Almost A Year Into The Pandemic, Working Moms Feel 'Forgotten,' Journalist Says

Feb 18, 2021
Originally published on February 18, 2021 12:46 pm

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many American families without child care and in-person schooling. Those new household burdens have largely landed on the shoulders of women, says Journalist Claire Cain Miller.

Miller has been working from home, reporting on how the pandemic has affected the lives of mothers, in a New York Times series called "The Primal Scream." It's a subject she's familiar with: Her children, ages 4 and 8,have been been attending school virtually since the pandemic began.

"I hear ... from people I interview — and I feel that myself — that women stepped up, mothers stepped up," Miller says. "And at this point, a year in, there's just this deep feeling that we've been forgotten about."

Miller says increased household responsibilities have forced many working mothers -- and especially Black and Latinx mothers — to scale back on their hours or leave the workforce entirely during the pandemic, further widening economic and racial disparities.

"It took a very, very slow moving process from the 1970s until today to get women where they are professionally," Miller says. "I do worry that this has erased so much of it so quickly that it could be a massive setback for decades."

Perhaps more than anything, Miller says, the pandemic laid bare the need for public policy initiatives that support families: "We live in a country ... that has left it to individuals to figure out their family caregiving arrangements on their own. ... There were never the structures in place to help us and to provide for working families in this country in the way that there are elsewhere."


Interview highlights

On a gap in perception between mothers and fathers about who is picking up the slack during the pandemic

We did a survey at the Times with Morning Consult, a survey partner we have that I found very amusing: 80% of mothers said they were managing the home school in their house; 45% of fathers said they were managing it. Now, that's impossible. Three percent of mothers said the fathers were managing it. So there's a really big disconnect here. And it's really not surprising because this generation of men does a lot more at home. They do more housework and child care, even in normal times, than their fathers or grandfathers did. But it's still nowhere near equal. And what we found is that men have done more, especially if you're working from home or if your kids' schools are still closed, there's just more to be done. ... Fathers are doing more, but their share hasn't changed. So mothers are also doing more, and they're both still doing the same share they used to. Which means men, in general — of course not all — men are doing less.

On things employers have done to help women work during the pandemic

One way that most employers responded at the very beginning is they offered flexibility. So for white-collar workers who could work from home, they said you can work at different hours. You can work in the early morning or late at night instead of being available for the midday meeting if you have child duties. Then for hourly and essential workers, they offered people to shift their schedules or to shift locations to a store near their house, things like that. And that was a helpful response last March.

As a working parent, I can tell you there are only so many months that you can wake up at dawn or work after bedtime in order to get it all done. It's just not sustainable. - Claire Cain Miller

The thing is that very few employers ever did anything else. And we did another survey: We found that over three quarters of working parents have received nothing else in the way of time off or money for child care. It's just these flexible hours. And as a working parent, I can tell you there are only so many months that you can wake up at dawn or work after bedtime in order to get it all done. It's just not sustainable. And so what's happened is that either people have had to figure out their own alternate arrangements or they're just really incredibly burnt out, [with their] mental health really suffering, or else they've had to cut back on work, either quit, cut back their hours, not apply for the promotion they wanted. And these things are just going to have really deep, long-term effects on their careers.

On why more employers aren't providing child care subsidies, which can help employees be more productive

This enables your people to spend their day dedicated to the thing you're paying them to do. It enables them to not have to quit their jobs and to be able to give you their dedicated effort, so I'm a little surprised that there hasn't been more of an effort here.

I think at this point it's really about money. Time is one thing. Paid leave, having a few weeks off, even having 12 weeks off, which the federal government offered to some employees last year, though that's expired — that's helpful. But the pandemic has lasted a lot more than 12 weeks. To me, if an employer gives money, then the employee can choose to use that to take an unpaid leave, or to hire a babysitter, or to help compensate a grandparent or an aunt or uncle who's helping, or to hire a tutor and make their own personal family decisions about what's best for their child. But again, very few employers are doing this. The ones that are are mostly the higher paying ones that employ people with college degrees or higher. So it's really reflecting a lot of the inequities that we see in all parts of our culture, which is that people with college degrees and high earners are treated a lot better at work.

On parents' weighing the risk of sending their kids back to school

As a parent, I can tell you it's a really very difficult decision. It's not clear cut. It doesn't really matter — and I empathize with the teachers too — what scientists and doctors say if you feel that this is too much of a risk to your health or your family's health to do. ... People are really polarized and they're really hardened, and I get it. On the one hand, it's really terrifying that your kids could get sick. And on the other hand, it's really, really hard to have your kids out of school, not just in terms of your day and getting your work done, but in terms of how obvious it is what we're seeing happen with the kids who are struggling. They're lonely; they're anxious. Their entire lives — in some cases, a quarter or an eighth of their entire lives — has just been upended.

