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Sen. Tammy Duckworth: America’s Moms Are Running on Empty. We Need to Do More to Support Them.

6 minute read

Duckworth is a Senator for the state of Illinois, an Iraq War veteran and former Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

American moms are running on empty.

Every morning, we wake up feeling guilty that we’re not doing enough.

Every night, we go to sleep terrified that we’re failing.

I may be a trained helicopter pilot and a United States Senator, but one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever taken on is trying to teach my five-year-old how to add three plus five and how to write the letter K.

Because I’m not a trained teacher, each time she struggles to sound out a word while I’m homeschooling her, I wonder if it’s my fault. Like so many other moms during this coronavirus pandemic, I’m constantly worried that my child might be falling behind because she’s relying on untrained educators like me.

But as scared as I am, I know that I’m lucky. I can take some meetings from home, my mom can help with childcare and I have some control over my schedule. But that’s far from the reality for most working moms. Too many can’t take paid leave when they’re sick or don’t have the option of working remotely. Too many aren’t paid enough at work to afford the childcare they need to actually go to work.

With all the privileges I have, if I still feel such an overwhelming fear that I’m letting down my daughters, how can we as a nation possibly expect those who don’t have those same advantages to shoulder these burdens without any help? Those are the mothers I’m worried about. The ones doubling as heroes in ICUs or grocery stores, trying to juggle looking after their kids with taking care of their patients or customers.

Of course, there’s no question that the stresses of having both a job and a child didn’t arise during this pandemic, just as there’s no doubt that those stresses fall on both men and women, in all sorts of families far beyond the nuclear mold. But it’s also certain that the responsibilities of being a working parent have been exacerbated by this crisis—and that right now in heterosexual couples the weight of the so-called “second shift” of parenting is falling disproportionately on women, who are spending 15 more hours each week on education and housework than fathers. The burdens are only magnified for Black women, who are suffering from both heartbreaking COVID-19 death rates and unemployment rates.

With this many women struggling, it’s time we stop ignoring what working moms desperately need in this moment and beyond.

That includes expanding paid leave in the next COVID-19 package. Because even while many parents are terrified about what will happen to our kids’ progress if they don’t go back to school this fall, we’re just as terrified about President Donald Trump’s rush to force schools to open even if they can’t keep our kids safe.

Instead of threatening to withhold critical funding school districts could use to obtain PPE and better protect our children as the Republicans’ new proposal does, our leaders need to recognize the lifesaving difference an adequate paid leave policy would make—something Democrats have been fighting for and is included in our HEROES Act, yet which Senator Mitch McConnell refused to include in his so-called relief bill.

If we don’t expand paid leave, teachers, school counselors and cafeteria workers could be forced to choose between losing their jobs or putting others at risk by showing up sick. When a mom notices her son has a fever, she wouldn’t have to risk her job to keep him home and prevent an outbreak that could shut down an entire school, affecting—and infecting—countless others, forcing more parents to stay home from work with their kids until those classrooms open once more.

The argument is just as clear when it comes to making childcare more affordable. Since this pandemic began, too many women have had to quit their jobs, whether because schools are closed or childcare is too expensive—creating yet another pandemic-born crisis whose consequences will play out over decades, as research has shown that moms who try to re-enter the workforce typically receive significantly lower wages.

But the reality is that these issues weren’t created by COVID-19 and won’t simply disappear once it mercifully ebbs.

Before the pandemic struck, just 17% of workers had access to paid leave, with Black, Indigenous and people of color faring far worse. In a lot of states, infant care costs over 80% of a minimum-wage worker’s annual income—even though lack of affordable childcare hurts families’ wallets, employers’ profits and our nation’s economy.

It’s a similar story when it comes to providing universal pre-kindergarten, which would get more moms back to work and provide more jobs to the incredible educators who are actually trained in teaching our children during their most formative years, as we know that kids who enter kindergarten fully prepared are more likely to graduate high school, meaning a better-educated workforce years down the line. And without universal access to affordable healthcare, what’s a working mom struggling to make ends meet supposed to do when her toddler falls and she can’t staunch the bleeding? She goes to the emergency room to protect her child, then she goes into debt because our nation has chosen not to protect her.

These are matters of both common decency and common sense—steps we have no choice but to take if we want to overcome this pandemic and finally make our economy work for everyone. They’re also yet more evidence of the dire need to elect Joe Biden: someone who knows firsthand the urgency of addressing these problems head-on and who’s proposed concrete plans to prove to working families that we give a damn. He’s been a single parent. He’s felt the weight and fear of trying to raise a family in a time of tragedy. He understands the seeming impossibility of trying to reconcile your duty to your job with your duty to your children.

With summer soon transitioning to fall, with moms trying to fit 48 hours of work into 24-hour days and the next month’s rent always seeming to be due, we can’t ignore the crises facing working parents any longer. We don’t have the luxury of treating moms’ time as both expendable and endless—and we can’t risk our kids’ futures on the notion that mothers’ ability to shoulder the weight of the world is infinite.

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