1 in 4 parents report being fired for work interruptions due to child care breakdowns

This article was originally published by The 19th.

Nearly one in 4 parents reported last year being fired from their jobs due to the continuing breakdown of child care for their kids, according to a new study published Thursday. It’s just the latest statistic in a crisis that is exacting a costly toll not only on families, but also on the economy: The report puts the price tag for the lack of access to affordable child care at $122 billion in 2022 due to lost wages, productivity and tax revenue.

That figure is more than twice what it was in 2018, when ReadyNation ran a similar study surveying about 800 parents of kids under the age of 3. The study merges the survey responses with labor market data from the Bureau of Labor statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau to model the impact that the inaccessibility to child care has on the broader economy. The report was done by ReadyNation, a coalition of business leaders, and Council for a Strong America, which advocates for child care policy.

Last year’s $122 billion figure breaks down like this: $78 billion in lost earnings and job search expenses for families; $23 billion lost by employers due to productivity challenges; and $21 billion in lower federal, state and local tax revenue brought on by parents having less discretionary income to spend back into the economy.

At the core of the problem is a child care system broken at every level. And since the pandemic, it has faced some of the strongest headwinds of any industry.

More than half of Americans live in a child care desert, where there are three or more children under 5 for every child care spot available. In 34 states and Washington, D.C., the average cost of child care at a daycare center is more than in-state public college tuition. Turnover rates for child care teachers are as high as 40 percent in some states, and a staffing shortage exacerbated by the pandemic continues nearly three years later. Child care jobs are still not back to pre-pandemic levels — a gap of about 50,000 positions nationwide still lingering even as most other sectors have rebounded.

“This is not just that parents are telling us they can't go to work. We're hearing businesses talking about how they have workers who couldn't return or they aren't able to hire because they can't find child care in their community,” said Anne Hedgepeth, chief of policy and advocacy at Child Care Aware, a leading child care advocacy organization. “These are people who want to be in the labor force, who in many cases have a job, and they are then in some way disconnected from that job and not going because of their child care responsibilities.”

One of the key issues continues to be supply, Hedgepeth said: There are simply not enough daycare spots for children who need it, and there are not enough staff in place when breakdowns happen, such as a teacher becoming sick, leading parents to have to fill in the gap.

Child Care Aware’s most recent report on the state of the industry in 2021 found that there were 12.3 million children who needed child care spots in 2021 but only 8.7 million slots in licensed child care centers — a gap of 3.6 million.

Day-to-day, those breakdowns in care mean that parents are often reporting late to work, leaving early or missing work because child care is unreliable. As many as 44 percent reported reducing their work hours, according to the ReadyNation study. About 1 in 3 parents had their pay or hours reduced as a result or switched from full-time to part-time employment.

Of the parents surveyed, 26 percent quit their jobs because of child care problems and 23 percent were fired. The number of parents who were fired or had their pay reduced is three times as high as it was just four years ago. The rate of parents quitting has doubled since 2018.

Moms were more likely to quit or be reprimanded by their supervisor for missing work due to child care issues, the study found, while dads were more likely to be fired or demoted. The study did not collect data from nonbinary parents.

“We are saying we are not going to build the child care system and we are going to make it as hard as possible for moms who are then going to leave and we are going to punish dads who want to play a role,” said Julie Kashen, a senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation. “It feels like this is all part of this vicious cycle of structural racism and sexism.”

Coffee spilling on laptop keyboard.(Hermann Mueller/Getty Images)

ReadyNation’s study did collect data on parents’ race, but the sample sizes were not large enough to conclude how parents of different racial backgrounds were affected by the child care crisis last year. Overall, the inability to secure stable child care affected parents’ long-term job prospects. One-third reported they had to turn down job offers or further education and training. A quarter said they turned down a promotion because the child care available to them was insufficient.

