Though school closings are an extreme circumstance, the United States has long considered it the responsibility of individual families to figure out child care. What’s new is that the usual solutions parents patch together — schools, child care programs, babysitters, relatives and neighbors — are less likely to be available now because of the need for social distancing.
The Coronavirus Outbreak
Back to School
Updated Aug. 12, 2020
The latest highlights as the first students return to U.S. schools.
There was a period in the 1970s and early 1980s, after women had begun entering the work force in large numbers, when the country considered the idea that government and employer policies could help both men and women work and care for their families, through flexible hours, subsidized child care and paid leave. But the country landed on the opposite approach.
The United States stands out among rich countries in its lack of family-friendly policies. Swedish parents, for example, get 16 months of paid leave that can be used until their children are 8, and subsidized preschool. Some Canadian parents have up to 18 months of paid leave.
Individualizing decisions like these appeals to American ideals of independence and freedom. It also works to ensure that they remain individual decisions because, research shows, it ends up reducing support for public policies in support of the greater good and decreasing empathy for people with fewer advantages.
Feeling guilty about parenting decisions in this context is distinctly American among advanced nations, according to social scientists. Unlike mothers in European countries, American mothers tend to blame themselves when decisions don’t turn out well rather than other forces, according to research by Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Moms are feeling acute and crushing guilt,” she said. “We think of families as a private and personal responsibility, and in the face of a global pandemic, it means this work falls on women’s shoulders. There is no good choice, and instead of blaming larger structural forces, women in American tend to always blame themselves.”
La Tosha Plavnik, the mother of a second grader in Clifton, Va., has stopped talking to most of her friends about her family’s plans for the school year, because she felt too much judgment. Remote learning during the spring was very hard for her daughter and for their relationship, Ms. Plavnik said. So for the fall she has formed a pod of three children and hired a tutor to teach them supplementary material one day a week. The other days, her mother-in-law will help with remote school.