On what we know about how much the coronavirus spreads in schools

[Pediatric disease experts polled by the New York Times] said that children spread it less than adults do, that they're not as efficient spreaders, probably because they don't get sick. So they're not sneezing and coughing all over. So they do spread it less. And they said vaccinations will be very important for life to return to normal. But they said that schools around the world that have been open have shown that when the kids are wearing masks, when the teachers and staff are wearing masks, when they're maintaining distance by avoiding large gatherings and having their desks spaced apart and when they have adequate ventilation — and there are other safety measures, too, but those were really the most important — they thought that transmission is really not happening at high rates within schools. Transmission is happening outside of schools. And if restaurants and bars and gyms are open and if teachers and parents are socializing on the weekends, it's more likely to come inside the school. But the school is not the site of most of the transmission, is what they said the research has shown so far, based on what we know now.

On proposed legislation to provide parents with a child tax credit

I think there's a lot more recognition now of something that parents have always known, which is that child care is absolutely essential for society to function. High quality child care is absolutely essential and it's really expensive. A lot of child care providers have gone out of business because they had to lock down last spring and they couldn't afford to go [empty for] a few months. They were already working on very, very tight margins. Parents can't afford to pay more for all these measures they have to put in place, like distancing and sanitizing and Plexiglas barriers and these things, in order to be open in a pandemic. So I think there's recognition that it's needed.

I would be very surprised if the United States Congress passed any sort of public child care like the kind that we see in Europe, because there's historically been so much resistance to it. But one thing that there does seem to be growing support for is an idea of a child allowance, which is sending a monthly check to parents. President Biden has proposed this, as have several other Democratic senators. But what's been really interesting recently is that Senator Mitt Romney, who, of course, is a Republican from Utah, has also proposed a version of it that's actually more generous than President Biden's. The idea would be to send between $250 and $350 a month to parents, multiple checks if you have multiple kids up to a certain limit. In Senator Romney's proposal, it wouldn't phase out totally until you made almost half a million dollars a year as a couple. So pretty much every parent in the country would be getting this.

A lot of other countries do this — I'm not sure Americans realize it — Canada, Australia and most of Europe. This is not uncommon, but, of course, it has not happened here. ... It means that families could make their own choice. There could be a stay-at-home parent. They could use that check to pay their child-care tuition. They could use that check to hire a nanny, whatever they felt worked for their family. And that is something that both sides seem to agree on. Now, of course, $350 a month or so, while it would be very helpful, is not nearly enough to actually cover your whole child-care tuition. So this would not be replacing something like public child care.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nichole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The pandemic has left many families without school, daycare or help cleaning their houses. And it appears that it's mostly women, mothers who have picked up the slack. That's forced many women out of the workforce or led them to cut back their hours. It's a setback for gender and economic equality. This crisis caused by the pandemic could be an opportunity to create lasting change that would help parents and enable more women to work, but will it? These are the issues my guest, Claire Cain Miller, has been covering for The New York Times. And she's been reporting on current proposals by President Biden and Senator Mitt Romney to financially help parents. She has two children, ages 4 and 8. She's been with The New York Times since 2008 and shares a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues.

Claire Cain Miller, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think an example of that you are a parent helps explain where you're speaking to us from right now. Do you want to tell us?

CLAIRE CAIN MILLER: I am in my neighbor's backyard. She has a little pop-up office in her backyard, one single room that I had to borrow, even though she is still sleeping, because my kids are waking up soon. And I know it would be too loud to record a radio interview.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So you've been, among other things, part of a series at The New York Times has done on how the pandemic is affecting working mothers titled The Primal Scream. And it's called that because there was a group of mothers in New Jersey who would get together outside and just scream their frustration and just scream. There's even a recording of women's screams. Do you feel that way yourself sometimes, that you just want to scream?

MILLER: I think if any - well, probably if anyone in the pandemic said they hadn't felt that way, it would be untrue because obviously this is affecting everybody deeply. But for parents and especially mothers, it is just very, very difficult. And at this point, a year in, there's just this deep feeling that we've been forgotten about. I hear that from people I interview and I feel that myself, that, you know, women stepped up, mothers stepped up, schools closed. And we've been doing all this. And it almost seems like the focus has shifted elsewhere. And people are forgetting that, on a daily basis, this is still very, very difficult for parents and for children too.

GROSS: And it's parents, but really mostly women, according to surveys even, who have picked up the slack from all the things that have been shut down. Give us some examples.

