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Parents working remote spent more time with their children during COVID, Yale study finds

Many parents suddenly have the task of making sure their kids learn while adjusting to a new life of managing working from home.
Artur Debat
Getty Images
Many parents suddenly have the task of making sure their kids learn while adjusting to a new life of managing working from home.

A new Yale study shows that parents spent more time with their children while working from home during the height of the pandemic.

WSHU’s J.D. Allen spoke with Emma Zang, an assistant professor of sociology, biostatistics, and global affairs at Yale University, about her research that shows many mothers had to work overtime to balance their work schedules and parenting roles.

Her study was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family last December.

WSHU: The first year of the pandemic was a whirlwind for most, especially parents juggling their kids and whatever their boss was calling them about. How did you hear from parents about what it was like?

EZ: Apparently, a lot of parents here are struggling when they're working from home, especially when their children are in the same room with them. According to my recent study, not only do we confirm these kinds of complaints are true, but also we've confirmed the finding that is actually very prevalent for parents all over the country. From using a nationally representative survey, we were the first to document that when working from home, mothers increase their time with children while working, essentially. We see the same patterns for fathers, but not to the same extent.

WSHU: Okay, so let's break down all that information. So the data showed that telecommuting parents in the U.S. spent significantly more time parenting their children in the first year of the pandemic than they did before. That’s a good thing, right?

EZ: Yeah, it's great. So, just want to clarify, if we are only talking about parenting their children, if we only narrowly talk about not doing anything else but childcare, the time actually didn't change that much compared to the parents before the pandemic, when they're not working from home. So the increased time mainly focuses on when parents are doing something else, especially working, and then at the same time watching their children. So you can say that parents spend more time with children, but also they are not mainly focused on children, at the same time.

WSHU: Can you explain the difference between parenting and then watching their kids?

EZ: So, parenting includes routine childcare, such as dressing the children, feeding the children, etc, and playing with the children, teaching the children. Management activities such as sending children to school and taking children to all kinds of activities are considered co-activities for childcare and parenting. What we found that parents spend most time on when working from home is not on these co-activities, but instead, they are doing something else at the same time as watching their children or playing with their children.

So, for example, especially for mothers, we found a substantial increase in the time mothers spent working at the same time as watching their children. So you can imagine that it requires a lot of multitasking for mothers, and it will increase their cognitive burdens, and they may be more likely to distract themselves at work. And then for fathers, we found that fathers for example watch TV at the same time they watch their children. Maybe this kind of activity can be more enjoyable, but working at the same time when watching the children, I'm sure many parents may not enjoy that at all.

WSHU: Oh, that’s interesting. So while the traditional nuclear family is changing, the time spent by mothers and fathers actually differed in the way that they were watching their kids.

EZ: Yeah, exactly.

WSHU: So, how should we learn from this gender gap that prevailed in families for the majority of the last few years? Where do we go from here?

EZ: That's a good question. So our team also conducted a study before the pandemic, looking at the relationship between working and home, and all kinds of time use, especially attending to childcare, housework and paid work, etc. What we found before the pandemic is that there are huge gender inequalities in how parents spend their time while working at home.

We found that when mothers were working at home they increased their housework time tremendously. But we don't see the same pattern for fathers when they are working from home. However, we did see that fathers, when they are working at home, do increase time spent on childcare, to a smaller extent, but they're doing better compared to when they're not working from home. So before the pandemic if we look at the gender gap, the gender gap in terms of housework actually increased, when parents are working at home.

But the gender gap in time spent on childcare actually decreased to some extent, for parents working at home. And before the pandemic, we already found that while working from home, mothers are more likely to be distracted, from childcare and from other things. And when we did this follow up study we looked at the same question. We especially compared the changes of parents during the pandemic and before the pandemic when working from home. And there's some good news.

Fathers actually changed. When they worked from home during the pandemic, they actually spent more time on housework compared to before the pandemic. So that's good news. But at the same time, we also see that mothers actually spent a lot more time supervising their children while doing something else, especially working during the pandemic.

So, we've seen some aspects of gender inequality decrease, but some aspects actually increased during the pandemic while working at home.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.