What’s a mother to do?

This week in North Philly Notes, Leah Ruppanner, author of Motherlands, writes about women who are forced to choose between working and child care.

Emily Tatro is a paralegal working full-time while balancing the demands of three school aged kids. School closures mean she is learning Seesaw, Google classroom, IXL, and RazKids while also writing up legal briefs. She is at the end of her rope.

Emily said: “My everything is suffering and I’m not sure how much longer we can keep this up. As soon as the kids are asleep, I pass out because I’m always bone tired. But, I also feel this pressure to keep up a happy-it’s-all-good face so the kids don’t feel bad or sad or scared because none of it is their fault and I don’t want them to see this pressure.”

Without the support of her mother, she would drop out of work altogether. Working full-time job on top of school closures is unsustainable.

What happens when state governments close schools to stop the spread of a deadly pathogen?

The same as before: mothers step out of employment to manage the care.

My book, Motherlands: How States Push Mothers Out of Employment, shows these patterns are nothing new. Prior to the pandemic, California had some of the highest childcare costs in the nation and some of the shortest school days. Afterschool care? Forget about it—many Californian families need but cannot access afterschool care. These structural impediments mean mothers often reduce work to part-time or drop out altogether.

As Emily says, “Childcare was always hard and now it’s just impossible. In summer, I pay someone to watch the kids and I would lose money on these days.”

These patterns are distinct to many of the states in the heartland where childcare gobbles up less of the family budget, school days are longer and afterschool care is more accessible. The result? More mothers are employed, in part, because they can access more affordable childcare.

As Motherlands shows, California is a gender progressive state and is one of the leaders in the country in empowering women. When women do work, they make more money and have access to higher level professional positions. More women are voted into California’s state legislature and California is one of the few states in the nation that provides its constituents paid parental leave.

So, what is happening here? How can California be both progressive in its gender policies but have some of the worst childcare outcomes?

Motherlands shows states tend to cluster on one of these metrics or the other—either facilitating mother’s employment through childcare resources or empowering women through policies and access to better economic markets. Only a handful of states do both—empower women and provide childcare resources. This means even the progressive states that aim to empower women must do more to support them when they become mothers.

And, now seems to be the time because women like Emily are suffering with closed schools and limited childcare support.

We need employers and governments to invest in, advocate for and execute comprehensive and effective childcare policies.

The pandemic and its impending recession is a major crisis. Within these crises, if we are smart, can come change. Putting childcare as a central policy solution is the only way forward.

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