MILLER: So the new task, of course, in the pandemic is home schooling, overseeing remote school, because if you have young kids, you know very well that very few of them are doing this remote school on their own. It's not like they can go to their room and open their computer and you see them at dinnertime. They need a lot of adult help. And this is, of course, a brand-new task. And we did a survey at the Times with Morning Consult, a survey partner we have, that I found very amusing. So 80% of mothers said they were managing the home school in their house. Forty-five percent of fathers said they were managing it. Now, that's impossible. Three percent of mothers said the fathers were managing it.

So there's a really big disconnect here. And it's really not surprising because this generation of men does a lot more at home. They do more housework and child care, even in normal times, than their fathers or grandfathers did. But it's still nowhere near equal. And what we found is that men have done more, especially if you're working from home or if your kid's schools are still closed. There's just more to be done. There are more dishes. There's more mess. There's more child care, all of it. There's the new tasks like remote school, like, you know, washing masks, remembering to make your kids wear them, all of that. Fathers are doing more, but their share hasn't changed. So mothers are also doing more, and they're both still doing the same share they used to, which means men in general - of course, not all men - are doing less.

GROSS: And it's kind of impossible to keep like the full-time job that might bleed over into extra hours while also being a full-time teacher and also being your child's playmate and also doing more housework and also doing more dishes and also doing more laundry. Because everybody's home, things have to be cleaner because you want to keep things, like, really clean during the pandemic. So it's just - it's crazy.

MILLER: Yes. And one way that most employers responded at the very beginning is they offered flexibility. So, you know, for white collar workers who could work from home, they said you can work at different hours. You know, you can work in the early morning or late at night instead of being available for the midday meeting if you have child duties then. For hourly and essential workers, they offered people to shift their schedules or to shift locations to a store near their house, things like that. And that was, you know, a helpful response last March.

The thing is that very few employers ever did anything else. And we did another survey. We found that over three-quarters of working parents have received nothing else in the way of time off or money for child care. It's just these flexible hours. And, you know, as a working parent, I can tell you there are only so many months that you can wake up at dawn or work, you know, after bedtime in order to get it all done. It's just not sustainable.

And so what's happened is that, you know, either people have had to figure out their own alternate arrangements or they're just, you know, really incredibly burnt out, mental health really suffering, or else they've had to cut back on work, either quit, cut back their hours, not apply for the promotion they wanted. And these things are just going to have really deep long-term effects on their careers.

GROSS: I have a feeling that a lot of women think, what's wrong with me? Why am I doing more of the housework at home? Am I not a strong enough feminist? Have I not stood up to my husband? Or like, why am I having trouble coping with all of this? You know, I must not be strong enough. I must not be competent enough. Do you feel like a lot of women are questioning themselves and thinking, like, they're just not measuring up?

MILLER: Yes, and it breaks my heart. I've also heard a lot of women in my own life and in interviews say, you know, maybe I wasn't cut out to be a mother. And that's just not true. Nobody is cut out to live through a pandemic, you know, without challenges. It's a really hard time. I think there's two pieces to what you're saying. One is that women and mothers do more all the time, it's not just about whether you're standing up to your husband. It's socialized. It's in deep. There's been, you know, studies of countries in Europe that are much more gender equal. And if a child gets cancer diagnosis or, you know, has another health issue, it's the mother who scales back on work more often. It's a very deep thing for mothers to step up.

And, you know, fathers need to step up equally, absolutely. It's not mothers' fault that they don't. But bigger picture, we live in a country in the United States that has left it to individuals to figure out their family caregiving arrangements on their own. There is very, very little in the way of public policy or societal support for people with children. And this was true before the pandemic. But I don't think people spent a lot of time realizing it because you have a baby, you figure out your child care situation, these things are in place. You might have your neighbors in your community that you can call on in emergencies. You might have grandparents nearby. Whatever it is, you figure it out. You figure out your village. You build it.

All of a sudden, it was gone. We couldn't rely on other people to help. And it made very clear that the problem and the weakness with us being left to figure it out on our own all the time. There was no societal support to catch us. There was nothing to help because there never was. And all of a sudden, the puzzles that we had all individually put together were gone. And we were left very, very much alone. So if women are feeling like this is on them and a failure of themselves as individuals, it's bigger than that. It's structural. There were never the structures in place to help us and to provide for working families in this country in the way that there are elsewhere.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Cain Miller. She's a New York Times reporter who's been reporting on the effect of the pandemic on families with an emphasis on how the pandemic is widening gender and economic inequality. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller. She writes about gender, families and the future of work. She's been reporting on how the pandemic is affecting families with an emphasis on how it's widening gender and economic inequality.

