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The pandemic is a once-in-a-generation test for Philly moms. Most say they’re struggling.

A month into this unprecedented school year, mothers in wildly different positions all seem to agree on one thing: It’s pushing them to the brink.

Cassandra Gafford in the backyard of her home in Philadelphia. She worried going back to work as a dentist in a pandemic would put her whole family in danger.
Cassandra Gafford in the backyard of her home in Philadelphia. She worried going back to work as a dentist in a pandemic would put her whole family in danger.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Cassie Gafford never thought of herself as a stay-at-home mom. She spent years training to become a dentist, then working and teaching in the field.

Then, this summer, she quit.

Gafford, 32, of Logan Square, worried going back to work in a pandemic would put her whole family in danger — and putting her 22-month-old daughter in day care didn’t seem safe either, since she’d already survived a frightening case of pneumonia in January.

Staying home solved an immediate problem. The long-term consequences, though, are unclear.

“I don’t know how the trajectory of my career is going to go from here,” she said. “My concern is that I’ll lose my skills by not working for so long."

Also weighing on Gafford is the larger context: Women have been three times more likely than men to leave the workforce due to childcare disruptions in the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau and Federal Reserve found.

As Gafford noted, the calculations behind such decisions are complex: In her case, the risk of exposure at her job was a deciding factor. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m the woman who’s staying home — and I hate being part of that statistic.”

A month into this unprecedented school year, mothers in wildly different positions all seem to agree on one thing: It’s pushing them to the brink.

“It feels like a puzzle where the pieces just don’t fit together, as many different ways as we try," said Amy Cohen, 45, a mother of two from West Philadelphia.

It’s become a once-in-a-generation test for women — a measure of how far they’ve come, and the durability of that progress. Where gender disparities existed, the situation is exacerbating them. Northwestern University researchers found that women already were likely to work in sectors where jobs disappeared in the pandemic. Married women — who before the pandemic put in on average twice as much childcare time as their husbands — are cutting back hours or quitting jobs, though they’re keenly aware of the cost.

“The effects of this shock are likely to outlast the actual epidemic," the researchers noted. "Earnings losses from job losses are highly persistent ... and much more severe when they occur in recessions.”

Yet, women who are quitting work have come to see it as a privilege, recognizing that for many mothers, it’s not even an option.

» READ MORE: As virtual school year begins, frustrated parents are pushing school boards to reconsider

On text-chains, typed one-handed while preparing meals or monitoring schoolwork, women are venting their “mom rage” — a pressure-cooker simmer of anger that was barely contained pre-pandemic and is now stoked well past the boiling point. And, they’re quietly swallowing its insidious counterpoint, “mom shame” — both internalized noun and active verb, directed at those making bad choices when there are no good ones.

Stephanie Coontz, a historian of gender and marriage and research director at the Council on Contemporary Families, said that early in the pandemic, she saw hopeful signs that “we’re not going back to the ’50s.” Men who had already been contributing to housework and childcare stepped up, surveys found.

But with this new school year, she said, it’s become clear that’s not enough.

“This is not a problem that can be solved with the best of goodwill among those most egalitarian parents," she said. "So you end up making decisions that tend to be based on preexisting inequalities that are embedded in workplace practices and pay scales.”

One driver, she said, is that women still tend to be paid less than men — on average, 85 cents on the dollar. Another is that “men are penalized more for taking family time than women are. That’s part of the prejudice: We expect women to, and we don’t promote them as fast because of it. But we don’t necessarily penalize them for that. Men are penalized for part-time work and gaps in employment.”

Like an assault

For many women, it has come down to choices they couldn’t have imagined six months ago.

One is Jen Devor, a career-driven woman who quit a steady job to run for city commissioner in 2019, and, after she lost the primary, spent nine months hunting for just the right position, a well-paying job running a civic-impact program for the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.

But trying to figure out this school year for her 7-year-old daughter, Ava? That almost broke her.

“Any time we brought it up over the summer, I would burst into tears. I couldn’t even handle thinking or talking about it," said Devor, 36, of Point Breeze.

What pained her was the sense that the school district seemed to have no plan. “I thought the only way I could take some control over the situation was to be home and help navigate it,” she said.

Her husband, Tivoni, switched his schedule so she could have Fridays to launch a new voter-engagement nonprofit, Better Civics.

Even so, Devor said, “The stress just shifts. We’re running out of coping mechanisms. Our bodies and our brains are only equipped to handle so much, and without an end date, I don’t think this is sustainable.”

For other women, it seems there’s no choice except to persist.

One is Tamika Diggs, a 44-year-old mother of three who, like about half of parents in Philadelphia, is on her own. Her sons' father died in 2016.

