Exhausted, stressed, drained: It’s 'deja vu' for moms as school year begins amid COVID surge

Experts brace for a "second wave" of women being forced out of the workforce.

When Tina Sherman, a mom of four sons in Wake County, North Carolina, thinks of sending her children back to school later this month, she can sum up the emotion of it all in two sentences.

"They are excited," Sherman said of her sons, who span from first grade to high school. "I am exhausted."

For nearly two years, Sherman has been at home working a full-time job while overseeing virtual learning for her son in high school, leading home schooling for her twin sons in middle school and adjusting back and forth between in-person and virtual learning for her youngest son, who is now entering first grade.

All four of her sons will be attending in-person school this year, but Sherman said she feels a dreaded sense of "deja vu" with COVID-19 cases on the rise in the United States.

Amid a COVID-19 surge brought on by the more contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates, the number of pediatric cases of COVID-19 in the United States is rising, just as the school year begins.

In one Florida school district where there are no mask requirements, over 8,000 students have been isolated or quarantined just days into the new school year.

"I felt like I was barely hanging on by a thread at the end of school last year and now I'm thinking I don't know what I'm going to do," said Sherman, who added she feels lucky to be able to work from home with her job at MomsRising, an advocacy organization. "I'm thinking of all the plans for 'what if.' There's everything from a seven-day quarantine to [my kids] could be out of school for 24 days."

"I don't feel like the alarms are going off in the way that they should be," she said.

While Sherman feels the nation's leaders are not thinking as much as they should be about moms trying to balance their careers and their kids, it is all she and fellow moms talk about.

"At work, the conversation, no matter the meeting topic, goes to, 'Are your kids back in school? How's that going?'" she said. "I don't know a mom who's not experiencing it right now."

MacKenzie Nicholson, a mom of a son entering third grade and daughter entering pre-K, lost her job with a nonprofit organization early in the pandemic. She spent the past year looking for a job while helping her son with virtual learning and caring for her daughter, whom she and her husband pulled from child care due to COVID-19 concerns and financial reasons.

"It was the most stressful time of my entire life," said Nicholson. "I recall taking interviews locked in my office while my two kids sat downstairs fighting with each other. My last job interview ended with my 4-year-old on my lap because she fell and was upset."

Nicholson landed a new job in July but now describes feeling whiplash as the delta variant takes hold and the school year remains in flux.

"I remember that call from my son's school that they were sending kids home for a week and I remember saying to my husband after two days, 'I can't do this,' and now it's extended into a multiyear thing," she said. "Now we’re thinking about the year going forward and I’m like, I don’t know if I can do it again."

Describing the conversations she has with other moms, Nicholson added, "We're still all on edge and everything we're talking about to each other is, 'Are you OK?'"

Nicholson is one of around 3.5 million moms of school-age children who left active work during the pandemic, shifting into paid or unpaid leave, losing their job or exiting the labor market all together, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As of January 2021, around 10 million U.S. mothers with school-age children were not actively working -- 1.4 million more than during the same period in 2020.

Among them, more than 700,000 moms have given up on work outside the home entirely and some may not return, according to Census Bureau data.

Karen Shrimpton, a mom of 12- and 8-year-old sons in San Francisco, quit her job last year after it became too much to balance her role at a small family business that had to suddenly go remote and change its business model and oversee virtual learning for her sons.

It was a hard decision for Shrimpton, who had just been able to rejoin the workforce after moving multiple times to support her husband's career and then becoming a mom.

"I had been pretty unhappy as a stay-at-home mom and so then having had the opportunity to do something for myself, I knew what a backslide this was going to be," Shrimpton said of exiting the workforce. "I don't think I was naïve or ignorant about the decision. I made it with my back against the wall."

With the prospect of both her sons back at in-person schooling this fall, Shrimpton said she has spent the past several months searching for a job, but now is slowing her search, realizing that her sons could be back home at any point.

"It's just shock," she said. "It's like I can't believe we haven't managed to get to a better place than where we are."

Working moms worked 2 full-time jobs

Economists say the two main reasons so many women have been forced out of the workforce over the past nearly two years are pandemic-related job loss in women-heavy industries and, not surprisingly, the burden of child care.

Child care was a second full-time job for moms of young kids during the pandemic, data shows.

Moms with children ages 12 and under spent, on average, eight hours a day on child care, while at the same time working an average of six hours per day in their jobs, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Moms have spent about three hours more per day than fathers on child care during the pandemic, and reduced their time spent working by 4 to 4.5 times more than fathers did because of child care, according to the analysis.

"What we know is that we were not doing a great job of supporting women and mothers with kids before the pandemic," said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and the mother of a 9-year-old son. "The loss of child care didn't actually affect most of the people with the youngest kids because it was already keeping people out of the labor market because it was unaffordable."

"But the loss of elementary schools [that switched to virtual learning] was really consequential," she added. "In places with higher levels of elementary school closures, moms were exiting the labor market. They couldn't hold on, and they just left."

Among working moms, single mothers, who typically have the highest level of employment, have suffered the most during the pandemic, according to Bauer.