So let's talk about an issue that's on the minds of probably all parents, which is, when is it safe to reopen the schools? So there's two things to talk about here. One is the new CDC guidelines that were issued just a few days ago. And the other is a poll that you did at The New York Times of 175 pediatricians. So let's start with your poll. There were differences in what they said, but what did the majority of them recommend about what the criteria should be for reopening schools for younger students? We'll eliminate high school for now and get to them separately.

MILLER: I admit, we were pretty surprised at the results. We have done polling of public health experts throughout the pandemic, and there's always a diversity of views. But these - this group, which was pediatric infectious disease and public health experts, was very clear that schools can be open now for young kids. They said, you know, kindergarten through fifth grade for sure without, you know, concern about the spread in the community. Obviously, we're all concerned about the spread in the community. But they said many of these metrics like test positivity rate and these other things that schools are waiting to go down, they don't matter for that young of kids. They said there's enough scientific evidence from, you know, the half of schools that are open in the United States and from schools around the world that have been open for a long time that there is not a lot of spread inside schools.

They said the most important thing was that the schools and the students take measures to stay safe inside, specifically masks. There was almost universal agreement that everyone in the school needed to wear a mask, that they needed to pay attention to avoiding large group gatherings like in cafeterias or hallways. And they needed to make sure there was good ventilation, you know, opening windows or having, you know, improving the HVAC system, but that once these sort of basic safety measures that we've all become so familiar with are in place, that young kids can be back in school today.

GROSS: For teachers, one of the major questions is vaccinations. And a lot of teachers don't want to go back to work unless they're vaccinated and they can feel protected. What did 175 pediatricians that you polled have to say about vaccinations?

MILLER: They were also, again, surprisingly consistent in saying that vaccination of any group is not necessary to reopen schools. Now, obviously, vaccination, they agreed, is the way to end this pandemic and get life back to normal eventually. But they said for younger kids who don't spread it the way that high school students do - high school students, scientists have found, spread it and get sick more like adults do. But for younger students, they said neither teachers nor students need to be vaccinated before schools can open if these other measures like masking and avoiding large groups, are in place. But I do want to say here that the new variants are unknown. The scientists all said that - that we don't know if that will change the calculus. But for right now, they believe that schools can be open, at least elementary.

GROSS: You know, something I've been reading simultaneously with the CDC recommendation and your polls is that - well, two things. There's a more contagious and possibly more lethal strains emerging of the virus, but also, something called multiple inflammatory disease in children is on the rise. And the illness is becoming more severe. So this is, you know, a COVID-related illness in children. And what are the implications of that for all of these recommendations about going back to school?

MILLER: As I understand it, this is a syndrome that affects children. And we've seen it with other viruses, too. And it's terrifying. As a parent, I completely understand the hesitancy to put your kids back in school. I also think there's something going on where we have a different assessment of risk in this situation. There were always risks about sending our kids to school. There were always dangers that happened at school. And we weighed those against the benefits and the risks of not sending our kids to school. And we sent them.

And, you know, as a parent, I can tell you it's a really very difficult decision. It's not clear cut. It doesn't really matter - You know, and I empathize with the teachers too - what scientists and doctors say if you feel that this is too much of a risk to your health or your family's health to do. It's a very difficult decision. And, you know, when we published that survey, the responses I got from readers were just so angry on both sides. And I write about gender usually. And, you know, that can be a controversial topic to write about in this country. And I do hear my fair share of criticism and people who disagree with the work. But I have never seen anything like writing about school reopenings and what, you know, I thought was a scientific consensus.

People are really polarized. And they're really hardened. And I get it. On the one hand, it's really terrifying that your kids could get sick. And on the other hand, it's really, really hard to have your kids out of school, not just in terms of your day and getting your work done, but in terms of how obvious it is what we're seeing happen with the kids who are struggling. They're lonely. They're anxious. This - their entire lives, you know, in some cases a quarter or an eighth of their entire lives has just been upended.

GROSS: Another question is that even if children don't get sick with COVID, my understanding is they can still spread it to their parents or their teachers. So what did the pediatricians who you polled have to say about that?

MILLER: They said that children spread it less than adults do, that they're not as efficient spreaders, probably because they don't get as sick. So they're not sneezing and coughing all over. So they do spread it less. And they said vaccinations will be very important for life to return to normal. But they said that schools around the world that have been open have shown that when the kids are wearing masks, when the teachers and staff are wearing masks, when they're maintaining distance by avoiding, you know, large gatherings and having their desks spaced apart and when they have adequate ventilation - and there are other safety measures, too. But those were really the most important, they thought.

