Michelle Pasos, 46, describes herself as someone who has “always been extremely healthy.” That is until the pandemic, when she ended up in the emergency room because she had a bad reaction to a drug prescribed to bring down her elevated blood pressure.
Managing work and caring for her 7-year-old daughter had left Ms. Pasos exhausted and medically vulnerable. So when the hospital gave her the option of going home and monitoring herself, or staying an extra night, she chose to stay. It was the first time she had felt calm in a year.
“I’m watching HGTV, feeling very relaxed,” said Ms. Pasos, who lives in Atlanta. “It almost felt like a time I needed to spend by myself. It’s been a year of virtual learning and having everybody around, it’s very overwhelming.”
Ms. Pasos is one of hundreds of people who have called into our Primal Scream phone line since the eponymous series, which explored the emotional and economic pressures on a generation of moms, published in early February. Since then, a major stimulus package that could provide a boost to American families — the nearly $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan — has been signed into law, and the latest jobs reports show that mothers have been returning to the workforce. I wanted to check in with experts, and with the moms living through this time, to see if conditions had improved since we did our original reporting.
The short answer? Though there is additional federal support to families, more Americans are vaccinated every day and job loss is not quite as dire as it was in the early days of the pandemic, unemployment claims remain higher than they were in previous economic crises. And moms are still not OK.
“Despite the increased labor force participation of mothers, mothers are still having a really hard time,” said Liz Morris, the deputy director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings Law. “Despite their return to the labor force, they are not having much relief at home, and by that I mean, many children are still home-schooling.” She added that the burden of remote school has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of mothers. Research has shown that in states where children received only remote instruction during the pandemic, mothers’ labor force participation has been lower than in those where children attended school in person.
Even where children are back in classrooms, they may have hybrid schedules or face unanticipated closures and related quarantines because of Covid exposures. These unexpected schedule changes are particularly brutal for mothers who work retail, in factories or in food service, Ms. Morris said, because their employers may use what’s called a “no fault” attendance policy. These policies give workers disciplinary “points” for absences, no matter what the reason is for missing work, and they affect an estimated 18 million workers, according to a report from the nonprofit organization A Better Balance.
Though the American Rescue Plan provides many benefits for parents that may help lift children out of poverty — including cash payments of up to $1,400 and increased tax credits for children — it does not guarantee paid leave for caregivers or paid sick leave. Though the plan gives tax credits to employers that voluntarily offer paid leave, it is not mandatory, and may leave many lower-income parents in the lurch, Ms. Morris said. (The Biden administration has a proposal for paid leave, but it is far from becoming law.)
Lower-income parents have already been hit harder by unemployment than their higher-income and college-educated counterparts. “More than parental status or gender, education has been most decisive in who has lost jobs during the pandemic,” Claudia Goldin, a labor economist at Harvard, told my colleague Claire Cain Miller.
Interestingly though, Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress, found that among non-college-educated parents, there wasn’t much of a gender gap in unemployment, yet among college-educated parents, there was a bigger split. Before the pandemic, about 80 percent of moms and about 95 percent of dads with college degrees were employed. “Now it’s like 76 percent of moms and 94 percent of dads with college degrees,” he said. This suggests that where families could afford for one parent to step back from work to deal with domestic labor, mothers were bearing the brunt.
While I can list these labor market statistics all day, the emotional impact of Covid-19 is ongoing, devastating and harder to quantify.
The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.
Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more
This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.
There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.
The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.
“I cry on Tuesdays and Fridays. Sometimes I have an extra bonus day, like on this Monday,” said Cait Roberts-Donovan, 35, when she called into the Primal Scream line. Ms. Roberts-Donovan has a 16-month-old baby, and has been working from home with her husband without child care for almost the entire pandemic.
Why Tuesdays and Fridays? On Tuesdays, her husband has a lot of meetings, and her day isn’t light either, so even though she is trading off baby care, it’s “really high octane all day.” You sort of accept Mondays are horrible, because they’re the beginning of the workweek, but “then you realize Tuesdays are just your life.” Fridays: “It’s a matter of having kept things nominally together all week, and then you have this big letdown,” she said.
Ms. Roberts-Donovan has asthma, and so was reluctant to send her daughter to day care during the pandemic. She said she has felt “terrified” for two years, after being anxious during her pregnancy as well, because she wanted her daughter so badly. “I must have buckets of cortisol,” she said, referring to the stress hormone.
Ms. Roberts-Donovan and Ms. Pasos both took pains to stress how lucky they are in the scheme of things. Almost every mother I have spoken to during the pandemic, no matter what their financial and family circumstances, has expressed guilt about complaining. And both women said that things are looking up right now — their children are back to some form of in-person care or schooling, and Ms. Pasos was able to spend time with family she hadn’t seen for months.
But mothers shouldn’t have to slap on a Pollyanna smile. As a recent Pew Research report pointed out, there was already a gender gap in caregiving before the pandemic, and moms were more likely than dads to step back from paid work to fill any family needs. The past year has only exacerbated the difficulties caregivers face in the United States. We can acknowledge that things could be worse, but at the same time honor the fact that our circumstances are still so far from good.
Mental Health Resources
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
Parents seeking emotional support can contact the National Parent Helpline at 855-427-2736.
If you are a recent mother looking for support, there are free online support groups offered by Postpartum Support International, with specific programs for Black moms, NICU parents, Spanish-speaking moms, queer parents and more.
The Center for WorkLife Law offers a free help line for parental legal rights. Call 415-851-3308 or email COVID19Helpline@worklifelaw.org.
The National Women’s Law Center provides complimentary consultations with attorneys in their legal network. Call 202-319-3053 or request assistance at their website.
A Better Balance, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, operates a confidential help line to assist callers with understanding their workplace rights. Call 833-633-3222.
Food and Housing Assistance
United Way operates a 24-hour help line that connects callers to local food programs, housing assistance, health care resources and mental health support. Dial 211 from your phone.
Mutual Aid Hub offers a nationwide listing of food pantries and community refrigerators and freezers.