National Opinions

OPINION: Working moms’ winter math is getting tougher

The expected “tripledemic” -- a concurrent winter surge in COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus infections --promises to be tough on everyone. But spare a thought for the millions of working mothers who remain disproportionately responsible for raising children, and who must make room for the tripledemic in their careers.

No one can work and take care of sick kids at the same time -- and children get sick a lot. But in the world the pandemic has wrought, it’s a whole new experience, especially for those with children under age 6.

For one, finding child care is harder than ever. Employment in the sector is still 9% below what it was in January 2020 -- a good proxy for how many fewer spots there are in day-care centers and preschools. And the prospects of attracting more workers isn’t great: The typical annual pay is a mere $27,000 a year, even though child care services cost more than public universities in many states.

Even finding a place to care for one’s kids is no solution, thanks to the health protocols implemented since the pandemic. Temperature checks, contact screenings and exclusion symptoms conspire to ensure that children will nonetheless spend many days at home. If you’re looking for COVID among the pre-K set, you’re bound to find a lot of other disqualifying illnesses, too.

All this changes what I call winter mom math: Estimating how many days of work will be lost due to a child’s illness. Consider my own toddler’s experience in 2022. Since last Christmas, his teacher has gotten COVID (seven days lost), he has had a few colds (six days lost), there was a COVID case in his class (five days lost), he got COVID (10 days lost), he got hand-foot-mouth (five days lost), he got hand-foot-mouth again (five days lost), he had a skin irritation that required a doctor’s note (one day lost). Just last week, he got RSV (five days lost).

That’s already 44 out of the year’s 260 workdays: My 2-year-old skimmed 17% off the top before we reached Thanksgiving. My husband and I split the days, but 8.5% of days lost isn’t nothing. And we recently had another kid.

The days lost to childcare compound the obstacles that women already face at the office. Mothers are perceived to be less competent simply because they are mothers, a bias that affects both hiring and pay. Yet if they’re indisputably competent, they’re instead seen as cold, less likeable or even hostile. Granted, if mothers choose to work less, they might fairly be perceived as less committed, but they typically have little choice: Day care centers don’t appreciate it if they work late, and sick children don’t take care of themselves.

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Add the lack of paid parental leave, guaranteed sick days or subsidized child care, and it’s little surprise that having a child in the United States is associated with a permanent 20% to 30% drop in women’s total lifetime earnings potential. This “motherhood penalty” accounts for at least half of the gender pay gap.

In the coming months, the tripledemic will pull a lot of working mothers out of the office for days at a stretch. Some automatic out-of-office emails might already be in your inbox. They will miss meetings, work trips, assignments and opportunities. One request for their managers and co-workers: Judge them for the work they do, not for the work they miss.

Kathryn Anne Edwards is an economist at the Rand Corp. and a professor at the Pardee Rand Graduate School.

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