Technology

How working from home can be a burden for parents


In March 2020, millions of American parents turned kitchen tables into desks, closets into boardrooms, and Zoom meetings into opportunities for impromptu dance performances when they started working from home to care for their kids during the pandemic.

Of course, some parents worked from home before the pandemic began, but by making the practice far more common, the lockdowns helped entrench a new role in American families and society at large: that of the work-from-home parent. Now, more than three years after the pandemic began, it looks like that role is here to stay.

Despite company attempts to call workers back to the office, remote work has stabilized at about 25 percent of total days worked, up from 5 percent of days in 2019, said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University and a co-founder of the project WFH Research. Parents, especially mothers, are more likely to take advantage of remote policies when they’re available: in 2022, moms worked an average of 33.6 percent of their days from home, compared with 32.4 percent for dads and 27.7 percent for men with no kids, according to WFH Research. And what started out as an emergency measure when schools and many workplaces were closed has become, at this point, the only way many parents (again, especially moms) can imagine balancing their many competing responsibilities.

The setup has a lot of perks. Tonya Abari, a Nashville-based writer and editor who works from home alongside her husband and two kids, 8 and almost 2, says she loves being there for milestones and more quotidian moments alike: “when they start walking or when my daughter has a concert or a soccer game.”

“I’m a family person,” she said. “Home is the epicenter for everything for me.”

But working from home is also a double-edged sword for parents, who can find themselves taking on a disproportionate share of household and child care responsibilities on top of their paid work. The effect is more pronounced for parents whose partners work outside the home, and for moms, who still do the majority of child care in American families. Research conducted during the period of pandemic lockdowns found that when just one parent worked remotely, “the parent who’s working from home becomes the housewife,” said Jennifer Glass, a family demographer at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. That was true to some degree when the father was the one working remotely, but “it was way more true when it was Mom.”

The ability to work from home is, in many ways, a privilege — those who never have the option to work remotely, like many service-sector workers, tend to earn less and have less control over their time. Still, the rise in work-from-home parenthood threatens to deepen inequities in families and workplaces. To remedy these inequities, work-from-home parents need what, to some degree, all parents need: fair work schedules, affordable and flexible child care options, and a society that values care and domestic work as the necessities that they are. “Appreciation and respect for parents, and caregivers in general, will make things easier,” Abari said. “I think it starts there.”

Working from home has real benefits for parents…

It’s not hard to see why working from home is appealing for parents. At the most basic level, most work schedules do not match up with children’s school calendars, leaving parents scrambling to figure out care for kids during summer and other school breaks, as well as every afternoon. There’s also the need to take care of sick kids (a near-weekly reality for many families even in non-pandemic times), attend parent-teacher conferences and other school events, and manage the innumerable tiny tasks that tend to crop up when you are responsible for young people who cannot reliably feed or clothe themselves. Paid child care can fill in some of these gaps — and is the only option for many families with babies and toddlers — but it’s expensive and often difficult or impossible to find, especially after school and in the summer.

Remote work offers parents the same thing it offers everybody else: time. A 2023 study found that getting rid of the commute to the office saved American workers an average of 72 minutes a day, time parents can use to pick up their kids at school or camp, help them with homework, or just hang out with them.

Working from home “allows me to both do the really mundane shit of going to doctor’s appointments and being able to take care of a sick child, but also being able to insert little moments with my kids throughout the day,” said Jo Piazza, host of the podcast Under the Influence and a mother of three. With her older kids home for summer vacation right now, she can choose to take an hour in the middle of her day and go on a hike with them.

“Moms often have tremendous mom guilt being away from their kids all the time,” Piazza said. “My answer to it is that I can pop in and out for little things, and I feel like we’re getting to spend some meaningful moments together.”

For Abari, remote work is a necessity at this point in her family’s life. They don’t have family nearby to help, and with the cost of formal child care, “it’s cheaper and easier for us just not to have it,” she said. “We are the child care.”

Working from home also allows Abari, who is Black, to avoid the racism, sexism, and microaggressions that have been “very present in my life from school all the way up through my professional life,” she said. “I just wouldn’t consider returning to a place of business because I don’t want to deal with those things.”

It’s a common theme for workers of color — in one 2021 survey, 97 percent of Black workers said they preferred a remote or hybrid workplace. Remote work has also allowed pregnant people to sidestep some of the pregnancy discrimination that remains a stubborn problem in the American workplace, because no one can see their bellies growing over Zoom.

For all these reasons, many parents have embraced remote work, even after the Covid restrictions lessened and children returned to in-person school. As lockdowns eased, parents returned to in-person work, but at lower levels than non-parents.

Employers are continuing to try to get their workers back into the office — Citigroup, for example, announced in June that its employees would face consequences for a lack of attendance. But workers with the power to choose are resisting, with one in two finance professionals saying in a June survey that they’d quit rather than go back in full-time.

“Hybrid work is here to stay,” Glass said. The past few years have been a “giant experiment,” and mostly a successful one — “productivity didn’t plummet, and people liked it,” she said. “It’s going to be very difficult to dial that back.”