For mothers, in particular, the loss of child care after centers closed at the start of the pandemic helped set off the first women’s recession. At the onset of the pandemic, 3.5 million working mothers left their jobs, and, even as jobs returned, mothers continued to stay out of work in higher numbers specifically because the child care sector had not bounced back. Black women and Latinas, who are also most likely to work in jobs with less flexibility, quit their jobs because of child care disruptions at higher rates than White women.

It was that crisis that ushered in renewed attempts at investmenting in child care. In 2021, a coronavirus relief package included $39 billion in additional child care funding for states — more money than what had been spent on the industry the prior five years combined. But hopes of a larger child care package died in 2022 when a $400 billion infusion into the child care and pre-kindergarten system was ultimately nixed from another spending package.

More recently, Congress allocated an additional $1.8 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the core federal child care assistance program, for the 2023 fiscal year. And states will have until the end of September to spend all the dollars they received from the coronavirus relief package, money that in some cases has helped expand eligibility guidelines so more low-income children can access care, while also helping fund retention and hiring bonuses for teachers.

Some of that may turn into permanent changes, Hedgepeth said.

New Mexico recently passed a constitutional amendment that will direct increased funding to its early childhood education system. Washington, D.C., has set up a Pay Equity Fund for early childhood educators with grants of up to $14,000 for teachers. Virginia is piloting a new program that would change the way providers are reimbursed for child care — instead of paying based on rates set by the market, they would be paid for the true cost of the care. It’s a model that could profoundly change the industry by ensuring teachers and child care centers are paid appropriately.

But to make it affordable for families, it needs sustained subsidies. Virginia will be using the COVID funds earmarked for child care to test this new approach, but long-term, more money from the federal level would help make its program — and other programs states are testing — sustainable.

The issue this year is that it’s not likely Congress will take up another major federal child care package, even if the topic is one with significant bipartisan support, advocates said.

“Everything we are hearing is that Republicans are going to be leading efforts to cut back on spending, not put up more spending,” Kashen said. “That's where it comes to a head: If you're not going to put the money in, then you can't make policy changes that are needed.”

Corporate America has little, if anything, to say about abortion

Originally published by The 19th

In the days since a Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade leaked, corporate America has offered a familiar response: silence.

It mirrors the days following Texas’ implementation of its six-week abortion ban last September — silence from the many companies in the state. But in the weeks after Texas’ ban went into effect, some companies started to speak publicly and implement policies to assist employees who wanted to get an abortion out of state. That response to the Texas law, then the most restrictive abortion ban in the country, created a precedent that corporations could draw on now that it seems imminent that Roe will be overturned. So far, they have not.

The draft opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito and confirmed to be authentic, is not yet finalized, but it does make it clear it is very likely the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade this summer when it issues its final ruling on a Mississippi case before the court, leaving the decision on abortion up to individual states. About half of states will likely enact some form of abortion restriction as a result.

That makes the issue unavoidable for large companies.

Some have practical considerations to account for: Unlike with the Texas ban, the loss of Roe will mean corporations that provide health coverage and other benefits across state lines will have to weigh how to logistically do that when it comes to abortion.

But more broadly, since the rise of the #MeToo movement and the pandemic that decimated many jobs held by women, many corporations have spoken out about their commitments to inclusion for women, who up until 2020 made up more than half of the American workforce. One in four will have an abortion before the age of 45, a number that doesn’t include transgender and nonbinary people impacted, who major companies have also increasingly expressed a desire to support.

And yet only a handful of companies have publicly addressed the seemingly imminent fall of Roe. The 19th reached out to 30 of the largest employers in the country, including some of the Fortune 500 companies led by women — this year at a historic high — including CVS, Walgreens and General Motors, and companies that are major contributors to anti-abortion political action committees, such as Walmart, Coca-Cola and Google.

Only two in that group — Amazon and Citigroup — have said they will cover costs for employees who live in a state banning abortion to get the procedure in another state, though Amazon’s announcement, which came just hours before the draft ruling was leaked, is limited to employees on employer-sponsored health insurance and excludes many of the lowest paid employees, such as drivers.

