In 2020, mothers of younger children were primary and primarily caregivers. In this piece, we document declines in labor force participation among mothers and provide evidence of how mothers spent their time in 2020. We find that overall, mothers of children 12 and under spent an average of eight hours per day on direct and secondary child care activities. Restricting attention to employed mothers with children 12 and under also spent about eight hours (7.4 hours during the weekday) per day on direct and indirect child care, and worked about six hours per weekday.

Concerned with chronicling the economic security of families with children and how mothers of young children were spending their time during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Hamilton Project in partnership with the Future of the Middle Class Initiative fielded surveys of mothers with children 12 and under in April 2020 and Fall 2020 (The Survey of Mothers with Young Children [SMYC]).[i] Through this survey, we documented extraordinary levels of material hardship in families with young children and the stress and time pressures that mothers have had to manage. Today, the U.S. Census Bureau released the American Time Use Survey diaries for May-December 2020. These data allow for a more comprehensive picture of how Americans spent their time following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This much larger federal survey corroborates the findings of the SMYC: mothers with children 12 and under have spent much of the past year caregiving.

The COVID-19 pandemic has widened labor force participation gaps between mothers and fathers, and among mothers by marital status and the age of their youngest child. Figure 1 shows the extent to which labor force participation rates (LFPR; the share of a given group working or actively seeking work) have recovered to their level in January 2020. As of June 2021, the most recently available data, the LFPRs of prime-age mothers (those aged 25-54) remain well below the pre-COVID level. In recent months, LFPRs of single mothers and mothers of young children have started to rebound, while rates among mothers of elementary-school-age children and married mothers have stalled and mothers of teens have declined after an initial strong recovery. Single mothers, who typically have the highest rates of labor force participation among prime-age mothers, had the largest initial fall in LFPR and, as of June 2021, the rate remains five percentage points below its January 2020 rate of about 81 percent.

Read the full article about labor force participation of mothers by Lauren Bauer, Sara Estep, and Winnie Yee at Brookings.