We know the pandemic is affecting working moms—but how is that affecting kids?

A shift in gender roles could be impacting children as well as parents.

With two master’s degrees—including an MBA from Columbia University—Sarah Shtutin always valued her career as a healthcare consultant. But when the pandemic struck last year, she and her husband decided that since her husband had the larger salary and the less flexible schedule, she would cut her work hours in half to care for their three children, all under six years old and now home from school.

At first, without the pressure of hustling kids out the door and with more time to play outside, things were great. “But I didn’t think it would be February and we’d still be here,” she said. “Right now, I feel extremely burned out.”

Shtutin’s experience is almost old news at this point in the pandemic: Almost one million mothers have left the workforce since the shutdown began, and many others have cut back work hours to deal with household responsibilities. Working women are also assuming more childcare responsibilities as schools and daycares stay closed.

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, since the pandemic began the number of women in the workforce has dropped to about 56 percent, compared to almost 58 percent in January 2020 (or 57.5 percent in 2019). “We’re now back at 1988 in terms of the level of women’s employment,” says Julie Kohler, a social scientist and fellow at the National Women’s Law Center. “I keep thinking about this, that in less than a year we eradicated 30 years of labor gains for women.”

Because of those steady labor gains since the ’80s, traditional gender roles have also been slowly shifting. For instance, the amount of housework married men do has more than doubled since the 1960s (though married women still, on average, do twice as much housework as men). And in the last 15 years, women have become less likely to be the primary partner handling grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, dishwashing, and cleaning, though they still occupy those roles in a majority of households. And psychologists and sociologists say gender roles at home have a big impact on how kids grow up, as well as what their expectations are for themselves and their future families.

So as experts worry that the pandemic is quickly reversing equity gains women have made over the last 30 years, they’re also concerned about the long-lasting impacts on children observing shifting gender roles at home. The choices that parents make during this time, though, can minimize the effects on kids and even bring about positive changes from this challenging time.

How gender roles at home influence a child's development

“When moms are more dependent on the father to be the breadwinner, that situation is very gender traditional,” says Martie Haselton, a professor of psychology at UCLA and the Institute for Society and Genetics. In the past, that often meant that women—working outside the home or not—were taking on more household chores and childcare responsibilities.

Those traditional roles affected how kids grew up. For example, according to data released by Harvard Business School in 2015 and 2018, daughters of moms who stayed at home do more housework as adults than daughters of employed mothers, while adult sons do less, even when controlling for employment status.

But as more women participated in the workforce and earned higher wages over the last 30 years, gender roles at home became more equitable—and children tended to fare better. The same Harvard studies showed that daughters whose mothers worked outside the home were more likely to hold leadership roles at work and earn higher wages than daughters whose mothers stayed home full time. Sons of working moms tended to hold more egalitarian gender attitudes and spent about 50 extra minutes a week caring for family members.

But as the pandemic forces women to leave the workforce or cut back on hours, Haselton says these advances could be reversed. She worries that kids growing up in newly gender-traditional households will internalize those roles, causing society to lose the recent equality gains it’s made.

“Kids might see that and grow up to say, ‘Mom does this and Dad that,’” she says. “That wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic.”

Leslie Forde, who’s been running a survey of families since the start of the pandemic for her research and consulting company, Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs, says that even kids with a parent who always took a traditionally gendered lead role are likely being impacted by the pandemic. For instance, though Ashley Lewis’s career was already secondary to her husband’s, her new “job” as at-home teacher to her two elementary-school-age children ramped up her gender role even more—and that’s affecting how her son sees her “mom” role.

“My husband isn’t involved as much [with school],” she says. “I have time to help, so even when my husband will say, ‘I can help with math,’ my son will say, ‘No, I want mom to do it.’”

Part of what’s affecting children as gender roles shift at home is some parents’ frustration at the new normal. Kohler says when amplified gender roles are not by choice, the impact on kids can be significant.

“Women’s mental health is suffering disproportionately in the pandemic because of the level of domestic and caregiving responsibilities they have to assume,” she says. “More important than who is doing what is how people feel about what they’re doing. And right now, for millions of women, that’s not good. And it’s an open question how that level of dissatisfaction and stress will affect kids.”

What kids can learn from shifting gender roles

Some good news, though, is that with both parents home, some dads are taking on more of the household chores and parenting responsibilities that traditionally would fall to Mom. And that sends a good message to kids about gender roles.

For example, in the Lewis household, Dad does the dishes every day and runs more errands because he’s now home. Other households are leaning almost completely on fathers. Randy Lum and his wife, Abigail, decided early on in their relationship that he’d be the primary caregiver to their children, so when the pandemic rolled in, that system helped their household cope when daycare closed for their two young children.

Forde says that more families are becoming like Lewis’s and Lum’s as the pandemic wears on. Men are able to take on more nontraditional gender roles like parenting and housework because they’re working at home with their partner, or—as women are called back to in-person healthcare and teaching jobs—are now the only ones at home.  

It’s an opportunity to shift societal expectations about gender roles, Forde says, something psychologist Deborah Pontillo agrees with. For instance, when kids can see what their work-from-home parents actually do for a living, they understand that both parents have equally critical roles to play in the family.

“Kids can look at how their mothers are working and having a family and trying to balance both,” she says. “They can see it more. Before, it was, ‘Mom goes to work,’ and it was out of sight, out of mind.”

How to teach your kids about gender roles during the pandemic

Monique Lopez is non-binary and raising a two-and-a-half-year-old with their wife in San Diego. When the pandemic struck and their son’s daycare closed, Lopez says the gender-fluid roles they had already agreed on meant there were no assumptions about who did what job. They could easily communicate about what needed to get done.

“We would have conversations in the morning,” Lopez says. “We’d coordinate our schedules on a daily basis and made it work.”

Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair says LGBTQ or gender nonconforming partnerships like Lopez’s often already shared a foundation of communication out of a necessity to define roles early on. Male-female households can also follow this example by communicating more about who does what and involving kids in those conversations so they can learn that roles don’t have to be gender-specific.

“I hear kids saying things like, ‘I didn’t know my father knew how to cook,’” she says. “And there’s nothing wrong with people playing into gender roles as long as they talk to their kids about it and say, ‘Just because Mom does the laundry and I take the trash out doesn’t mean all moms have to do the laundry.’”

Parents can also teach children about equitable gender roles by coaching each other instead of criticizing when someone doesn’t do their “traditional job” correctly, like burning the chicken or using too much laundry detergent.

“Parents are respecting each other and saying, ‘I can’t believe how much work this is, particularly right now,’” Steiner-Adair says. “And we know that respect is good for kids. It’s harmful when kids who grow up in families where women’s roles are dismissed.”

Kohler advises parents to look for ways to balance responsibilities wherever possible, whether that means trading off grocery runs or having kids help in ways that defy gender roles, like having older boys help take care of younger kids.

“That would certainly be beneficial for kids, not just for gender equity, but to see men in caregiving roles and understand that things women traditionally do are critical work,” she says.

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