Before the pandemic, she was managing — even planning a two-week trip to Japan, her first time on an airplane. Now, she said, “It’s had me at the breaking point.”

She works nights as a concierge at a luxury apartment building. She finishes her shift at 3 a.m., then Ubers home to West Philadelphia. When her alarm goes off, after an hour and a half of sleep, it feels like an assault.

Two of her sons are still in school: a 13-year-old aspiring to a magnet high school in a year when placement tests have been canceled, and a 15-year-old with autism who in the past had a one-to-one aide. Now, Diggs fills that role, sitting by his side from 7:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Keeping him on task requires constant attention, she said. “I could turn away to help my other son for one minute, and I come back and he’s looking up at the ceiling.”

Each weekend, she gets just enough rest to face the week. By Thursday, she’s in despair.

“I broke down and cried at the table, doing work with the kids," she said. "I imagine that’s how most parents feel, because you’re doing the best you can and it’s just not good enough.”

» READ MORE: Parents ask why public schools are closed for class but open to private child care providers

She wishes she could join the ranks of those who’ve established school pods, hired nannies or tutors — especially since every day that she goes to work, in a building filled with college students, she now fears bringing the virus home to her son with his complex health needs. Recently, she started taking community college classes, the first step to a degree and, hopefully, a job she could do remotely.

“I can’t see myself continuing to put my children in danger," she said.

‘Zero hours I can work’

The thing about this school year is, even when parents think they’ve cleared a path forward, the ground under them can shift.

For Amy Cohen, the latest earthquake came in an email after 10 p.m. on a Saturday a few weeks into the school year.

She and her partner had barely puzzled out how to fit their full-time jobs around the school district’s expectation that their kids, ages 6 and 8, be on screen from 8:30 a.m to 2:55 p.m., a feat that requires near-constant supervision and is complicated by the kids' mismatched schedules. Then, came the news: The school day was changing yet again, to add even more instructional time.

“Our carefully calibrated schedule is out the window. ... My partner and I are sitting here, after 11 p.m. on a Saturday, holding our heads wondering what on earth we can do," she wrote in an email that night, thinking of all the work commitments she’d have to back out of. "I now fear I have zero hours I can work during school time.”

She’s not alone: Surveys of mothers telecommuting during the pandemic have found heightened stress, depression, and anxiety. (Telecommuting fathers, on the other hand, are actually less stressed than before.) Coontz said that can be attributed in part to the increased burden women are taking on. They’ve added an extra hour a day of housework, one analysis based on the American Time Use Survey found. And, even when both parents are telecommuting, kids spend twice as much time with their mothers during the workday as with their fathers.

Adding to that weight, said Allison Budschalow, of Germantown, is that even minor parenting decisions now carry the potential of outsize consequences.

For instance, she and her partner have avoided bringing in childcare for their kids, ages 11 and 8 — though it would provide urgent relief at a time when Budschalow is working 60-hour weeks — out of fear of exposing their own parents, who are in their 60s with health conditions that could leave them susceptible to COVID.

For a while, she kept a tally, on a dry-erase board in her home office, of days since the stay-at-home order upended her daily life. She stopped around 125. “I thought, this is just making me more upset.” After six months of long walks, yoga, therapy, water-drinking, phone calls, and Netflix, she’s running out of self-care tactics.

» READ MORE: Caregivers are still staying in as society reopens from coronavirus shutdowns, fearing they’ll infect their loved ones

Part of the problem, said Sabrina Keeler, a mother of two from Ardmore, is that moms are working late hours and making sacrifices to keep up with a school schedule that feels absurd or even counterproductive.

Keeler, who quit her gardening jobs to be a Zoom mom, has been left wondering whether she’s even doing the right thing by keeping her kindergartner in school and on Zoom for two and a half hours a day.

“It kind of defeats the purpose because kindergarten is all about socialization and kids learning to sit together and work together and follow along in a class," she said.

As bleak as it feels, though, there are flickers of hope: For some, more flexible work arrangements are becoming normalized. For others, creative solutions are providing at least temporary relief.

Jamila Medley, who runs a nonprofit that supports cooperative businesses in Philadelphia, was among those wild-eyed mothers staring down this impossible school year without a plan, except for possibly cutting back to part-time work in order to help her 6-year-old daughter, Claire, through virtual school. Even though she has more responsibility than her husband, Ralph, he makes more money and has greater job security.

Then, they found a different way. Medley’s sister, a laid-off childcare worker, moved into their West Mount Airy home to run a pod school for Claire and three other kids.

“It’s been miraculous. It’s the first time we’ve had childcare in six months,” Medley said. The other parents in the pod were able to return to their jobs, and Medley kept hers. A bonus: “I got to take a nap yesterday.”