Cecilia’s job processing contracts at a car dealership isn’t essential, but that doesn’t mean she can stay home. With the dealership open for vehicle servicing and online sales, the single mother of two is still expected to deal with paperwork on site. That means leaving her 5-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son with their grandmother, Cecilia’s mom, in their one-bedroom Anaheim, California, apartment. While Cecilia is at work, her mother tries to help with the homeschooling that’s become the norm since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools and childcare centers around the country.

When schools closed in March, her daughter was sent home with just a few packets of worksheets. But for Cecilia’s son, expectations are much higher—and much more time consuming: 10- to 15-minute YouTube lessons in phonics, math, social studies, and reading, plus assignments to be completed on his tablet. It’s basically a full school day, Cecilia said, but the kids’ grandmother can only do so much—while schoolwork is in English, she mostly speaks Spanish and also has health challenges that limit how active she can be. So after work every evening, it’s on Cecilia to catch her son up.

“It’s a little difficult sometimes because when I get home it’s evening time and he’s kind of tired from the day,” she said. “Then it’s a long evening trying to get him to do homework.”

By now, the balancing act Cecilia’s managing is familiar to working mothers around the country. All but three states in the US, as well as Washington, D.C., and all five U.S. territories, have shut down schools for the rest of the academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are also widespread closures of the daycare centers that cared for babies and younger children. Nevertheless, many parents are expected to keep working. For those who’ve been able to shift into working from home, trying to stay on task professionally while supervising homeschooling and caring for little ones is increasingly taking a toll. Meanwhile, parents with essential jobs—and those like Cecilia who work for non-essential businesses that have elected to remain open—are still commuting to work daily, then coming home to the evening’s “second shift” ensuring that kids are staying on track with schoolwork.  

Work expectations haven’t necessarily been reduced to account for the increased domestic burdens. Indeed, Cecilia’s responsibilities have only grown at the dealership where she works. 

“At work we cut back on a lot of people, so I’m doing like two jobs at once,” she said—both contracts and accounts payable. “It’s been a lot, and as I’m at work, I’m thinking of home.” She’s coping as well as she can, but the pressure has triggered some anxiety attacks.

The pressures she’s facing have long fallen disproportionately on mothers, who bear the brunt of childcare crises no matter their family situation. In heterosexual married couples, “if somebody needs to be home with the children, typically it’s the wife who’ll rearrange her work schedule,” said Kristin E. Smith, a visiting associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth. And in families headed by single mothers, there’s often simply no one else to take on the responsibility.

That makes childcare availability all the more critical, especially for mothers of color like Cecilia, who is Mexican American, as women of color are more likely to be their household’s primary earner or a co-breadwinner. In times of ordinary crisis, within communities of color and in low-income neighborhoods, mothers can often look to neighbors and family members to fill in childcare gaps, explained Quianta Moore, a fellow in child health at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“But now with the pandemic, when everyone’s worried about being carriers and possibly getting our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles sick, that makes it more difficult,” she said. The social networks that many working mothers would usually rely upon “are fragmented and, in some cases, dissolved” as a result of the isolation necessitated by COVID-19-related social distancing and stay-at-home orders. “The neighbor is now less likely to welcome your children into their home because of concerns about their own safety.”

Heavy burden on mothers and children alike

For Jenifer, a white single mom who lives in South Central Los Angeles, California, school closures and the demands of work have meant asking her teenage daughters to fend for themselves with schoolwork and help out their younger siblings while Jenifer is at the office. She’s a title clerk for new and used cars, and isn’t allowed to use the DMV-based computer system remotely, so she commutes to work every day.

Her children are older than Cecilia’s—17, 14, 13, and 8—and the shift to online learning has been tough.  

“My two older daughters, to be honest, I’ve had to let them do their own everything because both have six classes,” she said. “With me working mostly full time, it’s hard to stay on top of all four of [the kids], so I’ve had to focus on the younger ones.”

Her focus on the kids’ schoolwork doesn’t just start when she gets home in the evenings. During the workday, Jenifer said, her phone goes off “constantly.”

“If it’s not an email, it’s a reminder from an app called Remind, which is great communication between the parents and teachers,” she said. “But when you’re a working parent, we have a job that we have to do. I take pride in my job and I want to do the best that I can, but I’m so stressed out … that I’m not able to focus 100 percent because I’m so worried about the kids, and school, and not being able to help them.”

She can see that the loss of their school routine is weighing on her children too, and she’s deeply concerned about their well-being.

“We’re a month into it, and throughout this experience I can’t say there’s a day that’s been easy for any of them,” she said, particularly for her eldest daughter who struggles with depression, and her son who needs special one-on-one assistance to learn successfully.