T-Mobile, which has donated more than $340,000 since 2016 to groups heavily involved in electing anti-abortion senators, state legislators and govenors, said in a statement Friday that its “political donations have always been bipartisan and solely focused on supporting issues and topics relevant to our business and industry.”

The rest of the companies declined to comment or did not respond at all.

“Corporations have to choose a side of history right now — the longer they are silent, the weaker their claim is that they really care about women in the workplace,” said Noreen Farrell, a civil rights attorney and the executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit gender advocacy organization. “This may not be the intention of silence, but this is the message.”

The decisions companies do make have power, and they can be particularly meaningful in a post-Roe world where corporations can influence state politics on abortion if they wish to. In 2016, when North Carolina passed a bill to bar transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity, PayPal and Deutsche Bank rolled back plans to expand in the state, helping to incite a repeal of the law in 2017.

The news on abortion also wasn’t necessarily unexpected. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case that could potentially overturn Roe in December, and a decision was expected in June or July, with many expecting the court’s conservative majority would side with overturning Roe. Still, companies seem to have been caught flat-footed.

On Friday, Popular Information, a newsletter that covers corporate political donations, reported that a large public relations firm, Zeno, representing clients that include Coca-Cola, Netflix, Starbucks and Hershey’s, is circulating a template email advising clients to stay quiet on the measure.

“Do not take a stance you cannot reverse, especially when the decision is not final,” it reads, adding that the topic can be a “no-win” situation for companies because it could alienate some customers and stakeholders. Companies should steer clear of talking to or even pitching breaking news outlets at all, Zeno advises, to avoid being asked about a stance on the draft opinion.

Some of the reluctance seems to be unique to abortion, one of the most politically charged issues of our time partially because it’s so complex — polling shows that Americans have complicated, nuanced positions on abortion that go beyond a simple binary. Companies fear of alienating consumers or mistepping. But in the past two years, corporations have been quick to speak out on other charged topics, including threats to voting access, LGBTQ+ rights and racial justice.

The landscape in terms of worker power and corporate expectations has also shifted in the past several years and certainly the past few months. Emboldened by a job market that has given them more options, workers are demanding companies show up meaningfully in pay, benefits and forms of corporate giving that mirror their values, particularly on issues related to gender and racial equity. It’s too soon to see how or if that will play out with abortion, Stark said, because workers may be reluctant to share on an issue that for many is highly sensitive.

Just over half of voters want companies to speak out on abortion access, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll released Wednesday. Most want to see companies provide resources to help employees and customers affected by a potential ruling overturning Roe, and 45 percent want to see companies put out a statement in support of it.

But experts said companies may also be treading carefully given recent blowback, most notably that faced by the Walt Disney Company. A significant political donor to the Florida politicians who helped pass the “Don’t Say Gay” ban, Disney faced furious backlash from the public and employees who went on strike earlier this year when the company said the best way it could support them was through the content it created. It backpedaled too late, pulling political donations in the state and leading the Florida legislature to pass a bill to dissolve Disney’s special taxing district in retaliation. And in Washington, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, introduced a bill this week that would block companies from getting tax breaks if they help their employees get out-of-state abortions.

Ensuring they don’t have a similar misstep is paramount in this moment, said Jen Stark, who has led the “Don’t Ban Equality” campaign since 2019 encouraging business leaders denounce abortion bans.

“They know it’s beyond the performative now,” said Stark, who is also a senior director for corporate strategy at the Tara Health Foundation. “They need to say: ‘What are they doing to mitigate the harm to their workforce? How do they acknowledge the role, particularly for those engaged in political giving, that has supported extremist policy? And how do they help carve away the structural problems that got us here?”

But does that preclude them from saying anything at all in this moment?

“There are ways to find common language that still makes clear what you mean and what you value, so radio silence because the use of a particular word will blow up in their face — I think that’s either a cop out or a convenient excuse,” Farrell said.

