'I didn’t go to school to be a stay-at-home mom': How the pandemic forced working mothers to scale back

Mothers have reduced their working hours 4 to 5 times more than fathers during the pandemic.

Bridgette West works with her kids while they attend school virtually from home.
Courtesy Bridgette West

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 865,000 women dropped out of the labor force in September. Bridgette West was not one of them.

West, 41, a marketing professional in North Carolina and mother of two sets of twins ages 4 and 10, left her dream job as a senior communications specialist at a health-care nonprofit in September. Balancing her workload and her kids' virtual schooling had become too much to handle.

"I made more money than I ever had in my life. It was mine, and it felt great," she said. "But I had to give that up."

In October, she launched her own marketing agency, 79 West Creative, as a way to keep working in some capacity while she takes care of her children, who are home because of the pandemic. She says she's found some success with the new company while working around her kids' schedules.

West is far from alone: Startling numbers of working moms have had to leave jobs during the pandemic. A recent FlexJobs survey of parents with children living at home found that 17% of working mothers had quit their jobs compared to 10% of fathers. The women's labor force participation rate — the share who are either employed or looking for work — has hovered around 55% since April, the lowest rate since 1987. There are 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force than there were in February, compared to 1.4 million fewer men.

But there are many women, like West, who aren't counted in government statistics. Since West still does work a few hours per day, she didn't technically leave the workforce. Instead, she is one of many women who have cut back their work hours during and because of the pandemic. 

'I want to work, I love to work'

For nine years, West was a stay-at-home-parent. When she returned to the workforce in January 2019, she says she gained independence she hadn't had during those years.

West has three bachelor's degrees and was used to having multiple jobs up until her kids were born in 2010. Since putting two children in day care would have been prohibitively expensive, she and her husband decided she would stay home with them.

After a rough time with a company where she said she didn't feel supported as a working mother, she started a new job on April 13, two weeks after North Carolina issued a stay-at-home order. She loved her new role and company and was hoping to spend the rest of her career there.

Despite starting amid the pandemic, her first few months at the new job went smoothly. Her mother, who had retired just a few weeks earlier, helped with the younger twins. But over the summer, her mom got sick and was no longer able to step in. Suddenly, West's delicate balance became more difficult to keep up.

Bridgette West at home with her family.
Courtesy Bridgette West

The first sign of how easily things could fall apart happened right after her mom got sick. West decided to take her four kids to the playground since they were out of school for the summer. She planned to attend a remote work meeting while she was there. Her colleagues had only learned that she had kids a few weeks earlier.

"My manager saw where I was, and so did my [vice presidents], and they were like, 'Wow, you've really got a lot going on there.' And that's where it kind of started. The playground, obviously, is not an appropriate place for a business meeting, but it was kind of what I had to do. Those were the first cracks in the foundation."

With both her husband and her mother now at high risk for Covid-19, West said day care for her younger kids wasn't an option.

Because she was the stay-at-home parent for so many years, West became the default caretaker once her kids were home again. She says her husband helped out more when she initially started her job and stepped up when she was in meetings, but that he "just doesn't have the temperament to teach kids."

Though both West and her husband were working full time, the child care and household responsibilities largely fell on her. This is the case for the majority of families with two working parents. Women spend over 40% more time on child care than men do even when both parents work full time, according to a recent study.

I made more money than I ever had in my life. It was mine, and it felt great. But I had to give that up.
Bridgette West
Marketing professional and mother

This division of labor has become more profound during the current crisis. In a FlexJobs survey of parents with children living at home, 63% of mothers reported they primarily handled child-care duties, while 42% of fathers reported the same. Similarly, 80% of working mothers reported taking the lead in remote learning, compared to just 31% of fathers.

In September, after virtual school started back up and with busy season at work approaching, West made the difficult choice to quit her job.

"I didn't go to school to be a stay-at-home mom. I have three degrees. I'm very smart. I want to work, I love to work, and I enjoy having my own money," she says. "It was a very hard decision."

'My mental health suffered and our marriage suffered'

Anh Evardo, a clinical pharmacist in Maryland, considers herself lucky — she's still employed. She knows many women have lost or left their jobs. Still, she says, it hasn't been easy.

