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July 2, 2020; The New York Times and The Lily

For working mothers, the notion of “returning to normal” may be absent from their vocabularies. Most everyone has seen disruptions to their lives stemming from COVID-19, but the impact of the coronavirus on mothers of preschool and school-age kids has been particularly profound.

Prior to the pandemic, these mothers would balance job and home by dropping their children off at childcare or school before heading to a full workday. Coming home meant supervising homework, making meals, doing household chores, and perhaps some quality time with a partner. But now, work from home, homeschooling, and in-home childcare have been added to many moms’ daily routine. And, while many do get help from partners, data show that even before this crisis women spent more time than men on housework and childcare. With around 15 more hours of labor both physical and emotional added to their schedules, what’s a mother to do?

Writing in the New York Times, Deb Perelman, the author of the Smitten Kitchen cookbooks and the food blog, notes these times have made it so that parents, particularly mothers, have to choose between work and kids. Some may be forced to leave the work force for a time, if not permanently, and for women, picking up their careers after a gap to care for children is quite difficult.

For working parents at Florida State University (FSU), last week was particularly rocky, with some issues still remaining in the air. Under the heading “Remote Work Update,” a memo went out to employees that stated, “In March 2020, the University communicated a temporary exception to policy which allowed employees to care for children at home while on the Temporary Remote Work agreement. Effective August 7, 2020, the University will return to normal policy and will no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely.”

This decision’s weight would be much heavier on women than on men, and greater still on untenured faculty and on non-faculty employees. Facing the challenges of carrying out assignments and meeting deadlines while also caring for children would be hard enough. Now, there were added questions about childcare and schooling, with it notably unclear if schools would be open or childcare available.

The backlash for was enormous and swift—as was FSU’s walking back the memo. In a subsequent email, the university wrote, “We are requesting that employees coordinate with their supervisors on a schedule that allows them to meet their parental responsibilities in addition to work obligations,” it said. “This may be different for each employee based on the specifics of their situation.” The school also said it regretted that its initial communication “caused any unnecessary worry and concern or oversimplified a very nuanced issue.”

Mathew Lata, FSU chapter president of the United Faculty of Florida, a union representing faculty there, says, “I’m glad that the university has taken a step back and looked at this situation and realized that the old normal cannot be the new normal.”

Although the pandemic has touched everyone in some way, the losses for working women, especially working mothers, are incalculable. Some have found short-term solutions, but in the current circumstance, as Perelman points out, many, especially those with modest incomes, have limited choices.—Carole Levine