Among the few companies that have spoken out this week was Levi Strauss & Co., which put out a statement less than 24 hours after the draft opinion leaked calling protecting reproductive health care, including abortion, “a critical business issue” that could undo some of the workplace gains women have made since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. It also committed to covering all medical and travel expenses for employees seeking abortions in neighboring states. On Friday, Tesla also announced plans to cover costs for workers seeking abortions out-of-state.

It’s still possible more such responses are coming, Stark said.

Behind the scenes, Stark said, companies are working with human resources and benefits managers to adjust their internal workforce practices, which in some cases go beyond covering abortion-related expenses, but also enhance paid sick leave policies and look at company subsidized child care support.

“We’re really trying to work with companies to think through not hiding additional increased benefits that they might be offering and addressing the needs of workers holistically,” Stark said. “It’s all about the internal communication at this moment. And so I do think companies are being mindful as they come out with these sort of enhancements in their benefits and talking about what they’re doing.”

In the weeks after Texas’ ban on abortion after six weeks gestation went into effect in September, support from companies started to trickle in. Dating app Bumble created a relief fund to support people seeking abortions outside Texas and software company Salesforce offered to help its employees relocate out of Texas if they were impacted by the new law.

Experts are also eyeing how the federal government could work with corporations to encourage abortion-related protections. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether it’s considering any incentives for businesses that provide benefits for employees seeking an abortion or any other such incentives.

“When government can’t or won’t act,” Stark said, “we look to businesses again and again and this is one of those moments.”

Alito got something very, very wrong in his leaked draft opinion

Originally published by The 19th

In a leaked draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito argued that pregnant people don’t actually need access to abortion to ensure economic mobility — they already have it.

According to the opinion, which was published by Politico Monday night, “unmarried pregnant women” — Alito does not include all pregnant people in his opinion — now have access to pregnancy discrimination protections, “guaranteed” medical leave “in many cases,” and medical costs that are “covered by insurance or government assistance.”

Those “modern developments” contradict the position held by many economists and abortion rights advocates for decades, Alito wrote. In his opinion — which Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed was a genuine draft, but said was not the official decision of the court — Alito concludes that it’s not up to the Supreme Court to assess “the effect of the abortion right on society and in particular on the lives of women.”

But his argument doesn’t account for the significant limitations of the protections he lists and the persisting truth that the United States holds some of the worst records in the world in terms of pregnancy and birth-related workplace benefits, experts say. Some of the elements Alito describes in the opinion are still a work in progress. In other cases, they are leaving out some of the most vulnerable Americans.

The overarching argument Alito appears to be making is that the country has made strides since 1973, when Roe v. Wade went into effect, guaranteeing abortion rights up until fetal viability. Alito suggests that progress nullifies the connection between abortion access and economic justice. But experts on child care, paid leave and economics said his argument fails to capture how the protections codified into law in the past five decades are still not sufficient. The reasoning is also at odds with another stance held by some self-described anti-abortion feminists, who feel that access to abortion has stymied the development of robust policies to support pregnant people and families.

In terms of pregnancy discrimination, a bill with bipartisan support recently passed the U.S. House and is now being considered by the Senate to fortify workplace protections for pregnant people. But that bill was introduced precisely because significant loopholes still exist, even though Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978.

On what Alito characterizes as “guaranteed” family leave, the only workers who have anything close to guaranteed leave are the top 10 percent of earners in the country, 95 percent of whom have access to family leave that is unpaid, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 36 percent of those highest earners also have paid family leave, and those numbers drop dramatically for the lowest paid workers, most of them women of color: 79 percent got unpaid family leave and only 5 percent had paid family leave in 2020.

Medical costs for birth are also still high, even with insurance coverage: about $4,300 on average for vaginal deliveries in 2015 and $5,200 for cesarean births, according to a wide-ranging study of more than 600,000 women in the United States between 2008 and 2015 who had health care insurance through their employer.

