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Mom burnout: Pandemic driving millions of women from US workforce

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For months at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Ashley Austrew tried to make it work.

The mother of two logged on to her marketing job before her kids woke up, juggled homeschooling during the day, signed on again when her husband came home from work and then freelanced into the wee hours of the morning after cooking her kids dinner and putting them to bed. But the Omaha, Nebraska-based writer came to feel like she was failing at everything: There simply were not enough hours in the day to work full-time and parent her six- and eight-year-old children while her husband – an essential worker at a manufacturing company – went to the office.

“With constant interruptions, multiple schedules to juggle, and everything else, it felt more like I needed to work 60 hours or 80 hours to finish what I used to do in 40,” Austrew, 33, told Al Jazeera. “And that’s not possible when you also need to be a parent 100 percent of the time.”

Austrew felt like she could never close her laptop. Her kids were miserable and struggling for her attention. She barely had any sleep or time with her husband. She hoped the long hours she was putting in would lead the CEO of the company she worked for to convert her from an independent contractor to an employee with benefits. Maybe, she thought, she could hold on a little longer.

“It was really hard, and I kept giving myself mental checkpoints – just get to the end of the school year, just get through the first month of summer et cetera – and then things will be better. But when those checkpoints passed and I started thinking about the future, it became clear that something had to give,” Austrew said. “So it became a question of whether or not my work was truly worth fighting for, and when I was really honest with myself, the answer was no.”

Austrew quit her $55,000-a-year job, stepping into the void as the US economic recovery slows and unemployment hovers near 8 percent.

Faced with caring for and helping her two children with remote learning while trying to work full-time, Ashley Austrew quit her $55,000-per-year marketing job [Credit: Ashley Austrew/Al Jazeera]

She is far from alone: Participation of women between the ages of 25 and 54 in the US labour force dropped by more than 5 percent from August to September as many schools remain closed and families are tasked with remote learning, according to Labor Department data.

And while parents of all genders are struggling, the crisis is taking a bigger toll on women, and disproportionately impacting women of colour. Some 865,000 adult women – including 324,000 Latinas and 58,000 African American women – dropped out of the labour force last month – roughly four times the amount of men, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The trend may be far from over. As many as two million women are considering leaving the workforce because of the strain of the pandemic, McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace study found, and many report the burdens of caregiving, homeschooling and working are just too tough.

It is a refrain Amanda Kowal Kenyon, a psychologist and executive coach who works with the global public relations firm Ketchum, has heard a lot.

“In my executive coaching work and in talking with other working moms in general, one thing that’s come up as a theme is expectation management: High-performing women are struggling to lower the bar on the expectations they have for themselves, and they’re having a hard time raising the bar on the expectations they have of their organizations or their partners in parenting,” Kowal Kenyon, 46 and the mother of a teenager, told Al Jazeera.

“I remain astounded that in the majority of homes with two working parents – including my own – the mother is the primary parent who shoulders the burden of caregiving and homeschooling,” she added.

As many as 2 million women are considering leaving the workforce because of the strain of the pandemic, McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace study found. [FILE: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg]

‘Second shift’ burden

Worldwide, women do at least two and a half times more unpaid housework and caregiving than men, according to the UN, even if both people work full-time outside of the home. And with schools and childcare centres shuttered because of COVID-19, women have found themselves taking on even more, said Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St Louis and the author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.

“Even though women work nearly on par with men in the paid labour force today, women also complete what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the ‘second shift’ once they return home: women complete two-thirds of the household activities necessary to keep families afloat these days,” Collins told Al Jazeera. “Early evidence from the pandemic suggests that it is women who are picking up the added responsibilities of homeschooling, added chores, and round-the-clock caregiving.”

US working mothers are 1.5 times more likely than working fathers to report spending an extra three or more hours a day on housework and childcare – and that adds up to an extra 20 hours a week, the equivalent of an unpaid part-time job, the McKinsey study found. Single mothers, of course, face even more challenges.

“Women’s disproportionate responsibility for childrearing impedes their ability to work in the paid labour force,” Collins explained. “There are only 24 hours in the day, and the simple truth is that more of women’s time goes to caring for kids than men’s do. This disparity has major consequences over the life course for women’s lifetime earnings potential.”

Gender wage gap and the ‘motherhood penalty’

Women in the US also earn less than men at their paying jobs. Women are paid 82 percent, on average, for the same work as men, according to US Census Bureau data. The gender wage gap is even wider for women of colour and older women, the nonprofit American Association of University Women found, and collectively, working women lose $500m in wages each year.

Unlike previous economic downturns, the coronavirus recession is likely to widen the gender wage gap by 2 percent, according to a study by researchers at Northwestern University published in August. Women’s unemployment rate remains higher than men’s even months into the crisis, and women’s jobs have been slow to come back, partly because women-dominated industries were hit hardest.

