The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on couples with young children and on mothers’ wellbeing, according to preliminary findings of two new studies by Indiana University researchers.
Both studies are led by Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at IU Bloomington, and use data from the Pandemic Parenting Study, a mixed-method study of Southern Indiana mothers conducted April to May 2020 that includes surveys, diary entries and in-depth interviews.
Preliminary findings from both studies have been posted on the open access platform SocArXiv as working papers awaiting peer review.
COVID-related partner conflicts
The first study examined mothers’ reports of pandemic-related changes in their frustrations with their partners and how those changes vary with the disruptions couples have experienced during the pandemic.
Preliminary findings from the study found that many couples with young children (39%) are experiencing increased frustrations during the pandemic. These frustrations are particularly common among mothers who report their partners provide insufficient support with pandemic parenting and among mothers who report their partners dismiss their concerns about the virus.
“The pandemic is exacerbating longstanding sources of conflicts in couples with young children and creating new conflicts, as well,” Calarco said. “Meanwhile, mothers blame themselves for these conflicts and feel responsible for reducing them. Because of these conflicts, some mothers are leaving the workforce, others are turning to therapy and antidepressants, and some are even ignoring their own concerns about the pandemic.”
Through interviews with mothers, the researchers found that conflicts related to pandemic parenting are particularly common among mothers who have transitioned to working from home during the pandemic and whose access to childcare was disrupted. Even when their partners are also at home (either working, furloughed, or unemployed), these mothers often report feeling that they are doing a disproportionate share of the pandemic parenting, leading to frustrations with their partners for not doing more.
Conflicts related to mothers’ concerns about the virus are particularly common among mothers who are more politically liberal than their partners. Even when these mothers work in healthcare, their partners sometimes criticize mothers for fearing COVID-19 and refuse to take steps (like mask-wearing and hand-washing) that public health experts recommend. These questions and refusals are deeply frustrating for mothers who receive them, according to the study, sometimes leading mothers to doubt their own fears and take fewer steps to keep themselves and their families safe.
“Some mothers are finding ways to cope with these new conflicts,” Calarco said. “But others are having a much more difficult time. Some mothers who lost their jobs during the pandemic are now trapped in difficult or dangerous relationships and don’t have the resources to leave. These mothers need support from policymakers, and they will continue to need that support after the pandemic ends. That means making Temporary Assistance for Needy Families less restrictive, funding universal healthcare, and also extending the expanded unemployment benefits put in place through the CARES Act of 2020.”
Childcare and mothers’ well-being
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on education in the U.S., forcing schools and childcare centers to close and parents to care for children at home. Preliminary findings from the second study indicate that although parents generally enjoy spending time with their children, substantial, unanticipated increases in parenting time are having a negative effect on the wellbeing of many mothers.
According to the second study, 42% of mothers reported spending a great deal more time with their children during the pandemic compared to before and 25% reported somewhat more time. The changes appear to be driven, in part, by disruptions in mothers’ paid work and childcare arrangements. The mothers most likely to report pandemic-related increases in the time they spend caring for their children (85%) are those who have been working remotely without childcare. Mothers who were furloughed or unemployed because of the pandemic also report increased parenting time, though to a lesser degree than mothers working from home without childcare, according to the study.
Meanwhile, stay-at-home mothers, mothers who have continued to work outside the home, and mothers who have maintained access to childcare (through an extended family member, babysitter, or nanny) are more likely to report that their parenting time has not changed because of the pandemic.
“Our data suggests that because of pandemic-related disruptions to paid work and childcare routines, many mothers greatly increased their time with their children,” Calarco said. “These increased time demands were also associated with increased stress, anxiety, and frustrations with their children.”
Mothers who increased the time they spend caring for their children, according to the study, also disproportionately reported increased stress and frustration with their children. The proportion of mothers reporting much more stress during the pandemic is significantly greater (42%) among mothers spending a great deal more time with their children during the pandemic than among mothers whose time with children was unchanged (16%). Similarly, mothers spending more time with their children were significantly more likely to report increased frustration with their children (50%) than mothers whose time with their children remained unchanged (27%).
The researchers found that childcare disruptions exacerbate the negative impact of increased parenting time on mothers’ wellbeing. Mothers who are working remotely without childcare reported feeling as though they are failing as both workers and mothers. Many also reported turning to food and alcohol as coping mechanisms — even hiding in the bathroom and eating Oreos to give themselves a break from work and parenting responsibilities.
Meanwhile, some mothers — including mothers unemployed during the pandemic, mothers who have maintained access to childcare, and mothers who are continuing to work outside the home as essential workers — have enjoyed the extra time the pandemic has given them to spend with their children, as it offers a welcome distraction from the other stresses they have faced.
“Our society has long failed to support mothers in balancing the demands of paid work and parenting,” Calarco said, “And this pandemic has made painfully clear the need for adequate support. That includes universal access to affordable childcare and also policies that reduce intensive work and parenting pressures and ensure that all families have access to the resources they need.”
Emily Meanwell, director of the Social Sciences Research Commons at IU; Elizabeth Anderson, a graduate student at in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences Department of Sociology, and Amy Knopf at the IUPUI School of Nursing contributed to the study.