“The premise is false,” said Julie Kashen, a senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “Even if we had access to paid family leave and child care and insurance coverage for pregnancy and childbirth — even if we had all those things in place, which we do not, the need to have the right to abortion continues to exist.”

The United States ranks near the bottom of the list among advanced countries on how much it invests in child care, and it is one of only seven nations that has no national paid leave policy. Health care costs are so high in the United States, including for childbirth and pregnancy, that more than a third of American women reported skipping needed medical care, the highest rate among eleven high-income countries, according to a study by the Commonwealth Fund, a foundation providing health care research on vulnerable communities. (The study did not look at trans or nonbinary people.)

Abortion access and economic security have long been proven to have deep connections. A landmark study that followed two groups of women over 10 years — one group that wanted an abortion and got one and one that wanted one but did not get the procedure — found that those who were denied an abortion by a clinic because they were too late in their pregnancies sank deeper into poverty as a result.

The study, which did not look at outcomes for trans or gender diverse people, pinpointed the lack of abortion access as the turning point in the women’s economic trajectories, in part because there was little policy support federally and in their workplaces to help them raise their children without facing financial hardship.

The past two pandemic years have crystallized how little support there is for pregnant people and parents — so little, in fact, that women left the labor force in unprecedented numbers at the start of the COVID-19 crisis because of lack of access to paid leave and child care. In the wake of that exodus, policies to pass federal paid leave and free pre-Kindergarten got as close to becoming a political reality as they ever have in this country.

And yet, they have not passed.

Those who are most affected by the absence of those protections are the same group that will be affected by the lack of access to abortion: women and people of color.

“One of the things we have to remember is this narrative about abortion and who has access to abortion — we cannot forget that this is a race and class issue,” said Leng Leng Chancey, the executive director of 9to5, a national organization advocating for economic security for women of color.

If Roe is ultimately overturned, as the draft opinion suggests it will be, the decision on how to restrict abortion will be left up to states. Most of the states that have already passed abortion restrictions are in the South and Midwest, the same places that have higher concentrations of low-wage workers. It is those workers, the majority of them women of color, who will face the most significant barriers to abortion, who may not be able to travel to other states to undergo the procedure and who may not even have the time off from work or financial wiggle room to consider that option.

Chancey said that when she was pregnant with her first child, she earned $7.25 an hour working at a university and was spending $150 a week on child care. They had a cesarean birth and were back at work less than 8 weeks after the surgery.

“I was afraid to lose my job — who can access [unpaid family leave]? Nobody that’s working a minimum wage job, because you have to put food on the table,” they said.

Low-income people of color often can’t afford to be out of work without pay for extended periods of time, but they are also more likely to be single parents and caregivers.

“We live in a nation that penalizes caregivers and caregiving responsibilities,” said Josephine Kalipeni, the executive director of Family Values @ Work, a national network of state and local coalitions working to pass workplace policies including paid family leave. When she had an abortion while in college, part of the decision was driven by the fact that she was the eldest of six children, expected to be a caregiver for her parents and while completing her education.

Kalipeni said she was working three jobs at the time, struggling to pay off her tuition at the end of each semester.

“I had to think and really weigh the cost knowing that my parents would not have an inheritance to pass down to me in the future, that my financial wellness was as connected to theirs as their own independent finances were, and now to think about disrupting my education, incurring the costs of having a child and having a child in the United States? There was absolutely no way I could financially or emotionally have a child,” Kalipeni said.

If Roe is overturned, groups like hers will only be emboldened to fight more for the policies Alito suggests are already in the books, she said.

“It ramps up our work in its definitive terms, but I also think it ramps up our responsibility to talk about reimagining a democracy and an economy that works for all of us,” she said. “It becomes a uniting moment.”

Did the pandemic change dads forever?

