After a morning hour at the playground, Lauriana Zuluaga and her 7-year-old son spend the day inside, where she juggles being a full-time caretaker with her job as an advertising executive. Her husband, a musician, recently returned to work in a studio they own. More than once, Zuluaga says, she has considered quitting, but her family, who live in Manhattan, couldn’t afford the loss of income. “We do what we can to live,” she says, “but it’s tough.”
Her voice conveys her guilt and exhaustion as she describes living through the last 16 months of the pandemic without child care. Though more than half of New York City is vaccinated, children under 12 such as Zuluaga’s son are still ineligible for the vaccine. The rise of more transmissible COVID-19 variants has Zuluaga, 45, on edge.
“We haven’t really [acknowledged] the fact that it’s summer,” she says. “We’re just in this state right now … of [being] freaked out, so we don’t know what to do.”
Zuluaga says she would make financial sacrifices to re-hire her son’s trusted full-time babysitter but the sitter isn’t vaccinated. Summer camps in New York that specialize in working with children with special needs (her son is autistic and has ADHD) have been out of reach due to lack of slots or high cost. One camp with availability cost $50,000 for the summer, more than the average college tuition in the United States.
For many mothers across the U.S., the semblance of normalcy many Americans have embraced this summer has remained frustratingly out of reach. Like Zuluaga, they are struggling with the new phase of the pandemic: continuing to balance children’s needs and safety with work demands or job loss and financial limitations, compounded by new concerns over spotty vaccination rates and increasingly contagious virus variants.
On top of concerns about the virus itself, the pandemic has led to a substantial increase in the cost of child care and decreased the availability of child care slots, furthering the child care crisis for mothers of young children, many of whom struggled to access affordable childcare even before the pandemic. Now, as the COVID-19 delta variant becomes increasingly prevalent in the United States, experts worry that working mothers of young unvaccinated children could face a deepened child care crisis, furthering the short and long-term economic gaps between men and women, especially for Black and Latina women.
“Women bore the brunt of this pandemic in so many ways, especially women of color,” says Melissa Boteach, vice president of income security and child care and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). “Until child care doesn’t just come back, but returns in a way that is stable and equitable, we’re not going to see the same kinds of recovery for women as we will for men.”
Nearly 2.3 million women have left the labor force since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to almost 1.8 million men, according to a report by the NWLC. The same report found that women were three times more likely than men not to be working during the pandemic because of child care issues.
For mothers with children too young to be vaccinated yet, many of the same restraints on child care are still very real, says Boteach. “What you’re seeing now is people … who are dealing with either finding care or affording care are being told well, everything is fine now,” she says. “Just because you say everything is fine, doesn’t mean everything is fine.”
Although there is good evidence suggesting that children are less likely to catch and transmit the COVID-19 virus, the more transmissible delta variant poses a genuine risk to children, says Keri N. Althoff, an epidemiology professor at Johns Hopkins University. She says that parents of unvaccinated children should pay close attention to community spread and vaccination rates as they make decisions about child care, camps, the upcoming school year, and family safety.
“This is not an all-or-nothing game,” says Althoff. “It’s the little steps and layers of mitigation … that truly does help reduce the likelihood of transmission and infection.”
For Jessica Blanchard, a health researcher in Norman, Oklahoma, the increased rate of COVID-19 infections in Oklahoma on top of the threat posed by the delta variant has led her to the decision to keep her daughters, 5 and 9 years old, at home with her this summer. “We’re still struggling … especially as we’re in this phase of limbo,” says Blanchard. “We had hoped beyond all hope that we could begin getting back to some kind of normal, and now, I just see that plummeting.”
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Although she appreciates having flexible hours that allow her to balance child care and work, “it’s kind of exhausting,” says Blanchard, 42. With the delta variant in play alongside low state-wide vaccination rates in Oklahoma and lifting of mask mandates in schools, Blanchard worries about a potential return to online learning. “The prospect of having to do it all over again right now is enough to just make me spin,” she says.
Rising child care costs and diminished availability have continued to be significant double barriers for mothers, says Boteach. The Center for American Progress says the cost of providing child care increased roughly 47 percent during the pandemic, and predict this rise in costs will be passed on to working families. Approximately 72 percent of families say child care has become more expensive due to the pandemic, according to a survey for Care.com, and 46 percent say child care is harder to find. Nearly two-thirds of mothers during the pandemic have reported being very or somewhat worried about balancing work responsibilities with personal and family needs, according to a May Institute for Women’s Policy Research survey.
Sophia Bessias, 33, a data scientist in Durham, North Carolina, says that finding care she feels comfortable with for her 11-month old son and three-year-old daughter has been incredibly costly. Bessias and her husband hired a nanny after their daughter’s child care center closed early in the pandemic. Bessias says she and their sitter agreed on risk mitigation strategies, including the nanny receiving the vaccine once it became available.
Currently, Bessias is paying her nanny $3,000 a month to care for both children during the day, which she says is the family’s largest expense by far. “It’s such a huge expense for us to pay this for child care,” she says. But a classroom environment for her toddler, she says, “doesn’t feel like an option” anytime soon.
Employers offering workplace flexibility, including work-from-home options to mothers to care for an unvaccinated child who becomes exposed to or infected with the virus and may need to quarantine, will help ensure that mothers are not financially penalized during the recovery, says Emily Gee, senior economist at the Center for American Progress.
“I think that could have serious effects not just for job recovery, but also the trajectory of lifetime earnings for women,” says Gee.
In New York, Lauriana Zuluaga says she’ll continue pushing through her fatigue to keep working. “Everyone is struggling in their own way … and everybody is figuring out how to cope,” she says. “I’m very thankful for being one of the people who have figured out how to cope.”