TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
Yes, millions of kids are now back in school. But most are also still stuck at home, and that has sent many parents to the breaking point, especially moms. Women in America still shoulder the bulk of housework and caregiving in families. And for mothers who also hold down jobs, this can feel like a pressure cooker with no release. NPR's Andrea Hsu tells us more.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Youli Lee is proud of the years she worked for the U.S. government prosecuting cybercrime in the world's darkest places. But today she is the one hiding out.
YOULI LEE: I just actually locked my door so that nobody could come in here because I literally will have somebody wandering in every 15 minutes, saying, like, oh, I'm on a break. I'm on a break.
HSU: Those interlopers would be Lee's children, ages 8, 11 and 13. They're all doing school at home this fall.
LEE: Boys, where are your iPads? Do you have your iPads?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Mine is over there.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Mine is charging over there.
HSU: Parents, you know the drill.
LEE: Now you've got to get everybody online. And what does the Wi-Fi look like, and is this encrypted, and is Zoom working today?
HSU: When schools in Fairfax County, Va., closed in March, Lee tried to work from home. She kept a grueling schedule - back-to-back work calls up to 10 hours a day - until one day, she was horrified to discover that her younger kids were routinely skipping lunch.
LEE: They weren't focused on what time it was. And I think that was part of why they didn't realize, like, oh, it's time to eat lunch.
HSU: So she started skipping calls, telling co-workers she wasn't available. Then when she heard that schools would at best only partially open in the fall, she decided to take a leave of absence.
LEE: I can't keep this up. This is too much.
HSU: C. Nicole Mason feels it, too.
C NICOLE MASON: Yesterday I was on a conference call. Like, a whole catfight broke out.
HSU: Between her 10-year-old twins.
MASON: And I said, excuse me; I'll be right back, in a very calm voice. And I go, I'm at work. They're like, yeah, I didn't know you were at work. I was just like, what?
HSU: Mason is CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. She says the lines between work and home have collapsed.
MASON: Until we can figure out care, until we can figure out how to open the schools, you can just hang it up for women, for many women.
HSU: Of course, the pandemic's also affecting dads, but studies show moms spend nearly double the amount of time on housework and childcare. Mason says the strategy from Day 1 should have been figuring out how to safely reopen schools so that moms like her wouldn't be getting up at 4:30 in the morning to get work done.
MASON: We just, as a country, have never really prioritized women workers. We're like, oh, well, they'll figure it out (laughter). You know, they always do.
HSU: Take Rocio Flores, a single mom in Avondale, Pa. Flores had just started a new job at a day care when the pandemic hit. She was grateful the day care was even open. But going to work meant leaving her own two kids, then 7 and 12, home alone.
ROCIO FLORES: I had to call, like, every hour. Are you guys OK? I told my neighbor, keep an eye on them, you know, please. That's the way I did it, going to work scary about something could happen here.
HSU: Early in the pandemic, Flores dipped into savings to pay rent and buy food. She worried she was going to have to get a second job, and she worried her kids were learning nothing in virtual school.
FLORES: It was horribly stressful, a lot of stress.
HSU: Now her older child is still home alone, doing virtual school. Her 7-year-old got a spot at a different day care and does school from there, which is great except that now Flores has a sprint at the end of her long workday.
FLORES: Her day care closes at 6, so I have to run, praying to God that I don't find traffic on the way so I can make it in time pick her up.
CAITLYN COLLINS: None of these struggles are new. None of these struggles are new.
HSU: Sociologist Caitlyn Collins of Washington University in St. Louis says what is new is that the pandemic has made the untenable so much more visible. Now mothers and fathers of all income levels are being forced to make choices they'd rather not make, and they're realizing it's to no fault of their own.
COLLINS: Parents seem angry in a way that I haven't seen them in the past, and I think that that can be quite generative.
HSU: Meaning maybe all of the anger and stress and frustration people are feeling in the pandemic - maybe that will get people to mobilize, to fight for policies that would bring them some relief.
Andrea Hsu, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUM'S "BLESSED BRAMBLES")
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