Jenifer has a few options for relief from the balancing act, but none is ideal. For one, the in-home daycare her youngest daughter and her son used to go for after school care has stayed open, but Jenifer has been reluctant to use it regularly since the coronavirus started spreading.

“I do not take them every day because I’m kind of nervous [about] what I’m going to be exposing them to,” she said. Her worries are compounded by the fact that her youngest daughter has a compromised immune system due to Kawasaki disease. 

Jenifer has considered taking time off under the California Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires certain employers to offer 80 hours—or two weeks—of paid leave that can be used by parents who no longer have childcare. Ultimately, she decided against it. While she knows her job would technically be safe, “I don’t want any flak at work either,” she said.

It’s not clear that a reprieve is coming any time soon. Los Angeles schools will remain closed for the summer, and the Los Angeles Timesreports they are undecided about whether to reopen campuses in the fall. That’s a frightening prospect for Jenifer.

“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to juggle both, to be honest,” she said. “It’s going to be completely impossible.”

Career change, interrupted

For mothers who can work from home, a different set of pressures has sprung up as many have tried to balance childcare with major shifts in their careers.

Leniece was in the midst of a career transition when the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. The San Jose, California, mother of three-year-old twins runs a human resources consultancy that focuses on building diverse workplaces. But when states started closing down as the pandemic spread, she was actually in the process of shifting into a new industry. Things quickly fell apart.

“I had an offer that was rescinded when shelter-in-place happened, and I also had two interviews scheduled that were canceled,” Leniece said. “I’ve had to reimagine what my work [will] look like, and also go through the mourning process of what would’ve been.”

Even as she has continued HR consulting after the interrupted career change, her business has suffered as clients implement hiring freezes, furloughs, and layoffs. 

Still, as the owner of her own business, Leniece has been able to work from home for the last six years, which she recognizes is a privilege not everyone enjoys. That includes her extended family: Her mother-in-law is a nurse in New York, one of the epicenters of the virus, and her sister works for the postal service in New Jersey, the second hardest-hit state. They’re on her mind often.

“It’s a very sharp juxtaposition against our family and our community and the real threat they currently live with,” said Leniece. “Most of our family are essential workers and blue-collar workers and they are on the front lines. It’s been a very triggering time emotionally.” Many other Black mothers face similar worries about their loved ones, as Black workers are more likely to be employed in essential jobs.

As for her immediate family, Leniece, her husband, and her daughters are now together all day, every day. Before all this, the girls attended a childcare center on site at the Bay Area workplace of Leniece’s husband. The center closed when stay-at-home orders went into place. While her husband is also working from home and is a hands-on father, she said, Leniece is “definitely bearing more of the household and childcare.”

Then there’s the space issue.

“We’re in these pretty tight quarters—we have a two bedroom apartment,” she said. “There’s but so many places you can go. It’s not like you can even go in the hallway and take a private call, [we’re] literally in closets and in bathrooms trying to get work done, or working at ungodly hours of the morning or night while [the] kids are sleeping.”

During the day, she’s brushing off her early childhood education skills—she’s also a former Teach For America teacher—and trying to keep the girls on a schedule resembling what they had in preschool.

“I’m glad that we’re spending a lot of quality time together, and at the same time I’m tapped out and exhausted,” she said.

Starting a business in the midst of crisis  

Like Leniece, LaToya was going through a career change when the pandemic arrived, having left her corporate job to start her own consulting business in Charlotte, North Carolina. She had just secured her first client contracts in February when concerns about the coronavirus were growing in the U.S. Then in mid-March, the schools closed.

“With the shutdown, slowly but surely those contracts began to stall,” said LaToya. “One of them was a school-based partner, so when the schools closed it was like well, there goes that contract.”

That also meant her 3-year-old son, who had previously attended a private Montessori preschool, was suddenly at home. While LaToya’s ex-husband is an involved co-parent and picks up their son for visits a few times a week, he has continued working full-time and isn’t providing regular childcare. Like many other Black mothers who’ve become entrepreneurs, LaToya now balances childcare duties for her son with the needs of her business.

To help ease the pressure, LaToya’s mother moved in. She helps out during the day, but isn’t responsible for full-time childcare; instead LaToya structures the day to allow blocks of time for her to participate in homeschooling. As an alumna of Teach for America, LaToya has a background in education, and has used one-on-one time with her son to extend the practical concepts he was learning in school while also allowing space for enrichment through things like performing arts.

“I’ve enjoyed the change,” she said. “It can be stressful—it is stressful, but I’ve enjoyed the focus on his development.”