Originally published by The 19th

Steve Ammidown and his wife had spent months juggling the relentless demands of child care and working from home during the pandemic. They took turns caring for their daughter and squeezing in a few hours of work before crashing into bed at night, drained and discouraged.

In the fall of 2020, Ammidown’s boss started to call with more frequency.

When, exactly, will you be back in the office full time?

The chair of the department is asking about you.

Things were nowhere near back to normal, but there was an unspoken expectation that he should figure it out anyway. Kids shouldn’t interrupt Zooms. Parents should start to return to the office.

Just a few years prior, Ammidown and his family had moved to Ohio for his dream job as an archivist at Bowling Green State University. But something had flipped for Ammidown in the months since the pandemic started. This time he had spent with his then-5-year-old daughter while his wife also worked remotely had profoundly realigned his priorities. He was not ready to give up time with her, and, besides, he still didn’t have any care options.

Facing intense pressure to return in person in December of last year, Ammidown realized his job was requiring something of him that he was no longer willing to compromise on: his health and his time with his family.

So he quit.

Steve Ammidown poses for a portrait at his home in Bowling Green, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey for The 19th)

“I loved the work that I was doing, but the job wasn’t that important in the end,” said Ammidown, 47. “Over the last year, there’s been a lot of mental shifts of, ‘Maybe I’d be OK if I took a part-time job somewhere because that would let me do more of this care work.’ I’ve started to change the way I’m thinking about careers and jobs.”

That shift has happened in many American families, in some cases tearing down and rebuilding the constructs by which we decide who does what.

In most households where child care fell apart, it was mothers who were making the choice to quit work to care for children. The disintegration of care has pushed enough women out of work in the past two years to trigger a recession. What happened to moms was stark: Millions left the workforce, then hundreds of thousands more dropped out as the 2020 and 2021 school years began.

But what was happening to dads was less clear and, in some ways, more complicated.

As of October, about a million fewer fathers of school-age children were actively working in the labor force than pre-pandemic, compared with 1.4 million fewer moms of kids under the age of 18. In October, about half a million dads between the ages of 25 and 54 were on leave from work and another half a million were unemployed, according to data provided to The 19th by Misty Heggeness, a principal economist and senior adviser at the U.S. Census Bureau who has been closely tracking outcomes for mothers and fathers during the pandemic. (The available data does not reflect nonbinary people, but includes some LGBTQ+ parents.)

Those figures are all higher than pre-pandemic levels, but still largely trending downward month-to-month since early 2020.

What the data doesn’t reflect are all the decisions taking place individually, between partners and between colleagues — the places where gender norms that were once strictly followed, consciously or not, are becoming more fluid.

Ammidown’s model of a father, his own, worked the same job for about 40 years, always leaving at the same time in the morning and returning at the same time at night. In the year since he quit his job, Ammidown struggled with the expectation that he, too, should be employed.

Though he started to apply to jobs more seriously this fall, nothing has come together just yet. His daughter returned to school in-person in March.

“My kid is in school from 9 to 3 and I’ve had no problem filling the hours in between with cleaning and doing stuff around the house and projects. At the same time there is not the plethora of after-school care options that there were in the before times,” he said. “What would that look like if I went back to work?”

Steve Ammidown and his wife, Michelle Chronister, hold their daughter. (Maddie McGarvey for The 19th)

For decades in the United States, workers have had to adjust to the demands of their work, but what happens when work starts to come second for dads, the group of people who have been most expected to put it first?

Dominic Apugliese, a systems engineer on Florida’s Space Coast, is considering leaving his job and looking for another if his current employer forces him to return to work in person. Apugliese became a father during the pandemic — his daughter was born in February 2020 — and he’s only known a time when he’s been able to be home with her.

It’s helped him see, from the earliest days of his daughter’s life, the amount of work that has gone into her care between him and his wife. Studies have found that dads who take leave when their children are born are more likely to stay involved in their care long-term.

For Apugliese, it wasn’t leave, it was the pandemic.

