Updated at 10:39 a.m. ET Friday
Youli Lee is proud of the years she worked for the U.S. government, prosecuting cybercrime in some of the world's darkest places. These days, she's the one hiding out — mostly from her three children, ages 8, 11, and 13.
"I just actually locked my door so that nobody could come here," she says, from her bedroom.
The constant interruptions from children are happening in households across the country. Nearly half of all school districts in the U.S. started the school year with remote learning, including Lee's district in Fairfax County, Va. With the added complexities of managing multiple Zoom calls at work and online learning for the kids, parents – especially moms — are hitting a breaking point.
And, as the school year began with many students still home, women left the workforce in September at four times the rate that men did, the Labor Department reported Friday.
For Lee, the juggling act fell apart in the spring. Her husband, a doctor, was at the hospital seven days a week while she worked from home, struggling to maintain her own grueling schedule of nonstop work calls. That went on for weeks until she realized that her younger two children were routinely skipping lunch. Without the structure of the school day, the kids never quite knew when it was time to eat.
So, when news came that the kids' schools would only partially reopen at best, she realized that was it. "I can't keep this up," she remembers thinking. "This is too much."
Lee decided to take a leave of absence.
"It's an impossible task," says C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on economic equity for women. "Until we can figure out care, until we can figure out how to open the schools, you can just hang it up ... for many women."
Mason is a single mom whose 10-year-old twins are also doing remote school from home this fall. And she's furious there is no federal priority to address problems families are facing in the pandemic.
"The primary focus was, we've got to get these businesses back open. That's important. But the strategy from Day 1 should have been thinking about how to get kids back into school safely," Mason says.
Still, Mason counts herself among the fortunate, given she is able to work from home.
Rocio Flores, a single mom of two in Avondale, Pa., had just started a new job at a day care when the pandemic hit. In mid-March, the day care shut down for a couple of weeks, leaving her without pay. It soon reopened, but her children's school did not. In need of a paycheck, she had no other option but to leave her children, then 7 and 12, home alone.
"I had to call like every hour — 'Are you guys OK?' I told my neighbor — keep an eye on them, please," Flores says. "That's the way I did it, going to work scared that something could happen."
This fall, her son, now 13, is still home alone, doing virtual school. Her daughter, almost 8, was able to get a spot at another day care, where she does her distance learning alongside other school-age children. Flores worries about how much either of them will learn without their teachers in the same room. She also worries about her daughter getting sick and about her own job security given the uncertainty of the coronavirus.
"It's scary, thinking I could lose the job again," she says. "I just hope the government understands that it's a lot of people suffering because of this."
The obstacles and hardships facing working mothers are not new, but the pandemic has given them more visibility, says Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.
"Low-income families, single parents, they see how little support they have constantly because they're in a never-ending battle to figure out how to put food on the table, to keep a roof over their heads, [to find] someone to watch their kids so they aren't alone at home while they go to work," Collins says. "It's advantaged people who have long not seen these difficulties."
Now, the global pandemic and its horrifying trajectory in the U.S. have given Americans a chance to reflect on what could be different.
"The U.S. has no paid parental leave for parents to take during this difficult time. We have no universal child care system on which parents can rely. We have no federal minimum standard for vacation and sick days, unlike every other Western industrialized country," Collins says. "Parents seem angry in a way that I haven't seen them in the past."
She says American mothers — who studies have found spend nearly twice as much time on housework and caregiving as their husbands — are realizing that it shouldn't be solely up to them to reconcile work and family commitments.
"I think that Americans for the first time are thinking, wait a second. Maybe this impossible scenario in which I find myself is not inevitable," she says.
As a sociologist, Collins sees this awakening as a cause for optimism and political mobilization.
Mason, too, is encouraged by the chatter she's hearing around issues she has championed for years.
"What about child care as a public good? How about child care as a right?" she posits.
The pandemic, she says, has jump-started conversations that were not possible six months ago.
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") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.