anderson & Lafreniere, 2021; Neely, 2020; Powell, 2020). Neely (2020) goes further to cite that one-third of the jobs held by women were declared as “essential” during the early stages of the pandemic, thus necessitating that up to one-third of employed women continue reporting to paid work settings at least part-time. Women who could work remotely were disproportionately White, Asian American, and middle or upper middle class, and thus more privileged groups kept their paid work activity within the home (Neely, 2020; Frye, 2020). Needing to leave the home for paid work during the pandemic poses its own stressors and we would be remiss to ignore the time- and space-based dimensions of the lived experiences of women who hold essential worker status. Mothers who are essential workers have faced additional space and safety constraints, and workplaces have not offered support in the face of these constraints (O’Reilly, 2021; Hillier & Greig, 2020; Anderson & Lafreniere, 2021; Neely, 2020; Frye, 2020). Women in these paid work situations typically had no, or at least less, backup support (no “Plan B”) for caregiving during early shutdowns; children have been home but community supports were gone in large part (Hillier & Greig, 2020). The stress of being in a different and “unsafe” space compared to one’s children adds to the guilt and stress that mothers feel as they try to negotiate both paid work and caregiving. 

A Different Kind of Forced Return to the Home

Concentrating only on moms who maintain paid work during the pandemic is faulty however. Plenty of mothers opted to take a leave from paid work or quit altogether in the face of the pandemic (O’Reilly, 2021). “When something has to give, it is very often women’s careers: their working hours, the expectations of what they are able to accomplish on the job, or the job itself” (O’Reilly, p. 49). Whiley et al. (2020) describes how mothers made frequent decisions to cut down their paid work hours, regardless of economic consequence and against their personal wishes. In addition, Dias et al. (2020, p. 1) show how mothers were more likely than non-mothers and men to experience layoffs during the pandemic and, therefore, a different type of forced return to the home: 

There are reasons to believe that, during economic downturns, employers may deploy various forms of gender-based stereotypes associated with parental status as they are forced to temporarily scale down business operations and cut costs by reducing wages, reducing working hours and laying off workers. Cultural beliefs of mothers as expressive caretakers and fathers as active breadwinners and deserving of career advancement may shape employers’ decisions. . . . In addition to direct discrimination by employers, labor market attributes and tenure, . . . as well as the formalization of layoff rules within organizations . . . may also explain differences by parental status and gender during downsizing. 

Perhaps it is as Bateman and Ross (2021) propose: “COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up.” Considering that many women (especially poor women and women of color) may be supporting themselves and their families in low-wage jobs that were very likely to be cut during the pandemic (Bateman & Ross, 2021; UN Women, 2020; Neely, 2020; Frye, 2020; Powell, 2020), pandemic layoffs have had unique impacts on certain groups of mothers and families, and women and children have greater likelihood of increased poverty as a result. Homelessness among women and children is on the rise during the pandemic as well (Hillier & Greig, 2020; UN Women, 2020; Friedman & Satterthwaite, 2021). Thus, “returning home” does not always happen for health and safety reasons during the pandemic, nor are women always in control of whether they can maintain paid work activities while mothering. Without the maintenance of much-needed paid work activity, it is also more difficult (both economically and emotionally) to maintain family and home.

Time and Space Benefits for Some?

On the positive side, because of various types of forced returns to the home, many mothers have been able to spend more time with children during the pandemic than they did pre-pandemic, if they were working for pay outside of the home beforehand. Mothers often cite this time (and common location) with children as a positive and attempt to be resilient in the face of increased caregiving burden as a result (Miller, 2020; Khan, 2021). In fact, performing this resilience and concentrating on the positive aspects of the “stay home” orders are how pandemic mothers are enacting a new form of “supermom” image – what Khan (2021, p. 101) calls the enactment of “maternal martyrdom.” There is a social expectation that mothers will place family above all else during the pandemic, especially since they are assumed to be in the home full-time (O’Reilly, 2021; Prince, 2021). Voicing the benefits of being in the home location with one’s children more often is akin to showing that one is a “good” mother in our contemporary context (Khan, 2021; Whiley et al., 2020). Mothers often report seeing time at home during the pandemic as a “privilege” as their children are “only young once,” despite also reporting that they fall short of “good” motherhood as they try to deal with the intensities of pandemic motherhood and paid work (Miller, 2020). Khan (2021, p. 103) suggests that mothers who complain too much about the lack of physical separation of mothering and paid work are labelled “troublemakers.” That is, those who do not signal that they understand that motherhood activities and their presence in the home are more important than any work-family conflict or stress may feel stigmatized. Even if women are very happy to be home with children in moments, the pressure to maintain positivity about motherhood is an additional mental health challenge for working mothers during the pandemic (Miller, 2020; Grose, 2021; Joyce & McCarthy, 2020; Friedman et al., 2021; Friedman and Satterthwaite, 2021; Khan, 2021).