While some of her client work previously included significant time spent on site, that’s changed now. “I have about two contracts that I was able to shift to work-from home,” LaToya said. But one of her most important contracts, the one that gave her the confidence to pursue her business full time without another job to fall back on, is now in limbo.

The upheaval has prompted LaToya to think through what the new normal looks like for her burgeoning business, and for her family. It’s not all bad news, she said—as a contractor, she’s well-suited to an environment where employers are newly reluctant to make expensive, permanent hires. But still, the uncertainty gets to her.

“I’m a mother. I have a mortgage. We just launched in January, I don’t have a cushion to fall back on should a client pull back, and so there’s the very real fear of tomorrow,” she said. “If I were just single, [without] the mother piece, I could be a little more freeform and creative with how I move forward and with a little less security, but I have a little one. His future depends on my stability.”

A childcare crisis decades in the making

Even as states across the country work toward reopening businesses, working parents like Leniece and LaToya who relied on private daycare and preschools may find themselves scrambling. The U.S. already faced a shortage of childcare slots that left many families without anywhere to send their children, especially Black and brown and low-income families. Now, according to the Center for American Progress (CAP), national childcare capacity may be cut in half permanently as a result of the widespread closures mandated by the pandemic.

“We don’t know that providers are going to be there when the economy finally reopens,” said Katie Hamm, vice president of early childhood policy at CAP. “Most childcare providers cannot go a couple weeks, let alone a couple of months or a year, without revenue. You have extremely thin margins, no cushions, and when something like this happens, it really pushes the entire industry to the brink.”

With the pandemic threatening to slash the availability of childcare, women are at risk of falling out of the workforce. In research conducted before the coronavirus pandemic, “[CAP] looked at what happens when families have difficulty finding childcare, and what we found is that the likelihood that the mother is going to be employed goes down by 12 percentage points,” said Hamm. “There’s no measurable impact on fathers’ employment.”

Women working low wage jobs are particularly vulnerable to being pushed out.

“Because [they’re] in a situation where [they’re] living on the margins, I don’t predict that women are going to voluntarily quit,” said Moore. “What’s going to happen is that they’re more likely going to get fired or laid off because [as] trying to find somewhere to send your child becomes increasingly difficult, it’s going to put mothers in a situation where they say, ‘You know, I just can’t make it to work today.’”

For women like LaToya, access to childcare may be the only thing that enables their careers and nascent businesses to stay afloat long term.

“[What I need is] to be able to have access to childcare at a reasonable rate so that as a working single mother I don’t have to choose between quality childcare and education for [my son], and a stable career for myself,” said LaToya. “I shouldn’t have to make that choice, and I may have to.”

National push for relief  

Targeted assistance from the government could help to protect women’s workforce participation and keep the childcare industry afloat until the pandemic subsides. But so far, some mothers say, Congress and states haven’t done enough.

“There has to be some sort of support for families, and there just isn’t,” said Leniece. Without it, “mothers might be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 just because of patriarchy.”

To address the crisis, childcare industry advocates are calling for a $50 billion dollar bailout of the childcare industry. Meanwhile, Moore notes, more could be done to ensure child care centers can access loans to help them survive—something that’s not happening enough under the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program.

“We have these small business loans, [and] they’re not going to really small businesses or even businesses of color. Part of that is because of the banking system and how that already is designed in a way that disproportionately negatively affects communities and businesses of color,” said Moore. That’s a problem for the child care industry, which disproportionately employs women of color.

“There needs to be a separate bill specific to childcare centers that allows them to keep their doors open, as well as subsidizes them for families that cannot afford to pay the going rate because their hours are cut or whatever the situation is,” she said.   

Looking to the future, and facing difficult choices

As long-term school and childcare closures loom, working mothers are figuring out how they’ll manage to hold on until things return to some semblance of normal. Most said the status quo is simply unsustainable—between childcare and homeschooling on the one hand and work on the other, something will have to give, even if that means risking the ability to provide for their families.

“I’m going to have to make a decision at some point, and that decision’s going to have to be [that] my children come first,” said Jenifer. “I don’t know how I would be able to afford to stay home to take care of my kids and make sure that those responsibilities [are taken care of], but this is their education that we’re talking about.”

Cecilia too has considered quitting her job and going on unemployment to allow her to help her kids through this period of homeschooling, but her income is critical to keeping her family afloat.

“I need my job in order to pay for everything, so quitting—I don’t know. I do think about it a lot,” she said. “But we need money to eat, and live.”

Ashton is an accomplished writer and editor—and recovering lawyer—whose work focuses on the intersection of race, culture, and law. Her writing has been published by The Washington Post, Slate magazine,...