That transmission is really not happening at high rates within schools. Transmission is happening outside of schools. And if restaurants and bars and gyms are open and if teachers and parents are socializing on the weekends, it's more likely to come inside the school. But the school is not the site of most of the transmission is what they said the research has shown so far based on what we know now.

GROSS: Of course, you can't bar teachers and parents from going to a restaurant or a bar.

MILLER: You can't. But policymakers could choose - you know, in much of Europe there's been a policy. And this is something the CDC said very clearly in its guidance, which is schools close last and they open first. That has not been the way that most communities have done it in the United States. Where I live in Portland, Ore., we are about to reopen in-person dining inside. And we still haven't reopened schools. So last year, we were at a place where gyms were open. Bars were open. And schools were still closed. So it is about limiting community spread in order for schools to be open. But that's not the path that much of the United States has taken.

GROSS: I wonder what this means on a practical level because most schools really aren't equipped to have the kind of social distancing that the CDC and pediatricians are recommending because the classrooms are just too small to accommodate that kind of space. And then the ventilation, a lot of the schools are old. And they don't have ventilation. And some teachers are complaining that the solutions they're being offered are basically window fans that they don't think are going to be very effective.

MILLER: The six-feet issue is huge. So it's each student would have to have 36 square feet. And, of course, you know, especially young students are not used to sitting at their desk, looking straight ahead and not moving during the day. This is why a lot of districts have come up with these ideas of cohorts or hybrid schedules. There's all these different words for them. But basically, it means they divide the classes into two groups, fixed groups. And each group goes to school part-time, whether that's two days a week or a.m.-p.m., in order to be able to be spread out in these small classrooms, and also to avoid things like lunch and recess, where it's harder to maintain six feet distance.

Interestingly, our survey respondents said that they don't really support that, that they don't think it is absolutely necessary as long as masking is happening and as long as large crowds, like in a cafeteria or an assembly or a hallway are happening - so basically, if kids stay in their classroom. And the big worry among a lot of public health experts is, if your student's only in school two days a week, what are they doing the other three days? Likely, by this point in the pandemic, you have figured out some other care arrangement where they're seeing other people, whether it's grandparents or a small pod of kids who they're doing remote school with.

And so they worry that by doing this hybrid part-time scheduling that it actually exposes kids and families to even more people than they would be if they were just in school and then would bring those exposures back into the school building. But you're right. It's really complicated. Our schools are really old. And they don't have money. So it would take a big investment. But if money is the hurdle, you know, the Biden administration has signaled that they are willing to invest a lot in making this happen.

GROSS: That would have to pass Congress.

MILLER: It would. And it's part of his $1.9 trillion relief bill. And it seems like the Democrats are using various techniques to push it through. But it's very unclear if all the pieces of his bill will be passed. And it's also very unclear if teachers' unions will be ready to go back in the communities that they're not back yet and if parents will be ready to send their kids.

GROSS: We have to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Cain Miller. She's a reporter with The New York Times who's been covering the effect of the pandemic on families, with an emphasis on how the pandemic is widening gender and economic inequality. We'll be back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "ARMANDO'S RHUMBA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller. She writes about gender, families and the future of work. She's been reporting on how the pandemic is affecting families, with an emphasis on how it's widening gender and economic inequality.

Because most schools have not been open and children are isolated at home and parents have become teachers, it's not only put a strain on parents and a strain on the mental health of children, I think it's probably put a really big strain on the relationship between parents and children because now parents, they're the teachers as well as the parents. You know, you go to school. You come home. You complain to your parents about your teacher or the person sitting next to you in class. You tell them about all the nice things that happened that day or who's picking on you. But when you're together all day, you can't come home and then confide in your parents, especially if your parents are the teachers and you don't like school. Your parents are the source of the problem. So it's a really emotionally complicated mix when parents are doing the schooling. How do you think that's affecting parent-child relationships now?

MILLER: This is such a good point that I really have heard from so many parents but have not seen talked about publicly much. It's really hard on parent-child relationships, you know, apart from the time that you spend working and all of those things. It's - last spring, when schools closed abruptly in March, my oldest child was in second grade and doing assignments online. He was confused about who the authority figure was. Was his teacher assigning this? Were we assigning this? He was, you know, anxious and upset that, all of a sudden, his whole world had been turned upside down, that all the adults were talking about this scary new virus. And it was just a disaster.

Every single assignment that, you know, the teacher assigned that we would try to do with him was, you know, just screaming and crying for so long before we finally got through it. And it wasn't that he couldn't manage the assignments. It was all of these other pieces that were making it so difficult. And, you know, I think students have gotten in more of a routine this year in places like where I am, where schools have never opened. And they're used to - you know, they formed relationships with their teacher and their classmates on Zoom. And they are used to having, you know, these assignments every day.