Discussion and Conclusion

“The unpaid care economy is a critical mainstay of the COVID-19 response” (UN, 2020, p. 13). In analyzing the situation of working mothers, we suggest that “stay home” orders have heightened tensions and conflicts for women in the home, and have reaffirmed and solidified women’s responsibility for unpaid labor in this setting. While we have all heard and understood individual mothers’ struggles during the pandemic — and have admired and applauded their individual abilities to persevere in the face of increased burden — we have not acknowledged or attended in full to the large-scale impact of our new time- and space-based contexts on mothers and families. Because of a reaffirmed gendered division of labor and because of the equation of mothers with caregiving and the home, mothers have encountered expanding responsibilities in physical location of the home, and these expanded responsibilities do not come with substantial economic or emotional support. Mothers typically face these expanded responsibilities while also trying to maintain paid work at the same time, in the same location.

The “private” nature of the home and the assumption that this space is a “haven” in a “heartless world” — even a place to seek fulfillment when the outside world offers none — makes it difficult to record the day-to-day activities of this location, especially activities that are representative of strains and inequities or the “dark sides” of family life (e.g., intimate partner violence, child abuse, elder abuse, mental health issues, etc.) (Baca Zinn & Eitzen, 2005). Because of this screen of privacy and the unpaid nature of the work assigned to the home, there has been little attention to the time- and space-based strains in this location that have fallen primarily on mothers. There has also been little recognition of the increased time- and space-based pressures caused by the relocation of varied kinds of paid work activity to the home, as well as the added stress to protect the home (and those in the home) from the new risks associated with non-home settings. Thus, it is not just the unpaid carework that causes stress and tension; it is the fact that other work must also happen simultaneously in the home now. Our lack of acknowledgment of the lack of physical separation between work and family and our changing time- and space-based contexts perpetuates the notion of separate spheres even during the pandemic. Yet, our private and public spheres are anything but separate in reality, and our public sphere is relying even more heavily on our private sphere during the last 16 months to uphold families and communities in the face of COVID-19 (UN, 2020). This “unseen economy has real impacts on the formal economy and women’s lives” (UN, 2020, p. 13).

Governments have started to support paid workplaces and schools during the pandemic, and have begun to offer child tax credits, stimulus checks, and even the option of COVID-related family leaves in some cases. But, we argue that these supports — often temporary and economic in nature — do not bolster women, families or the home in any substantial way (Borda, 2021; Featherstone, 2020; Neely, 2020; Petersen, 2020; Ranji et al., 2021; Chemaly, 2020; O’Reilly, 2020). Lack of government attention to the additional time- and space-based stressors facing mothers in the home location — indeed, often individuals who were forced to take their paid work home and are fulfilling double responsibilities in one location — reinforces the notion of separate spheres as well, and increases the invisibility of all work in the home (as well as those responsible for that work) (Chemaly, 2020). “Everything collapsed on moms” (Clark-Fiory, 2020, as cited in O’Reilly, 2021, p. 22) but the invisibility of motherhood and activities within the home means that caregiving – and the home as physical location more generally — is taken-for-granted and ignored (O’Reilly, 2021, p. 22). Featherstone (2020) proclaims that we have an increasing crisis in this regard, because we are culturally unwilling to acknowledge the importance of the unpaid carework assigned to the home.

