I’m writing this article in the room where I spend all my time now. A faux snake plant from Target perches directly to my left on a wire storage shelf that I put together from Amazon so my Zoom calls wouldn’t look quite so haphazard.
The rest of my Zoom background consists of a bookshelf full of airplane and jungle puzzles, a plastic box full of crayons, and a bin with Play-Doh jars and new board games, including one where you throw foam burritos at one another.
To my right stands a blue metal cart purchased from Target that houses all my son’s supplies for virtual school: a few notebooks, workbooks, a large printout of a QR code to log in to classes, and a Los Angeles Dodgers hat.
If you’re a parent reading this, you might be nodding in exhaustion and agreement and maybe suppressing a grin.
To my far right sits a large IKEA corner desk, which my husband constructed out of a variety of furniture pieces and drawers. A design engineer, he uses two monitors, while the far corner of the desk is reserved for second-grade schoolwork.
We’ve all been here together for months. This school year, my parents are blessedly pitching in for “preschool” for my 4-year-old.
Others reading this can relate to the shelf on the other side of this room, filled with an assortment of cloth masks, like the ones your kids might have to wear for eight hours a day while they try to have recess and gym and pretend that life still might be normal at school.
Maybe you don’t have kids at home, but you’re an educator, a priest, a church worker, a grandparent, or simply a citizen of the world who has been watching as families teeter along in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Maybe you’ve pitched in to help care for kids at the church nursery or listened as your friends lament the stresses of paying exorbitant child care bills. Maybe you’ve participated in meetings about reopening your parish’s school, wondering how to meet the needs of families and also keep students and teachers safe.
My point is—after a year filled with challenges, surprises, and grief—none among us can ignore one of the chief concerns American families faced in 2020: the child care crisis. Even as I write this article from a research and reporting perspective, I write it also knowing the very real consequences and challenges of this crisis for moms and dads, educators, churches, and church leaders. Most important, I write this article with a sense of gravity and hope: American Catholics are harnessing their faith in many ways to make a real difference in the lives of American families.
The child care crisis: Pre- and post-COVID-19
The child care crisis began, of course, far earlier than COVID-19 came to America. In a 2018 study from the Center for American Progress, 83 percent of parents said finding affordable, quality care in their area for children under 5 was a serious problem. Parents in many American metro areas signed up for waitlists at popular child care centers before they were even pregnant. Child care costs for children under 5 often rivaled tuition costs for universities. Many families paid more in child care than they did in rent or on their mortgage.
As it did for many societal issues across America, the pandemic brought the child care crisis into sharper relief. Nearly 34 million American workers care for children younger than 14 according to the Brookings Institute. Almost all of them rely on school as child care. By late June 2020, 13 percent of parents said they had cut back on hours or quit their jobs, the Washington Post reported.
Although COVID-19 and the child care crisis impacted parents and families in general, mothers bore the bulk of the consequences, mirroring the impact of the child care crisis on mothers in general. In that same 2018 survey, mothers were 40 percent more likely than fathers to say they had personally experienced a negative impact of child care issues on their careers.
The worsening impacts of the child care crisis plus the pandemic fell even more heavily on single parents (who are far more likely to be women) and women of color, with Black, Latina, and Native American moms also facing the fact that COVID-19 hit their communities disproportionately hard.
We need to have a much more thoughtful, honest, and open conversation within Catholic circles and spaces about the everyday discernment that couples of child-bearing age and women facing fertility questions are going through.
Catholic theologian Emily Reimer-Barry says that the reliance of the broader economy on the unpaid labor of women and low-wage care work meant that women suffered greatly during the pandemic, both with lost wages and threat of exposure.
“It was already a situation where these workers were quite vulnerable,” Reimer-Barry says. “A lot of low-wage work is really essential for the forming of children and care of vulnerable populations.”
Child care workers, many of whom are also mothers, face losing their jobs due to COVID-19, while as many as 40 percent of child care programs face potential permanent closures without out- side help, according to Vox. The Washington Post reported that 258,000 child care workers had been laid off due to the pandemic as of late summer. Of course, as Reimer-Barry says, those workers were already vulnerable. They made around $11 an hour, and many of them are immigrants who speak English as a second language.