But it's still very, very hard, like you say, because the parent is then having to enforce the work and add this complicated dimension in a way that was really not existent before. It's also just so much time. I say to my family all the time, like, it's OK if everyone's feeling frustrated with each other because families aren't meant to spend this much time together. We're not meant to be in this house. No one goes to work. No one goes to school. We're all just on top of each other doing this all the time. Last spring, we had to start this thing we called quiet alone time after lunch, where every single person had to go to a different room and do their own thing (laughter) quietly for an hour...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MILLER: ...Just to give everyone a break. And, yeah, it is really hard, you know? And you hear, don't let your children see your anxiety because it will spread - all of these things. That's very hard to do. Adults are very anxious. Everybody's anxious right now. Everybody's talking about this virus. There is no way to hide it. And it really is difficult for a parent to suddenly become a teacher and have this whole new thing, a new source of conflict with their children.

GROSS: You've written about how parents feel judged when it comes to schooling. If they send their kids to school, they feel like they're being judged for taking a risk. If they keep their kids home, they feel like they're being judged for isolating their kids. If they hire a tutor, they feel like they're being shamed because they're widening the achievement gap and contributing to inequality. Can you talk about that a little bit, the feeling that many parents have that no matter what they do, they're going to feel guilty or shamed?

MILLER: This was a big issue late summer before school - when schools were deciding whether to open for the fall. And it's still an issue because guilt is always a huge part of motherhood in this country. It's funny, there's a sociologist who - I like her work a lot - named Caitlyn Collins, who writes about motherhood in the United States and in other countries, like Sweden. And guilt is just not as much a piece of it there. And it is here all the time. It's about safety. It's about your decisions about working. It's about your decisions about child care. To me, it really comes back to the issue that we have made motherhood and parenthood an independent project. It is not a project in this country that has a lot of social support and a lot of policy structures in place.

In other countries, there are so many ways that parents get help. They have these long paid leaves after they have a baby. You know, in some places, they get these birth packages that the government sends to help the newborn period go more smoothly. They have public child care, very high quality, where as soon as their paid leave is done, they have somewhere to send to their child. It's understood that fathers do more. And bosses understand that because they all do more. It's understood that, you know, people may have child-related tasks come up in the day. And mothers have the ability to go part-time or to deal with those things. It's just a completely different culture. And we've made it so independent that it's hard not to feel like all your choices and everything that goes wrong is also your fault because you made those choices on your own in this, like, little personal bubble because there was no structural support.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller. She's been reporting on the effect of the pandemic on families, with an emphasis on how the pandemic is widening gender and economic inequality. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES (INSTRUMENTAL)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller. She writes about gender, families and the future of work. She's been reporting on how the pandemic is affecting families with an emphasis on how it's widening gender and economic inequality.

The pandemic has highlighted how dependent the American economy is on child care and on education, because without those, like, parents can't really work. So the pandemic in that sense is creating a problem for businesses because a lot of women have either had to drop out of the workforce or cut back their hours. Have a lot of businesses tried to pitch in and help women be able to do their work in the workplace home or in the workplace if they have to go in to do their work?

MILLER: Very few have. Most responded by, you know, letting you shift your hours, letting you work flexibly, but that just means, you know, a year into this that everyone is completely burnt out because nobody can work around the clock when you combine your paid work and your unpaid work. The vast majority of employers have provided nothing more than that. A few have provided things that are very helpful. PricewaterhouseCoopers provided a six-month sabbatical at 20% pay, so that if you felt you needed to quit your job in order to prioritize your child care, you got some of your pay and you kept your job as a job to return to after six months. That's extraordinary. Other companies, including my own, The New York Times, have subsidized child care, providing reimbursing payments for any caregivers or tutors that you choose to bring in to your home or you choose to help your children during this time.

Some companies - I love this idea - have turned their empty offices because all the people are working from home into sort of mini-schoolhouses and hired teachers or tutors to oversee remote school. So now the parents are staying home and working from home and they're sending their kids to their old office, where they've set them up as little schoolhouses and they have an adult. The kids are out of their house getting care elsewhere, and they have an adult like a tutor to help them with their remote school. Obviously, these things are expensive. But what I can't believe so many employers are missing is this enables your people to work. This enables your people to spend their day dedicated to the thing you're paying them to do. It enables them to not have to quit their jobs and to be able to give you their dedicated effort. So I'm a little surprised that there hasn't been more of an effort here.