“There might be a whole generation of dads that truly appreciate all those stay-at-home moms,” said Apugliese, 27.

For John Kuehl, that fuller appreciation, the kind that can only come from experiencing something yourself, has come later in life. In the past two years, roles have completely switched in his home.

Kuehl works for a food delivery tech company in Madison, Wisconsin, a job that had him in the office every weekday before the pandemic. His wife was a stay-at-home mom for many years, but recently, she became a special education case manager at a local high school. Now she’s out of the house most days, and he’s working remotely and caring for their 15-year-old and 13-year-old.

In 2020, Kuehl started taking on all the household work, the little things like remembering to put softener salt in the water softener, or cooking dinner, picking up the kids and walking the dog — even when he turned his ankle playing basketball.

Many of those were things, Kuehl felt, that everyone else barely even acknowledged.

This created some tension in the house, but Kuehl, 42, has started to wonder how much of it was self-created “for expecting some level of gratitude that it may not be fair to expect.” After all, he and his wife had been intentional about how they were going to make it work.

Should he “expect someone to thank me for doing something they don’t care about being done?” Kuehl said.

The pandemic, in a way, has made it harder to think like that.

“When everyone is fighting new personal battles that are different and probably more intense than normal, it seems like we all have less capacity than ever for seeing the struggle that others are going through,” Kuehl said. “When we yearn to be seen for what we are doing right now — by our employers, by our partners, even by our own kids — and would benefit maybe the most from it, we’re probably less likely than ever to have that need fulfilled.”

Dads don’t often take on that invisible labor — it’s work that is historically gendered — but mothers can recognize it even before you start to list examples. They know what it’s like to get no thanks for the cleaning and the laundry and scheduling the doctor’s appointments and remembering when they are out of cereal or when they need to buy a birthday gift. Some dads like Kuehl are experiencing that stress for the first time, and with it the complicated web of self-questioning about how much they should expect from their partners and how much they take on because they feel it’s work that needs to get done.

John Kuehl and his kids in Madison, Wisconsin (Courtesy of John Kuehl)

“I have to realize I’m doing that for me, and that is a healthier mindset for me than, ‘Oh my God, look at me slaving, how can no one acknowledge [it]’” he said.

Still, while dads have taken on more labor at home, a body of research indicates there are many ways the pandemic has pushed some families toward more traditional roles instead. William Scarborough, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas who has studied gender norms during the pandemic, said overall, it appears the pandemic could result in women taking on more work at home and with kids.

Early in the pandemic, studies found that mothers were reducing their work hours four to five times more than fathers in heterosexual couples where both parents were working. Another study of census data found that early on, both parents were experiencing similar work-related stress but that as time went on, fathers remained employed while moms have become more likely to reduce their hours, take leave or exit the labor force.

Intense expectations around worker productivity — the concept of the “ideal worker” who is fully committed to the job with no child care responsibilities — have pulled more people, and men in particular, back into the labor force as businesses have resumed work in person, Scarborough said. Layered on top is the idea that many households still “endorse a belief of gender essentialism,” he said, the belief that men and women have inherently different skill sets, with women being better equipped to handle care.

“It creates this feedback loop where mom is spending more time with the kids, so, practice makes perfect, she becomes even better at it. Dad, who’s now spending less time with the kids, has this learned helplessness,” Scarborough said. “Even if couples don’t endorse traditional norms, even if they are egalitarian, there are structures that force them to fill out their lives in a very traditional way.”

But that could be changing: For the first time, a proposal to infuse billions of dollars into child care, universal pre-K and paid leave could pass Congress, a reflection, Scarborough said, of a nation whose values might be changing. And when The 19th put out a call-out to dads for this story, the messages flooded in the first day. And the second. And the third. Dads, it seemed, were eager to talk about how the pandemic changed how they looked at parenting.

For Max Weisman, a communications professional in Philadelphia, it dredged up a deeper conversation about why we treat mothers and fathers differently.