Our economy relies on our childhood education and care systems – without them, nothing else works.

Caitlyn Collins, Washington University sociology professor

Family care is also being discussed on the 2020 campaign trail. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden unveiled a $775bn plan to help fix America’s broken child and elder care system over the next 10 years with expanded tax credits, sliding-scale subsidies and greater investment in care workers and facilities.

Working families saw a doubling of the child tax credit to $2,000 during President Donald Trump’s time in office and he has promised to consider bipartisan paid family leave legislation, although that has not happened.

The US remains the only developed country in the world that does not guarantee mothers paid maternity leave.

When women earn less than men, they may be the ones who are forced to step back when families have to make tough choices about childcare. That was the case for Austrew’s family.

“Even though [my husband’s] job has tried to be flexible and helpful during this time, there is still the unspoken expectation that if my husband is ‘essential,’ that means someone has to be taking care of his children,” Austrew said. “My husband and I were close to equal in salary when I was working full-time, but he has much more opportunity for advancement, he carries our health insurance and other important benefits, and his job is simply more secure because he’s not a freelancer or contractor.”

To compensate for the hit in family income, Austrew has picked up more freelance work and the family has scaled back spending. If she were not able to work at all, she said, her husband “couldn’t cover all of our expenses on his own, but he could cover a majority of them”.

But Austrew also worries about the challenges she could face when she looks for full-time work again. Leaving work to care for children – even temporarily – has a negative effect on women’s lifetime earning potential. Workers who take extended periods of time off may struggle to keep their skills sharp – or adapt to new technologies. And employers’ misconceptions about mothers’ competence and commitment to work leads to biases in hiring in what is known as the “motherhood penalty”.

We can’t expect parents to be full-time caregivers and full-time workers for the long term. It is impossible.

Ashley Austrew, writer and mother

Kowal Kenyon advises women to talk to their companies about “creative ways that allow them to remain tethered to the workplace”, even while working fewer hours, and to realign their expectations for themselves.

“I think it’s important to define and clarify what our current career goals are right now and put a time boundary around it – perhaps focusing now just on Q4, or even shrinking that goal to this month,” she said. “And crucially, I think we can normalize the idea that this time can also be used for just survival or maintaining performance – and regroup on the idea of advancement at a later date.”

Of course, women in low-wage jobs might not have the option of flexibility in their working hours or situation, which is one of the ways in which the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated long-standing inequities.

That is why, in the short-term, families need another stimulus cheque while states reopen schools and childcare centres safely, Collins said. But systemic change is also needed.

“Our economy relies on our childhood education and care systems – without them, nothing else works,” she said. “Going forward, it’s time we catch up to every other advanced economy and implement paid family and medical leave, a public pre-K system, fair work schedules, and living wages to support America’s working families. These common-sense policies are long overdue.”

Austrew agrees. “For me, it’s absurd the way Americans have been asked to carry on as normal during a pandemic,” she said. “So many are unemployed or working impossible schedules because they don’t have the option to scale back at work. We can’t expect parents to be full-time caregivers and full-time workers for the long term. It is impossible.”

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Israel strikes Gaza after rocket attack

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Israeli army says it struck Hamas military targets in the besieged strip after two rockets were fired into Israel.

The Israeli military says it launched overnight air attack in the besieged Gaza Strip after Palestinian fighters fired rockets, with no reports of casualties or significant damage on either side.

The military said Palestinian fighters fired two rockets into Israel late on Thursday. One was intercepted by the Israeli missile defence system, while the other fell in an open area.

“In response to the 2 rockets that were fired from Gaza at Israel earlier tonight, our Air Force just struck Hamas military targets in Gaza,” the Israeli army said on Twitter.

“Hamas will bear the consequences for terror activity against Israeli civilians,” it added.

Sirens were sounded in a region south of Israel that borders the Gaza Strip to warn residents of the incoming fire.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the rocket attack.

The last reported rocket attack from Gaza was on Tuesday night.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and several skirmishes since the Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian groups in 2007.

Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza, including those claimed by other fighter groups based in the region.

New tunnel discovered

Israel and Egypt have maintained a crippling blockade on Gaza Strip – a coastal territory which is home to two million Palestinians – since Hamas seized power.

The latest incident came after the Israeli army announced it had found a new tunnel that crosses “dozens of metres into Israel” from the Israeli-blockaded Palestinian coastal enclave.

The next day, the army said the tunnel belonged to Hamas.

Authorities have discovered some 20 tunnels originating from Gaza since 2014, army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said this week.

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‘True progressive Bangladesh’: Cricketer hits critics for a six

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Top cricketer Sanjida Islam’s viral photoshoot – dressed for her wedding and holding a bat – triggers both accolades and criticism.