Reimer-Barry says that the exorbitant costs of child care and difficulty finding quality care cause many families to have “real fears and anxieties” about how they could possibly care for another child. For a church that has sought to encourage families and support couples in bearing children, Reimer-Barry says, “We need to have a much more thoughtful, honest, and open conversation within Catholic circles and spaces about the everyday discernment that couples of child-bearing age and women facing fertility questions are going through.”
Church teaching and expectations
Reimer-Barry adds that church teaching and expectations that children are a blessing without exploring the challenges that families face, especially those with many children, leave a gap for families who desire children but worry about the family budget.
“That gets really complicated for pastoral workers who fear job loss if they speak out on Catholic teaching against contraception,” Reimer-Barry says. “It’s very difficult for someone who relies on their income [from the church] to not rock the boat.”
Although it can be hard for childless, unmarried priests to understand all the complexities of 21st-century child-rearing, Reimer-Barry cites the example of several parish priests who take the time and effort to understand and support families in their parishes. She also cites Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), published in March 2016 and addressed to bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, Christian married couples, and all the faithful. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis encourages mothers and fathers to take on equally significant roles in raising children. He specifically encourages fathers, stating, “It is possible, for example, that a husband’s way of being masculine can be flexibly adapted to the wife’s work schedule. Taking on domestic chores or some aspects of raising children does not make him any less masculine or imply failure, irresponsibility or cause for shame.”
Pope Francis encourages mothers and fathers to take on equally significant roles in raising children.
With these words, Pope Francis helps moms and dads release themselves from gender-based expectations and instead lean into whatever their families need at the time, trusting that the church supports them.
Timothy O’Malley, an education professor at the University of Notre Dame, believes that his role as a dad is part of his vocation as a Catholic. He cites the Second Vatican Council, saying, “As a baptized person it’s my job to sanctify the cosmos. I’m a priest in that regard.”
He encourages his students to value their roles in their families and to focus on family life. He tells them they’re called to “consecrate the world with their work for the common good,” again citing Vatican II.
The church’s ideology on families post-Vatican II
Catholic historian Mary Henold says that while gender roles are “one of the few things that Vatican II didn’t overturn,” that doesn’t mean Vatican II didn’t inspire change within Catholic family life.
Henold says that Vatican II gave an expanded vision of what laypeople were supposed to do in the mission of the church, and many Catholic laywomen were interested in reading Vatican II documents to understand their vocation as laypeople. “Women wondered, ‘Do we have a role here? Are they talking to us?’ ” says Henold.
Although Vatican II maintained many gender distinctions in the church during the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and ’70s and the broader women’s movement, women were having national conversations about birth control, feminism, and family life. Henold cites a national Catholic magazine called Marriage that frankly discussed birth control, Catholic family life, feminism, headship, and even the role of child care in child-rearing.
Henold says that while the church maintains gender differences, it also “tries really hard to make people understand that women are not inferior and not limited to a domestic role.”
She cites St. Pope John Paul II’s 1988 document “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” which “is basically asserting that women are first people called by God to the work that God wants human beings to do,” she says.
These historical differences diverge from other American Christian traditions, particularly evangelical cultures that talk much more about headship and female submission.
On the ground during COVID-19
Myriad examples exist of Catholic organizations that are seeking to promote family-friendly policies and support parents, especially mothers, during the pandemic.
Tralonne Shorter, a senior government relations advocate at NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, felt the brunt of the child care crisis during the pandemic as a Black mother who went through a separation while working at NETWORK. When her father died during that time, Shorter says her employer was generous and understanding about her leave time. “I never felt like I’d lose my job,” she says.
While she continues to navigate at-home schooling with her 6-year-old son, Shorter says those policies inspire her to remain passionate about her work at NETWORK, which involves encouraging legislation so that other parents can experience the same security and support in their work. She lobbies for federal funding for safety net programs that focus on poverty and family funding for workplace policies. She also manages portfolios on labor relations, housing, and social justice. Even in the midst of COVID-19 and the child care crisis, she says, “The advocate in me didn’t want to miss a beat.”
As she sees the child care crisis and the impact of COVID-19, as well as systemic racism and police violence in America, fall heavily on her fellow Black women and mothers, Shorter feels encouraged that her employer follows through in enacting the same policies they support publicly.
“The pandemic is not going away,” Shorter says. “It has shined a spotlight onto where these disparities lie and the fact that there needs to be a coordinated government and corporate response to it.”
Mari Barboza, a community engagement manager for Catholic Relief Services, has also witnessed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the child care crisis in her personal life as well as in her professional global work.