Evardo, 32, normally works alongside doctors in a clinic. When the pandemic began, she was moved to a facility an hour away from her home in order to help with the increased demand for mail order prescriptions. And instead of working her typical 9 to 5, she was scheduled to work evenings.

This worked out logistically because she was able to watch her kids, who are now 3 and 1, during the day while her husband worked. He took care of them in the evenings.

But Evardo was exhausted. Between her new schedule, the longer commute, and working in a busy job outside her comfort zone, her mental health suffered.

"For me, it was a very difficult time. Even though I didn't lose my job, mentally, it was just very exhausting."

Photo courtesy Anh Evardo

Not only did Evardo have no time for herself, she hardly saw her husband and had no time to write for her blog, A Daily Dose of Mom, which is an important creative outlet for her. She also found it frustrating that her husband mostly maintained his normal schedule, which meant he got time for himself after the kids went to bed.

"Usually, as a working mom, you come home, the kids go to bed, you have some downtime for yourself, and with your significant other too," Evardo says. "It was a very troubling time. My mental health suffered and our marriage suffered."

Evardo is one of many Americans who have struggled with their mental health during the pandemic. In a June survey from the CDC, 26% of respondents reported having symptoms of anxiety disorder compared to 8% a year earlier, and 24% reported symptoms of depression compared to 7% in 2019. Working mothers especially are feeling stressed. A recent study of mothers in Southern Indiana found that 80% of those who have greatly increased the time they are spending with their children report they are experiencing more stress during the pandemic, and 76% report having more anxiety.

After the first wave of the virus in the spring, things turned around for Evardo and her husband. She was moved back to her normal job, day cares opened for children of health-care workers, and the couple worked through their issues in counseling. The kids are thriving now, she says, and she is able to dedicate time to her relationship and her mental health.

'We just do the best we can'

Jennifer Branstetter, 37, is a psychotherapist in rural Indiana who had her own virtual therapy practice even before the pandemic made many small businesses adapt to an online model. She worked with her own clients and also contracted with virtual therapy services Teladoc and BetterHelp.

With more people looking for therapy services at the onset of the pandemic, she felt obligated to ramp up her business to meet the demand. "When the pandemic hit, I did what a lot of helpers do — and you know, not just women, but it tends to be women helpers — and I just took on everybody who wanted my help. I felt obligated because of the stress."

Branstetter, who has a 3-year-old daughter, said early on it was "supereasy" because she had a babysitter right up the road. Having full-time child care gave her the opportunity to build her business in addition to taking on new clients. 

By June, though, she was getting burned out. She decided to end her relationship with Teladoc and BetterHelp in order to focus on her private clients. The quality of her work improved and she looked forward to being able to help her husband with his business, an auto repair shop the couple has on their property.

But once she felt she had her work under control, Branstetter found out their babysitter was moving.

Jennifer Branstetter.
Courtesy Jennifer Branstetter

Branstetter and her husband didn't feel comfortable putting their toddler in day care since their hometown in rural Indiana was a coronavirus hot spot, but they were able to find someone to watch their daughter part time two days per week. To fill in the gaps, Branstetter's husband or mother-in-law took over child care when she had sessions with clients.

"I went from working five days a week to trying to use family members to watch my toddler for an hour at a time when I had sessions," she says.

The part-time help enabled her to keep up her schedule with her clients, but it left no time to build her business or work on administrative tasks. That kind of work she has had to do with her toddler by her side, frequently interrupting, or at night during time she used to have for leisure.

With more people experiencing adverse mental health conditions, demand for therapy services has been high during the pandemic, making this a prime opportunity for Branstetter to build her business and serve her community. But like many working mothers, she's instead had to cut back.

Mothers have reduced their working hours 4 to 5 times more than fathers, widening the gender gap in work hours by as much as 50% according to one study. In a recent survey, 67% of men reported being more productive working from home, while just 41% of women said the same. Men were twice as likely as women to say working from home during the pandemic has had a positive effect on their career.

The reduction in hours and productivity can have long-term consequences for women's career opportunities and earnings. Another study predicts that the pandemic recession will widen the gender pay gap by 5 percentage points.

Without full-time child care, Branstetter has had to readjust the expectations she had for her business. She decided she couldn't take on additional clients until she found more child care.

Still, overall, she's optimistic. "We just do the best we can and know that it's temporary," she says. "This time next year, it will be a memory, and we will all be more resilient for the challenge."

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