I think at this point, it's really about money. Time, you know, is one thing - paid leave, having a few weeks off, even having 12 weeks off, which the federal government offered to some employees last year, though that's expired - that's helpful. But the pandemic has lasted a lot more than 12 weeks. To me, if an employer gives money, then the employee can choose that - to use that to take an unpaid leave or to hire a babysitter or, you know, to help compensate a grandparent or an aunt or uncle who's helping or to hire a tutor, you know, and make their own personal family decisions about what's best for their child.

But again, very few employers are doing this. The ones that are are mostly the higher-paying ones that employ people with college degrees or higher. So it's really reflecting a lot of the inequities that we see in all parts of our culture, which is that people with college degrees and high earners are treated a lot better at work.

GROSS: An obvious question is, what kind of help should the government be providing so that businesses aren't paying for child care and that families aren't paying for child care, which is so expensive? A lot of women can't afford to work because the childcare is so expensive. It's not worth going to work.

MILLER: That's exactly right. And we should say here, the employment crisis has affected men and women equally. Employment is down for both. But then when you look at parents, more mothers of young children have left the workforce than fathers of young children for all these reasons that we've been discussing. It's also disproportionately Black and Latino workers. And that's - for many reasons, you know, that group of workers may have earned less. They're more centered in the service sector, in the hospitality sector, which has been hit hardest by these lockdowns. Their communities have been hit harder by COVID. But many of them face exactly what you're talking about. You can't afford to quit your job because you need to put food on the table. But you also can't afford to pay for child care on your income.

It leaves you in an impossible situation, so impossible that I have interviewed parents who have left their young children home alone at young ages or left like an 8-year-old in charge of a 2-year-old to babysit, which never would have been done before. Parents who have brought their kids to work and sort of hidden them under, you know, one security guard, hid the daughter in a conference room with some books, hoping that his boss wouldn't notice because he had nowhere else to send her. So these decisions that parents are making are super painful.

GROSS: This has been a debate in America for years. Like, should the government be providing some kind of subsidy for child care? Should there be universal child care? Where are we now in that debate?

MILLER: There's a lot more interest in it. It seemed like we were very far from that. It seemed like finally there was interest in both parties in some sort of paid parental leave after you have a new baby. But then what you do after that six or 12 weeks until the baby is 5 was a big question mark. I think there's a lot more recognition now of something that parents have always known, which is that child care is absolutely essential for society to function. High-quality child care is absolutely essential and that - it's really expensive.

A lot of child care providers have gone out of business because they had to lock down last spring and they couldn't afford to go a few months. They were already working on very, very tight margins. Parents can't afford to pay more for all these measures they have to put in place like, you know, distancing and sanitizing and plexiglass barriers and these things in order to be open in a pandemic. So I think there's recognition that it's needed. I would be very surprised if the United States Congress passed any sort of public child care like the kind that we see in Europe because there's historically been so much resistance to it.

But one thing that there does seem to be growing support for is an idea of a child allowance, which is sending a monthly check to parents. President Biden has proposed this, as have several other Democratic senators. But what's been really interesting recently is that Senator Mitt Romney, who of course, is a Republican from Utah, has also proposed a version of it that's actually more generous than President Biden's. The idea would be to send between $250 and $350 a month to parents - multiple checks if you have multiple kids up to a certain limit. In Senator Romney's proposal, it wouldn't phase out in totally until you made almost half a million dollars a year as a couple. So pretty much every parent in the country would be getting this.

And a lot of other countries do this. I'm not sure Americans realize it. Canada, Australia and most of Europe - this is not uncommon, but of course, it has not happened here. And I think the reason that there's political consensus on this one, more political consensus than other family policies is because it gives people a lot of choice. Many Republicans have not liked the idea that public child care could incentivize certain mothers to work instead of raising their children, that it could involve the government in people's personal family decisions and their choices about what they do with their children and how they raise them.

But with a check, it means that families could make their own choice. They could be a stay-at-home parent. They could use that check to pay their child care tuition. They could use that check to hire a nanny, whatever they felt worked for their family. And that is something that both sides seem to agree on. Now, of course, $300 a month or so, while it would be very helpful, is not nearly enough to actually cover your whole child care tuition. So this would not be replacing something like public child care.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Claire Cain Miller. She's been reporting on the effect of the pandemic on families with an emphasis on how the pandemic is widening gender and economic inequality. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller. She writes about gender, families and the future of work. She's been reporting on how the pandemic is affecting families with an emphasis on how it's widening gender and economic inequality.

The government provides schooling - public schools - but not preschool or daycare. But there was a time - and I didn't know about this until I read your article - back in 1941 when the federal government provided funding for high-quality government-run child care centers, so women of all incomes could work as part of the war effort. The bill funding that passed Congress but only for the years of the war. And that stopped afterwards. And, of course, a lot of women went back home and left the workforce. So how did that work? Is that - does that show that like, hey, we can do this, we are capable of doing that?

