The Third Shift

Part 1: The psychological damage to mothers during the pandemic.

Posted Oct 23, 2020

I pick up the phone for my session with Carla and hear her sobbing. This is uncharacteristic of her so I ask what happened, fearing that perhaps there had been an accident or that someone in the family had been infected with COVID-19. She replies, “I’ve locked myself in the bathroom so the kids can’t hear me. I feel so guilty.”  

In fact, the trigger for Carla’s tears was that her sons, ages 7 and 9, were being sent home for total virtual learning due to an increase in COVID-19 infections. Previously, they were in school part-time. This change occurred not long after Carla had spent countless hours of effort and planning, including re-organization of the space in the apartment, asking her boss if she could work part-time at her job as an executive assistant, hiring one high school and another college student to do some babysitting, and asking for help from her cousins. She also talked with her husband about adjusting his hours but he worked at a factory that had a rigid schedule.

Carla had finally managed to create a schedule and plan that worked for the family. She wanted to supervise the boys’ education when they were home and not worry about them when she was at work. Carla realized that, like many part-time employees, she could end up doing a full-time job in part-time hours but it was worth it. Then that day she found out that her children would now be home full-time. Welcome to the third shift.

The third shift is a term for employed American mothers’ lives during the pandemic. Work at a paid job, work at home on childcare and housekeeping, and now, supervising remote education, constantly adjusting a confusing and uncertain schedule and attending to the emotional needs of children under stress. This occurs in the larger context of constant worry about COVID-19, now the third most common cause of death in the US (the first and second are heart disease and cancer).

In this post, I will discuss the nature and the historical context of the problem. Two subsequent posts will provide guidance for mothers and make suggestions on how to help children, especially teens, suffering from depression and anxiety.

The Second Shift was a popular book by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild back in 1989 that detailed how most mothers worked full-time and then performed a second shift of caregiving and household responsibilities. A large number of women had entered the labor force but did not achieve equality at home, which Hochschild called a “stalled revolution.” After The Second Shift was published, there were publications that referred to “the third shift” variously as perfectionism, carrying the psychological burdens of the family or mothers trying to continue their education. However, in my decades of working with families, I could not have imagined the three shifts mothers now face. Once again, mothers are front and center in trying to help families stay afloat financially, emotionally, and educationally. Note that this situation leaves little time for restorative sleep.

Over the past 30 years, men have increased their share of household labor, primarily spending more time with their children and on housework. But it never became an equal distribution of labor; we never completed the gender equality revolution, despite the fact that 72 percent of mothers with children at home are employed. U.S. childcare policies have not improved, with the U.S. being the only industrialized country not to have a paid preschool nor guaranteed healthcare. Subsidized childcare is available only for some low-income families. We face the catastrophic combination of the pandemic, disruption in education, and economic disaster with millions out of work and benefits ended.

A study by Yale University earlier this year found that mothers at home or working from home have experienced greater levels of anxiety and depressed mood than fathers, who actually reported less anxiety when working from home. It is no wonder that worldwide, women are almost three times more likely than men to report a mental health problem due to COVID-19. This was bound to happen, as we know that extreme stress and worry can precipitate depression and anxiety. A study of more than 10,000 people in 38 countries revealed that mothers’ worries are finances, caregiving, and access to healthcare.

In the face of the enormous increased demands, families face several choices, none of them good. In families where both parents need to continue to work as in Carla’s situation, mothers absorb most of the burden by just putting in more time in every realm. In other heterosexual couples, due to gender discrimination in wages, mothers may be the parent to quit their jobs, creating a severe drop in income for the family and sense a loss for the mother. 

And in some ways, Carla is fortunate. Although she had moved away from her close-knit, Italian-American family, she was still able to get support from them via FaceTime. Single mothers are more often afflicted by poverty and lack the resources to get even part-time babysitters. Black and Latina mothers and LGBTQ women face even additional wage discrimination. These mothers are overwhelmed and exhausted by these multiple responsibilities, as well as concern about the well-being of their children, since we know that, according to the CDC, the rates of depression and anxiety are skyrocketing in young people.

What can we do to help families, especially mothers? Fortunately, psychological science can guide us. Most articles about psychological problems in families conclude with a few superficial words about "self-care.” I am going to turn that on its head and in my next post, focus on improving maternal mental health. Finally, I’ll address what we can do to help our children, especially teens and young people.