The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pandemic is amplifying tensions between working moms and child-free colleagues

Rising stress levels are deepening resentment among co-workers toward working parents who need to take time for schooling and child care

Cropped image of business woman and her little son using a laptop in office. (iStock)

My response last week to a child-free worker losing patience with covering for parent co-workers during the pandemic struck some readers as biased toward parents, especially mothers. One message I received:

Your response was focused almost exclusively on the trials and tribulations of working mothers. Your justification falls flat in 2020 when men are taking on more and more of the child-rearing responsibilities. The reader’s question did not mention any specific gender. Is there a reason you think only women are burdened right now? BTW — I am female. [Writer requested not to be identified]

Karla: Everyone is burdened now, both by external stressors — unemployment, increased workloads, financial straits — and internal stressors — anxiety, fear, insomnia.

But article after survey after NPR series after labor statistics fact sheet indicate that women are losing paid work in far higher numbers than men. Some of it is because majority-female hospitality and retail front lines are hardest hit, but much is also due to mothers being fired or leaving because it is not possible to attend to both their jobs and their children.

This is not to say fathers aren’t affected and aren’t stepping up — but until the unemployment numbers show otherwise, it seems clear that women are disproportionately affected, and that motherhood is a significant contributing factor to this imbalance.

As with parent-vs-child-free tensions at work, gender-based labor inequality was a problem in the Before Times — but in the pandemic, both are becoming unmanageable. Immediate village-level solutions start with lowering our expectations, setting boundaries, and looking after ourselves and each other. Long-term solutions will require us to remember these concerns in the After Times, and focus on resolving them as a society.

More perspectives from parents and child-free readers (edited for length):

I am a working single parent with full custody. Do I have to sometimes step away from my desk during work hours to tend to my virtually-learning kid? Yes, rarely. Are [co-workers] aware of the many more times I log back on after feeding my kid and put in additional hours of work, sometimes into the wee hours? Fact is, you really don’t know what hours or effort anyone else is putting in. In the current extreme circumstances, why not assume everyone is doing the best they can? hasu424

I am sympathetic to my colleagues who have to deal with home-schooling kids while working, and will do what’s reasonable to pick up the slack. But please understand the frustration of child-free workers. We’ve already been in situations, pre-pandemic, where the company announced it was going to be “family friendly.” That meant single people worked nights and weekends. — Suzannah61

I am a parent. It is grossly unfair to force people [without] children to cover for those who have children. Personally I would feel extremely uncomfortable having a childless person work more hours so that I can work fewer. — Swans21

Before I had children I went to work early and came home late, daily. When I had children, I got to work on time and left as soon as the day ended. Once I had an empty nest, I took on more hours so that parents of young children could focus on their family. There is an ebb and flow to life, and I feel fortunate I could make these adjustments. — Becca2

Readers on solutions:

We all need to ease up on the fake deadlines, realize that most of us are NOT saving lives with our white-collar office jobs, and give everyone a bit of a break. If I don’t get that “deliverable” done in time, no one will die and the world will not end. Everyone has to pull back a little bit, get a little bit less done in a little bit more time, and stop blaming each other, because the world has gone nuts and no one really knows how to deal with it. — Dcgirl1899

Workplace hours have been unsustainable for a long time, but the pandemic has revealed how workers — parents or not — have been suckered into doing the job of 1.5 or 2 or 3 people while employers reap the benefits of increased productivity without increasing staffing levels. If any good could come out of this pandemic, it would be a more realistic and sustainable approach to our working lives. — mauicat

This is an excellent time to finally speak up and tell management that tasks X and Y have always been useless nonsense and you are simply going to stop doing them, or start doing them smarter and quicker. This is also the time to learn to respond to a new task by saying “I am working on Z. Should I put that aside to do this?” — BA History

More reading from Work Advice

How to cope when everyone at work but you is a parent

Don’t hate me because I’m a mother

Covering for parents at work should not be a thankless job

The parent rap: Should parents with sick kids be allowed to work from home?

Seeking clarity: How the concept of work has shifted