"Single mothers were the breadwinners prior to the pandemic and they currently have the lowest rates of employment and they see the least recovery," she said. "They're struggling financially and have high rates of food insecurity. They're having a hard time feeding their kids."

Tina Carroll, a single mom in Denver, sent her 7-year-old son to Georgia the past two summers to stay with relatives because she lacked child care resources at home.

During the school year, she relied on a village of college students and a neighbor to help her son with remote learning as she worked in person at a local university.

Her son is now attending second grade in person, but Carroll said she is already bracing for him to be sent home at some point due to COVID exposure at school.

"I'm probably even more worried now because I don't have an infrastructure set up for the instances when he has to come home," she said. "I feel like I'm in the ring with COVID and I throw punches every day and I'm drained. I'm literally drained."

Moms say they are not only feeling exhausted but also frustrated that they are facing the prospect of a third school year upended by COVID-19 with marginally more support in place than when the pandemic began.

When the U.S. Senate passed a $1.1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill earlier this month, absent were programs that would benefit working families, things like paid family leave and child care benefits.

Child care benefits, specifically subsidies, are included in a $3.5 trillion "human infrastructure" package, which could pass Congress with only Democratic support. But the process is complicated, and could take weeks or even months to complete.

And while moms say the additional Child Tax Credit benefits delivered in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan have helped, they are not a permanent solution to families' financial and child care needs.

"There's been no investment in real short-term relief, because this [Child Tax Credit] money is not enough for mothers and families, and there's also been no investment in long-term relief," said Katherine Goldstein, a mother of three, journalist and host and creator of "The Double Shift," a podcast that focuses on moms and work. "Building up our child care infrastructure, making family life much more affordable, more substantively better workplace policies, none of that has happened yet."

"It's kind of like we haven't even accounted for the damage that has been done, and we're being ask to go in for another round," she said of moms. "Before COVID it was exhausting and overwhelming to be a parent in America, and now it's just untenable."

Bracing for a 'second wave' of women leaving the workforce

Last summer, as the economy began to reopen, women's employment levels rose, but then as kids went back to school in September, the numbers dropped sharply again.

In September 2020, 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce, compared to 216,000 men, according to BLS data.

While moms are currently working at nearly the same rate as women without kids, economists say they fear another exodus of women from the workforce as the school year begins.

"Here we are on the cusp of another school year and we have the delta variant rising; we have kids under 12 who cannot even be vaccinated; and at the same time we have companies saying, 'Everybody back in the office,' and also schools saying, 'Everybody back to school,'" said Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist and associate professor at Northeastern University, who predicted in an op-ed last year that the pandemic would "set women back a generation."

"I would call this the 'second wave' [of women leaving the workforce] where women who previously were able to hold onto their jobs working from home and maybe sleeping less or cutting corners and supervising kids while working from home, they no longer have that option at the same time that we're probably going to see a lot of school disruption," she said. "It's going to be very difficult for moms to maintain any kind of continuity in the workplace."

Sara Perschino, of New Hampshire, worked full-time from home while taking care of her daughters until November, when she lost her job. She has taken on only freelance work since then with her daughters' school schedules still in flux.

Though her daughters, ages 4 and 7, will start in-person school later this month, Perschino said she, like so many other moms, is uncertain about the future as the full-time caregiving falls on her.

"I've had a lot of conversations with my friends and other people in the community about how this [pandemic] has highlighted that women are still doing the bulk of caregiving responsibilities," she said. "We're having these conversations more globally now, so I think it's reassuring for families to see they weren't the only ones struggling with this, and to see that it's not just them, that there are systemic barriers to be able to have thriving careers and successful families."

"I’m exhausted," she added. "I think every working mom is exhausted right now."

The "great resignation," as Sasser Modestino calls the exit of women from the workforce during the pandemic, came just after women hit a historic milestone in the U.S.

In January 2020, women held over half of all jobs in America for just the second time in history.

Helping women reach that level again in the workforce will take months of record job gains and, according to Sasser Modestino, will require help from employers, the government and women's loved ones at home.

"We know that the longer you take out of the labor market, your skills depreciate and the harder it is to get back in down the road," she said. "If you think that talent is distributed equally across men and women, then we should really be concerned that we're seeing women leave the labor force in droves because we're losing that talent now."

Kate Dando Doran, a mom of two in Colorado, said that in addition to exhaustion and stress, one of the most frustrating things of working full time while also caregiving has been watching her career be unwittingly disrupted.

"I've worked very hard to get where I am and want very much to do a good job," said Dando Doran, who has spent the 17 months working at her dining room table alongside her 3- and 5-year-old kids. "I work early in the mornings and late at night to make up time. You don't want it to ever be, 'Oh, she's busy, she's focusing on her kids.'"

At the same time, Dando Doran said she constantly worries about the impact the pandemic is having on her children, describing one particular moment in the past year that she said nearly crushed her.

"At one point I was pushing my daughter on the swing while answering email and she said, 'Mommy, can you please put your phone away and be with me?'" Dando Doran recalled. "This has been exhausting and hard for everyone."

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