Ultimately, since mothers are seen as “natural” caregivers and have always been equated with this unpaid work, individual women seem to have no recourse when responsibilities in the home expand and become more intense. Therefore, we find that the arguments we made in previous publications still hold true: 

Defining child rearing as a mother-only, in-home activity privatizes parenting activities and parenting issues and isolates individuals in their efforts to care for children and engage in paid work (Arendell, 2000; Hertz, 1997). This stops mothers (and fathers too) from being able to negotiate and balance the roles of parent and worker in their everyday lives and receive social support for these roles. In addition, large-scale systems of inequalities remain unchallenged if we cannot see the connections across our parenting and paid work struggles and spaces (Dillaway & Paré, 2008, p. 460). 

Unchallenged equations of mothers and the home also prevent attention to important inequalities among women as they try to work for pay and care for children (Chemaly, 2020; Featherstone, 2020). Neely (2020) reminds us that:

What women need is not universal. Women who have low-wage jobs, are frontline workers, parent alone, lack citizenship rights, have adverse health, lack sufficient healthcare, and experience homelessness have distinct problems that warrant consideration.

As we write this article we are approximately 16 months into this public health crisis. We have become somewhat accustomed to the threat of shutdowns and lockdowns and the still unwinding effects of this pandemic, however unprepared we might feel for what is next. Additional challenges may arise for mothers, families, homes and workplaces before we begin to escape the impact of this pandemic. We have become resilient in the face of some of these changes and challenges and may even try to concentrate on the benefits of being in the home location more than we have previously, but this resilience masks the true burdens of our current contexts on individuals (particularly mothers) (Anderson, 2019). Still today, when we might feel somewhat safer with increasing vaccination rates and the reopening of schools and workplaces, we hear the reports of new variants and strains that threaten to shut down our public spheres once again (Tebor, 2021). We find ourselves in a fluid state, almost expecting that schools and workplaces might shut down again, and some have not even opened fully yet. However, at some point, we will move beyond the pandemic and see what the true impact of COVID-19 is on motherhood, paid work and the home. The long-term impacts of the pandemic on women, their activities, their locations, their identities, their livelihoods, and their wellbeing are still very uncertain, but it is clear that this “new normal” is a more intense version of the “old” normal, and mothers are not faring well (even if they are resilient and persistent).

Our main purpose in this writing this article is to continue showcasing the importance of analyzing the time- and space-based contexts of motherhood, paid work and COVID-19. In this effort, we join other feminist scholars, journalists and women themselves who are determined to raise consciousness around the systemic gender inequalities that exist “at home” and “at work.” As we discuss elsewhere:

Whereas we often hear that systems of inequality are contextualized within and across time and place . . ., rarely do we see systematic analyses of what particular spaces truly mean; the effects of our definitions of particular spaces; what individuals actually do within these spaces; whether home and work are divided spheres; and where women, men, and children belong (Dillaway & Paré, 2008, p. 460).

As Dillaway and Lysack (2014) also discuss, there are extremely important connections between our definitions of physical environments (and what we think takes place in those environments) and individuals’ experiences of those physical environments. In general, we need to reflect more on the activities that occur within certain physical locations, and how our social constructions of those locations cause us to ignore or, perhaps not even be able to see, the impossible and unsustainable nature of certain individuals’ work within these locations. We also need to think about whether we are relying on the home and the individuals responsible for its activities a bit too much during the pandemic, and the reasons why this is the case. Neely (2020) agrees and also suggests that we must “transform how we value and organize work. . . . [We] need to value paid work less and other facets of life more.” Neely reminds us that Patricia Hill Collins and other Black feminist scholars have “long identified the importance of defining one’s worth outside of paid labor.” This means we need to pay special attention to mothers, caregiving, and the home as a physical location, and understand how motherhood and paid work have been compressed and reconfigured during this public health crisis. In paying attention to these contexts, we hope to promote further dialogue and ultimately support mothers and families as we ride out this public health crisis and assess its long-term impacts. Especially since working mothers are facing the rollback of decades of progress in combining paid work and caregiving because of their new time- and space-based contexts (O’Reilly, 2021; Ferguson, 2020; Whiley et al., 2021), extending our dialogue is extremely important. Like we state in our previous work, “we have considerable conceptual and empirical work yet to do” (Dillaway & Paré, 2008, p. 460).


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