MILLER: It absolutely does. It was, you know, a very high-quality care system. And people used it. And people loved it. And mothers went to work. Studies that have been done on the children that attended those child cares show that their outcomes were better even later in life, especially children from low-income families that had like more education 20 years later. Because all this research has shown that high-quality preschool and child care is really, really good for kids. Interestingly, the military still provides subsidized child care for military families. So it is being done in the United States somewhat.

And when Nixon was president, we came very, very close to public child care. There was a bill, and at the last minute, he vetoed it. But there had been broad agreement. So it's been something that the country has considered before. But now, for a variety of reasons, it just seems like a political nonstarter because it would be very expensive and because it would be the government interfering in families' choices simply because they - that some policymakers worry it could encourage more women to not be the primary caregiver of their children.

GROSS: Yeah. Does it get to the old argument that women's places in the home, you know, like raising their children, they maybe shouldn't be working, they have a responsibility to be full-time mothers during the early years?

MILLER: Yes. This country's been very conflicted about that. It gets that argument. But it's important to remember that policymakers also have tied a lot of family benefits for low-income mothers to work requirements. TANF, which replaced welfare, has a work requirement. You know, they've - the Republicans in Congress have talked about adding work requirements to even more benefits that the federal government provides to poor families. So in some sense, there's a conflict about whether women should work outside the home. In another sense, there is this desire for women to work outside the home, a requirement that they do in order to receive help for raising their kids. And the difference really comes along class and race lines.

GROSS: I think this gets to, like, a social bias that, like, middle-class women, you know, in a gendered society should be home with their children, but poor people have to prove that they're worthy of help by making sure they have a job. But also, traditionally, poor Black women worked. They worked taking care of white women's homes, white women's babies and children. So there's always been that conflict.

MILLER: There has. Black women have always worked more. Black women have always had high labor force participation in this country. At one time, there was a mother's pension that the government gave, and it mostly went to wealthy white women. The idea was that if you lost your husband to, you know, death or alcoholism or other reasons, that it was so important that you didn't have to go get a job, the government would pay you a mother's pension in order to stay home. But that never applied to poor women or Black women. And we still see that today with welfare policy.

GROSS: What are some of the other economic disparities that are being widened as a result of the pandemic?

MILLER: The pandemic has made a lot of rich people even richer. It has hit hardest the people who had fewer resources to begin with - the essential workers who have had to go to work. It's hit the hospitality and service industries hardest because a lot of those places have just closed or their business has decreased so much.

I also think that it is going to have - risks having really deep long-term effects on women. I've spent the last few years - and really, it's been my passion for my entire career - writing about gender and economics. And it's always been a precarious situation. Women get more education than men now, you know, more college degrees. They have the option to do careers that one generation ago were not an option - professional careers, high-powered careers. More women with postgraduate degrees are having children than ever. In fact, it's the only group for whom, you know, fertility is increasing. They're increasingly finding it possible to do both - to be - to have a big career and have a child if they want to.

Women, before the pandemic hit, had just passed 50% - more than 50% of nonfarm jobs, which is just the way the government measures who's in the labor force. More than half the labor force, excluding farming jobs, was women. That was - you know - it's a big deal. But it all felt very precarious because women all always still faced this discrimination, this historical sexism, the pay gap, the bulk of child care and responsibility, especially if there were a crisis.

And we've seen how precarious it was because, all of a sudden, this crisis hit, and mothers have borne the brunt of it. So many of them have left their jobs. But I also worry about the huge numbers of them who have told me that they're just not going up for a promotion, that they're not applying for their next job, that they're not raising their hand for a big project, that they're cutting back their shifts in a way that means they'll never become store manager, whatever it is. They're making these choices right now that are going to have really, really long-term effects. And it took a very, very slow-moving process from the 1970s until today to get women where they are professionally and being players in the economy and having financial power. And I do worry that this has erased so much of it so quickly that it could be a massive setback for decades.

GROSS: Well, Claire Cain Miller, thank you so much for talking with us, and I wish you and your family good health.

MILLER: Thank you. You, too. And thanks so much for caring about this subject and having me.

GROSS: Claire Cain Miller reports on gender, families and the future of work for The New York Times.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with actress Rashida Jones; law professor Rosa Brooks, who spent two years as a reserve police officer in Washington, D.C., and wrote a book about policing; or Heather McGhee, author of a new book about how the economic costs of racism affect all Americans, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance today from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND GARY BURTON'S "SENOR MOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.