One of Bangladesh’s top women cricketers has hit critics for a six after being accused of disrespecting national culture by posing for photos in full wedding attire and a bat.

Pictures of Sanjida Islam wielding a cricket bat while dressed in an orange sari and wearing dozens of bangles went viral after she posted them on social media last week.

The International Cricket Council – the sport’s governing body – retweeted the pictures to hundreds of thousands of worldwide followers with a tick against a wedding-ceremony checklist reading: “Dress, jewellery, cricket bat.”

But some in her Muslim-majority home country said she had gone too far.

“There is nothing in her that an Islamic society can follow,” said one on Facebook. Others called for “strict punishment”.

Most people, however, loved the impromptu photoshoot.

“I did not plan to pose with a bat,” said Sanjida, who went to the stadium with groom Mim Mosaddeak – who plays for Rangpur in the Bangladesh championship – the day before their formal vows.

While some in Bangladesh believed Sanjida Islam went too far, others loved the impromptu photoshoot [AFP/Courtesy of Sanjida Islam]

“I saw some kids playing; I just could not resist … my team-mates captured the moment beautifully.

“I shared the photos casually on Facebook and Instagram. I had no idea they would go viral,” she told AFP news agency.

Fans of Sanjida, who has played 16 one-day internationals and 54 Twenty20 internationals for Bangladesh, agreed with the cricketer.

“This photo reflects true progressive Bangladesh,” said one on social media.

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US election debate does little to sway stock market investors

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US stock index futures and Asian shares trade within tight ranges, as investors say they remain cautious ahead of polls.

Global stocks barely budged on Friday as investors remained wary with less than two weeks to go before the United States presidential election and awaited a breakthrough in fiscal stimulus talks in Washington, DC.

The final debate between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden on Thursday night presented few surprises for election watchers but slightly reinforced investor caution heading into the November 3 polls.

US S&P 500 stock index futures had dipped slightly after the debate but were mostly flat by midday trade in Asia. The underlying index had gained about 0.5 percent in the previous day on hopes that the US Congress and the White House could soon strike a deal on another round of COVID-19 stimulus funding to support companies and jobs.

Shares in Asia hardly budged, with MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan flat while Japan’s Nikkei ticked up 0.2 percent.

The CSI 300 index of mainland Chinese stocks also edged up 0.2 percent.

Coronavirus and corruption

At Thursday’s debate, Biden renewed his criticism of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as Trump levelled unfounded corruption accusations at Biden and his family.

“I don’t think there’s anything new in it, I think that’s why the market is not moving much. The focus is still on the timing of the fiscal stimulus and how big it is,” said Moh Siong Sim, foreign exchange analyst at Bank of Singapore.

On Thursday, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi reported progress in talks with the Trump administration for another round of financial aid, saying the legislation could be hammered out “pretty soon”.

While the news helped to lift US share prices, the US S&P 500 is still down 0.9 percent so far this week amid uncertainties over stimulus and the election.

US S&P 500 futures after presidential debates chart [Bloomberg]

A widening lead in opinion polls by Biden is prompting many investors to bet on a Biden presidency and also a “blue sweep”, where Democrats win both chambers of Congress.

“A blue wave may lead to concerns about the impact on the tech sector, while a Biden win and a split Congress may imply another four years of limited policy changes and politicking,” said Mary Nicola, senior economist at Pinebridge Investments in Singapore.

Reflecting concerns that Democrats could take a harder stance on big tech firms, the Nasdaq index, which had led the market’s rally, has underperformed lately, having lost 1.4 percent so far this week.

Expectations of bigger government stimulus have also boosted US borrowing costs.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury note rose to a four-and-a-half-month high of 0.87 percent on Thursday and last stood at 0.853 percent.

US jobs hope

US economic data published on Thursday were stronger than expected, as jobless claims fell by more than analyst forecasts and existing home sales rose to a more than 14-year high.

In the currency market, the US dollar bounced back from Wednesday’s seven-week low but stayed under pressure as investors began to wager on a Biden presidency and big US stimulus package.

The euro traded at $1.1803, down 0.2 percent and off Wednesday’s high of $1.1805 but still up 0.7 percent on the week.

The yen changed hands at 104.77 yen per dollar, stepping back a tad after its biggest gain in nearly two months on Wednesday.

The Chinese yuan stood at 6.6729 per US dollar in offshore trade, off the 27-month high of 6.6278 it touched on Wednesday.

Oil prices were supported by hopes of US stimulus and the prospect of extended output cuts by the world’s top exporters.

Brent crude futures ticked up 0.3 percent to $42.59 per barrel while US crude futures rose 0.25 percent to $40.74 per barrel.

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