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Struggles of working parents on full display amid pandemic

Working parents in this country are having a particularly tough time during the coronavirus crisis. With schools shut down in almost every state, more than 50 million kids have been sent home, complicating life for parents working inside or outside the home. And while the situation is extreme, it’s shining a spotlight on the ever-present challenges of balancing work and family in a society with no mandatory family or sick leave, unaffordable child care and an always-on work culture.

For Jessica and Josh Whitt, the boundaries between work and home have completely broken down. Jessica teaches biology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Josh is a scientist at a biopharmaceutical company.

Their 3-year-old daughter, who’s usually at preschool, has now become their officemate, background music, chief distractor and star of video conferences.

“There are moments where my students see her running in the background, or she’ll come sit on my lap,” Jessica said. “I can hear her: ‘I need Mommy, I want Mommy Mommy!’ “

Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University and author of the parenting books “Cribsheet” and “Expecting Better,” said such scenes have become the norm in her conference calls.

“And it just sort of forces you to be able to say, honestly, something that I would have been very reluctant to before,” she said, “that I’m trying to manage my children and I think we’re going to see a lot of that.”

In the U.S., about three-quarters of mothers and more than 90% of dads work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The challenges of doing both are out in the open like never before, said Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at the New America think tank and author of “Overwhelmed.”

“It’s really showing the illusion that we’ve been living under — this bizarre expectation that if you’re a worker, you’re all in and that’s all you are and that’s all you do. That we don’t have families or that somehow we don’t have these responsibilities,” she said.

The pressure to keep family life out of work is particularly acute for women, said Caitlyn Collins, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Women tend to be penalized for any signal that they are caregivers in the workplace, whereas men tend to receive benefits,” she said. An analysis of census data by the National Women’s Law Center found the wage gap between men and women grows wider when parenthood is taken into account: Mothers are paid 69 cents for every dollar a father makes.

Women are considered somehow less committed or capable if they are parents, whereas men are seen as more committed and more capable to their jobs as parents,” said Collins.

“It’s frustrating. It’s hard,” Jessica Whitt said. “But I think it is important that if we’re going to have a sustainable workforce, we need a workforce that’s going to work with family life. These issues are human issues.”

Congress has already temporarily extended paid family and sick leave to millions of people, some states are offering free child care to frontline workers and many employers have been forced to be more flexible about when and where the work gets done.

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