(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It has been a hellish year for moms. While our kids have been out of school due to the pandemic, many of us who have been fortunate enough to keep our jobs have been expected to work while providing round-the-clock child care. Unsurprisingly, more than 2.4 million women left the US labour force between February 2020 and February 2021.
But there’s a way to make a bad situation work for us. Here are five gains mothers have made during the pandemic that they should refuse to give up when it’s over.
No-visitor policies in hospitals after childbirth. As new mothers are recovering from a major medical event, they also have to feed their babies every couple of hours, often with the added learning curve and challenges that come with breastfeeding. One night after my daughter was born in March, I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to care for her. When a hospital technician woke me a few minutes after I finally got to sleep to take my blood pressure, I was so confused that she asked whether I speak English (I am a professor of communication).
While moms should be allowed to have a support person with them, this is not a time when moms should also feel obligated to host their extended families. Thanks to hospital prohibitions on guests during the pandemic, many of us were liberated from this social pressure. Hospitals shouldn’t roll it back. While well-meaning friends and family might be excited to meet the baby, the best thing anyone can do for a newborn is let Mom take care of herself so she can be well enough to meet her child’s constant needs.
Options for pregnant people to work largely or entirely from home. Early reports suggest that once people began staying home during the pandemic, the number of babies born prematurely declined — in some places significantly. That’s outstanding, because babies who are born early — particularly before 32 weeks — face the prospect of very serious health problems or even death. While researchers are still figuring out why pregnant people who stayed home seem to have had healthier, longer pregnancies (more rest? avoidance of pollution and pathogens?), one thing has become clear: Employers should allow expectant workers to work from home as much as possible.
More relaxed dress codes and expectations. Women are expected to invest far more in their appearances than men. According to a 2014 survey, they spend almost two hours more each week than men on things like hairstyling and makeup application. That’s all time we’re not bonding with our children — or getting much-needed rest. There’s a reason we do it: We know people judge us more than they do men on our appearance. Over the past year, we stopped paying this tax a bit as dress standards, thanks to Zoom, became more relaxed. When we go back to our workplaces, our coworkers should keep paying more attention to what we contribute than to how we look — and that goes for all of us.
Flexible schedules for all parents. During the pandemic, many parents worked some early-morning hours or late at night (or both) in order to share child-care responsibilities with their partners. Of course, this also requires the ability to work remotely.
Employers must keep these options available for moms and dads in the After Times. Offering them to moms alone won’t do the trick, because one of the biggest challenges women in particular face is that, after working all day, we’re expected to do what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild called the “second shift.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, when both spouses work full-time, mothers take on more than 60% of the child care and more than 72% of the housework. In order for fathers to start pulling their weight, they need job flexibility every bit as much as we do.
Reasonable number of work hours. While many workers have been putting in more hours at work during the pandemic (when you’re working from home, there isn’t a clear start and end to the workday), we’ve also enjoyed more time with our families. Americans devoted 35% of the time we’ve saved commuting to actual work, according to the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago. But that also means people have in general had a lot more time for things such as leisure and child care (though I don’t know too many parents who have been taking it easy). We won’t want to give these things up when we return to the office. And employers should take note: As they re-evaluate their priorities, 40% of employees are thinking about leaving their jobs this year, research by Microsoft has found.
To retain quality people, employers will have to provide room for better work-life balance. That means capping hours at 40 per week — and also giving people who need them options for part-time work at reduced pay. These policies must apply to fathers, too, so we can all do our fair share of the labor in our families and homes. One of the big reasons women do so much more domestic work now is because people who “overwork” — or put in more than 50 hours per week — are paid a big premium, and men tend to take the jobs requiring the overwork.