…But being a work-from-home parent comes with its own problems

Remote work doesn’t solve all the problems of working parenthood. With younger children especially, sick days are still sick days — it’s nearly impossible to get work done while taking care of a toddler who’s home from day care. Even if you have in-home child care or another parent doing the heavy lifting, working from home with kids around is still difficult. “You are much more accessible to inevitably get pulled into more child care, often with no warning, such as during a Zoom call,” said Bloom, the WFH Research co-founder and a father of four.

Working where you live can also make it easy for household tasks to encroach on work time. “There’s a complete mishmash of work with house responsibilities,” said Piazza, who has worked from home for six years. “Because I’m here, I feel obligated to do home things as I’m working.”

Then there’s the inequality factor. During lockdown, moms tended to shoulder the burden of child care and remote school in heterosexual two-parent families, even when both parents were working from home. In an April 2020 survey, 64 percent of moms in such families said they were responsible for the majority of child care, compared with 35 percent of dads.

Glass, the family demographer, and her team also studied parents during lockdown, and found that when a father worked from home, “he managed to protect his time, and wives would talk about ways that they attempted to protect his time.” For example, if both parents worked remotely, “Mom’s desk was the counter or the kitchen or the dining room table, whereas Dad got a room with a closed door.”

With children back in school, child care, and camp, the pressures on working parents have eased up somewhat since 2020. But some of those inequalities remain. Piazza’s husband also works from home, she said, but he doesn’t feel the same obligation to do housework and child care during the day. “He is not rushing downstairs to pick up a crying baby,” she said.

Indeed, there’s a risk that the ability of some moms to work from home will become simply a Band-Aid imperfectly slapped on America’s crumbling care infrastructure. If a mom works from home, she can quickly become the family’s caregiving backup plan, as Anne Helen Petersen writes at Bloomberg: “When the day care shuts down because it’s short-staffed or one of the kids is sick, she can cover.” But the more that happens, the more the family further entrenches the unequal division of labor that already exists in most heterosexual partnerships.

And of course, one mom working from home may be able to take care of her own kid when the day care is closed, but her individual flexibility (or her workplace’s) does nothing for the many parents who can’t work from home: people who work in hospitality, health care, warehouses, and other sectors where reporting in person is a requirement. People in jobs that can’t be remote are more likely to be low-income, to be people of color, and to be recent immigrants, Glass said. When schools were closed in 2020 and 2021, they reported the most work-family conflict.

These workers struggle with “overwork, and inflexibility, and the inability to predict when you’re going to be called into work,” as well as with “the fact that we don’t have a child care system that is suitable for people who have odd weekend or evening shifts,” Glass said.

The increase in remote and hybrid work over the last two years has done nothing for this group, even though they have the same parenting needs and concerns as everybody else. And even for those who can work from home, there’s a risk of a vicious cycle, in which moms have more caregiving responsibilities, so they spend more time at home, so they pay a career penalty, so they end up picking up even more caregiving responsibilities (and suffer a worsening motherhood penalty when it comes to their earnings and future financial security).

Mothers are already less likely to be hired and are paid less than men with similar qualifications, and some experts fear that remote work could worsen the penalty moms already pay. In a 2021 study by consulting firm Egon Zehnder, more than 7 in 10 C-suite professionals said that remote workers might be passed over for leadership roles because they weren’t in the office. Unless implemented very intentionally, remote work could end up leading to career dead ends for women, Brigid Schulte told Politico the same year: “You are mommy tracked to the billionth degree.”

Many work-from-home parents are clear that they like the flexibility the setup offers, as Petersen notes. But they never signed up to be, as she puts it, “one-woman safety nets.” If American work and family cultures get too reliant on the work-from-home mom, then nothing substantive has to change.

Work-from-home parents need more child care options and better schedules — just like everyone else

Indeed, what families really need now, experts say, is a shift in employer expectations, policy priorities, and larger cultural attitudes — one that would benefit both work-from-home parents and those who go to work in person.

“There are a lot of assumptions that no matter what kind of job you have, if you’re working in the home, it is somehow less-than than being in an office” and that “you can take on all of the burden of parenting because you’re the one that’s at home,” Piazza said. “Those kinds of attitudes just have to change.”

Employers can do their part by setting boundaries around work hours and meeting times so as not to disadvantage remote employees, Erin Grau, COO of the consulting company Charter, told Politico. Companies like Etsy have also embraced hybrid work for everyone — including executives — to avoid penalizing parents or others who prefer remote work.

Improving the accessibility of child care is also part of the equation. “If I had assistance with child care, I could even do more work and I could be more of a contribution to society,” Abari said. Reducing costs is important, she said. In April, Democrats in Congress introduced a bill to make child care more affordable for working- and middle-class families, but it is unlikely to pass.

Flexibility and quality, though, are also crucial. “There has to be a trust factor,” Abari said. She’d like to see a kind of coworking space for remote-working parents that allows them to bring their kids and check on them periodically throughout the day. “Where are those places?” she asks. “There are none here.”

Parents also need reasonable working hours and predictable work schedules, experts say, regardless of how their jobs are structured. Fair workweek laws that aim to guarantee predictable schedules, for example, could result in a more just economy for all.

Finally, parents and experts alike are calling for a cultural shift toward actually valuing the work of caregiving and setting up workplaces and communities with parents in mind, rather than forcing them to figure everything out on their own. “We’re ushering in the next generation of leaders and change makers,” Abari said. “In order for us to be able to do that, we need support.”