Weisman has been working from home during the pandemic while his wife, a nurse, works out of the house three days a week. When he’s seen walking his toddler daughter in their neighborhood, he might have “10 people compliment how I’m our next savior, where my wife is never treated that way.”

In their neighborhood, he is known as “Sadye’s father.”

“It makes me sound like that superhero parent. But I do it three days a week and my wife does it three days a week, but she is not ‘Sadye’s mother,’” said Weisman, 30. “We put dads on this pedestal when we do half the work that moms do.”

Even still, the pandemic has created an opening for more understanding. Each parent understands the other’s job better now after being home together most days for the better part of two years.

“The appreciation for each other’s work gave us more empathy and giving each other time off and more willingness to take on those household tasks,” Weisman said.

It’s the power of visibility, said Jeremy Smith, the co-founder of the Mindful Return Working Dad Course, an employer-sponsored four-week online class that helps fathers adjust to their roles as working parents. The discussions dads have been having in the course this year are vastly different, he said.

“Historically, the role of dads has been quite different from what it is now, even though the realities have changed, I don’t know that the [national] discussion had changed on pace with it,” Smith said. “Just normalizing the fact that you’re allowed to have these opinions and to feel this way and that you’re not isolated or alone in that is sort of helping to bubble up change.”

Smith has seen how long it’s taken for those ideas to take hold. When he was working for a large finance company in 2014, he took parental leave for the birth of his first child. He said to his knowledge, he was the first person in his region to do that. The pushback wasn’t explicit, but it was there.

“It was more the undertone: ‘Well, what’s going to happen when you come back? Will it affect your bonus?” he said. It did affect his bonus: At the end of the year, his bosses said they found it was hard to make the case that he was an “exceeding performer” if he had been out for a third of the year.

So much of the focus is on productivity, he said — how can we squeeze the most out of everything? But Smith argues that things like parental leave should be included in conversations around how the benefits workers are given contribute to their “total return.” How does something like paid leave allow workers to lead fuller lives, which then makes them happier, more productive and less burned out?

“We don’t think about the long-term repercussions, we don’t price that in. No one values that in a dollar sense and adds it to a spreadsheet,” Smith said. “It’s only seen as a negative not a positive and, candidly, I doubt it’ll ever really change until we start to do that.”

There is still a long way to go. And things like parental leave are the first step in a change that happens not just in individual households, but systemically. If employers are not on board, if there is no mechanism to support people in their decisions, norms will stay where they are.

It’s only in the past several years as men have become more vocal about the need for paternity leave that the issue has risen in prominence. A decade ago, only 1 in 20 fathers surveyed by the Boston College Center for Work and Family were taking more than two weeks off for the birth of their child. When the study, which surveyed fathers in four Fortune 500 companies, was repeated last year, about 62 percent said they were taking the full leave available to them — six to 16 weeks.

But even large companies have rules about how and when parents can access leave. And sometimes, a parent’s intention is not enough.

Steve Ammidown and June hug before making dinner.

Rob Hinton, who works for a large payment processing company out of Nebraska, was three weeks short of his one-year anniversary with the company when his child was born in November. Because of those three weeks, he did not qualify for the three months of fully paid leave his job offers to employees after one year. Instead he gets nothing.

Hinton, 36, has been trying to ask his company to give him the leave anyway, but there is no appeal process.

“I’ve had multiple HR people say like, ‘Well she had the kid right? It’s not an adoption or anything? If you had the kid you’d be able to, but it’s her medical condition,’” Hinton said. “It’s shocking, I didn’t realize how bad it was for dads until I became a dad.”

It feels almost like the cards are stacked against him, even when he wants to try. Hinton did not have a close relationship with his father, and promised himself he’d do it differently if he had children.

Being home throughout the pandemic while his wife was pregnant only reinforced that for him.

“I’m doing literally everything I can think of — I want to be as involved as possible,” he said. “It’s all shared, but it needs to be, at minimum, equal.”

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