Rethinking America

Parents in the Time of a Pandemic: A Silent Lament

This is a good time to assess what works best to relieve family stress.

Takeaways


  • The coronavirus pandemic is a good time to assess what works best to relieve family stress.
  • The division of labor by gender continues to persist in even the most liberal of families in the US.
  • If highly educated female academics are doing more housework than their male counterparts, it hardly bodes well for other professional women.
  • The burden of driving children often falls on women -- who need to adjust their work schedules around the needs of their children’s schedules.
  • The US had already been reluctant to encourage people to take public transport. COVID 19 has caused train and bus ridership to plunge.

The global health crisis is far from over, but it’s already clear that the spread of the coronavirus has hardly been a fair one.

Gender divide

The pandemic has also underscored one pivotal fact: The division of labor by gender continues to persist in even the most liberal of families. This trend may actually intensify even further once the health crisis abates.

True, U.S. white-collar workers have largely been sheltered from the joblessness, health risks and the uncertainties facing those doing lower-wage labor. The dilemmas they face about their jobs have paled in comparison to those of frontline workers.

Worrying about using the dining table as an impromptu work desk and fretting about lighting on Zoom calls are hardly existential concerns. Seeing colleagues working in their home environment has no doubt had its moments for many.

Lower productivity among professional women

Still, as dual income families juggle working from home and looking after their children, it is clear that professional women have struggled more to remain productive during the lockdown.

Indeed, a study published by Nature found that the amount of papers produced by female academics dropped precipitously during the pandemic, while output by male academics remained unchanged.

If highly educated and ambitious academics are expected to do more housework and caregiving than their male counterparts, it hardly bodes well for other professional women.

A drop in family chauffeuring services

Still, the pandemic in the United States has given some relief to working parents of older children. They have no longer had to be chauffeurs to their offspring.

Parents throughout the United States have not had to ferry their children to those various classes, nor have they had to take them to baseball practices or ballet lessons as they usually would have pre-pandemic.

Unlike in major European or Asian cities, children in the U.S. suburbs find it challenging to take public transport to their after-school activities. So their parents are expected to drive them around until they are old enough to drive themselves.

That driving burden oftentimes falls on women, who find that they need to adjust their work schedules around the needs of their children’s drop-off and pick-up times. All too often, they seek jobs that would accommodate their chauffeuring schedule.

Online activities thrive

For financially comfortable families with parents who have had their eyes set on their children entering highly select universities, the pandemic has led to a flurry of online activities.

From connecting to public speaking courses offered by Eton College to preparing for the SATs through private tutors to learning to code, the pandemic has seen the online educational environment flourish. Parents have been eager to supplement their children’s online schooling with enriching activities.

In that regard, the fact that the pandemic has forced families to stay home and not go anywhere has been a welcome relief for many.

During a health crisis, not only is there no guilt in not shuttling the children around to their activities. There are also far more options to engage mentally as well as physically through the internet.

Dreading the return of the suburban car race

As the health crisis subsides, many mothers across the United States are quietly dreading the return of a daily life that tries frantically to balance commuting, working and shuttling kids around — while maintaining an aura of calm.

What’s more, the pandemic is likely to slow down the movement to encourage school-age children to take public transport in the United States.

Even those parents who have commuted daily on public buses and trains are now less willing to ride them again themselves, let alone to encourage their children to get on them. This will continue at least until the coronavirus outbreak is well under control.

In a country that had already been reluctant to encourage more people to take public transport, COVID 19 has caused train and bus ridership to plunge. It may be a challenge to bring demand back to pre-COVID levels.

Public transportation can relieve the stress

Yet turning away from public transport is a loss for upper-middle-class parents in the United States. They are more tethered to their children than their counterparts elsewhere.

If teens and tweens are to be able to be fully immersed in enriching activities outside of school, Mom and Dad are expected to pay for those activities and to take the children there. It’s all too often mothers who are expected to take on that role.

Conclusion

The pandemic has provided a temporary breather from that seemingly ever-ending race. Online after-school activities can provide relief to parents trying to juggle their multitude of commitments and will hopefully continue to flourish well after the pandemic subsides.

Encouraging local governments and municipal legislators to boost, and not decrease, public transport spending, should be part of that move, too.

If done right, boosting public transportation can also lead to decreasing the wide social divide in the United States by encouraging more socially and economically integrated activities.

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About Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto is Deputy Director for Geoeconomics with the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program and a Senior Editor at The Globalist [Washington, D.C, United States]

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