She has a child with special needs and has to use a different location with better Wi-Fi to make sure her children can attend virtual school while she runs Zoom meetings for work. Barboza says she’s fortunate that she has worked from home in the past but, as many parents have discovered, working from home looks different when kids are also attending school from home. (I write this as my 4-year-old son screams at his brother in the basement.)
We need to prioritize an understanding of this idea that we’re all responsible for the care of children.
Barboza also sees the intense impact COVID-19 and the child care crisis have on people living in poverty around the world. She grew up in Peru, where 44 percent of the population don’t own a refrigerator and 60 percent don’t have a bank account.
“People have to eat,” Barboza says. “They have to go to the market and to work. They don’t have an option not to.”
She is encouraged by the work of Catholic Relief Services during the pandemic and by the historical commitment of the church to serve the poor.
Simeiqi He, a Ph.D. candidate and Chinese Catholic scholar, may have most intensely experienced the impacts of the child care crisis and COVID-19 in 2020. She gave birth to her son on January 22 while living in student housing at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where her husband is a Ph.D. student. Her parents came from China the next day to visit their new grandchild and were unable to return until July, though they’d planned to return to China in February.
As the pandemic raged across southern California, UCLA student housing was closed, and He and her family had to move in with her husband’s family in Seattle.
He witnessed the devastation of COVID-19 in China through friends and family members, but she was struck by how distant their suffering seemed from the United States at the time.
“I felt this sense of indifference in the world to all of the suffering and felt a sadness that people are so indifferent,” she says.
The pandemic has led her to see similarities between Chinese and American cultures, which first seemed very different to her. These similarities have caused her to desire to work so that the empathy and generosity preached in American Christianity becomes more deeply realized beneath the surface.
Even as they study the impacts of Catholic theology on family life, child care, and COVID-19, Reimer-Barry, Henold, and O’Malley are all also parents of young children and impacted by the crisis and the pandemic. Reimer-Barry attended meetings for her children’s Catholic school about the challenges of reopening and financial worries. Henold, a Fulbright grant recipient, had to return halfway through her study in Hungary due to the pandemic, while O’Malley has seen some positive impacts of COVID-19, such as being able to spend more time with his kids and appreciate the “weird, hilarious moments of it all.”
O’Malley says COVID-19 may have helped him see his role as a father in a new light. “Yesterday my daughter said to me after I’d done many tasks for her, ‘Dad, you’re a good helper,’ ” he says.
As the nation and the world look toward recovery amid the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, American Catholics and churches have an opportunity to be a part of the solution to improving family life and raising children in America.
“First, we need to prioritize an understanding of this idea that we’re all responsible for the care of children,” Reimer-Barry says. “It’s not just the parents who are responsible for decisions regarding the formation of their children. We need a wider understanding that the whole community is responsible. We need to think much more concretely about the institutions. How can we build thriving institutions that can support families and vulnerable children?”
“I’d like to see us using the principles of Catholic social teaching in the way we talk about social institutions and family life more broadly,” she continues. “Church teaching on family life is really thinking about obligations to each other to create loving and stable social relationships that lead to everyone’s flourishing.”
O’Malley says that the child care crisis and the pandemic changed his perspective on the “idolatry of work.”
“We as a society need to recognize that the capacity to work from home shouldn’t be an aberration,” he says. “The ability to recognize the presence of divine grace in an often messy reality is a real sort of growth and pursuit and holiness in family life. There’s really good news there.”
How can we build thriving institutions that can support families and vulnerable children?
O’Malley echoes Reimer-Barry’s call for shared community responsibility for families and child-rearing.
On a broader scale, Shorter and Barboza both saw examples of hope in the work of their Catholic organizations to advocate for those most impacted. Barboza says even as she works hard to balance caring for her kids and doing work from home, she is encouraged by the dedication of ordinary Catholics led by their faith to serve and care for individuals and families across the world.
She talks about a Zoom meeting she had earlier that day with a senator and a group of 70-something Catholic ladies.
“The part of the church we’re engaging with is very much alive and wants to do what they can.” Barboza says. “Even during the pandemic they’re organizing things. They have a lot of energy and learned how to engage virtually. . . . People do look to the church for so many services. They really depend on the church, so it’s important that we continue this work because their lives depend on it.”
This article also appears in the January issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 1, pages 26-31). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.