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SALT LAKE CITY — "I felt pulled in so many directions that I was struggling to survive."
"My mental health suffered quite a bit and my anxiety skyrocketed."
"The stress is too much."
Those were just a few of the thoughts shared by working Utah moms about their experiences during the pandemic in research released Wednesday by the Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University.
More than 43% of moms with children in the home said they faced difficulties accessing child care, adding to the struggles of balancing work and family life during the pandemic for many, according to qualitative results from the survey.
The research is important because it captures the challenges of the past year from "the mouths of Utah women," said Marin Christensen, associate director of the Women and Leadership Project and lead author of the study.
Child care centers faced unprecedented challenges in staying open as their enrollment numbers dropped due to fear over the spread of COVID-19; health requirements lowered the number of children centers could care for; and many providers left the workforce, according to the research. Survey respondents who work in child care expressed frustration that they weren't considered essential employees and given resources such as early access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
"The child care field is being seriously overlooked, especially since we provide such a crucial service in ordinary times and particularly in crises," one worker in the industry wrote in the survey.
The new research, part of a larger project requested by lawmakers, highlights the need for the Utah Legislature to consider policies to help the child care industry — and help keep parents in the workforce, said Susan Madsen, founding director of the Women and Leadership Project.
"Especially here in Utah, most of that kind of legislation just doesn't move, because there's been a really interesting, really conservative dynamic through the years that these kinds of issues are 'private issues' and not 'public issues,'" Madsen said.
Now, Madsen said some legislators are speaking to members of the child care industry to get a grasp on their needs.
Policies to enhance funding for pre-kindergarten and other early childhood education efforts could make an impact, according to Madsen. It could also be beneficial if the state incentivizes companies offering child care and support resources to parents through grants or tax benefits, she said.
"I would hope people would read the words of these women who very much need just a little more support at work, and if employers aren't coming around, then lawmakers need to step in and make sure women have these family-friendly policies," Christensen said.
She also urged men to ask their employers for more family-friendly policies and resources.
As schools went virtual and child care centers shut down, it created a difficult scenario for many mothers who work. Some mothers also serve as caregivers for parents. Some were forced to cut back their hours or drop out of the workforce, according to researchers.
"I hit a burnout wall in June and with the uncertainty of schools being able to return to and stay in-person in the fall, finding affordable quality child care for my kids, and enough stimulation for my teens through the summer — I decided to let my job go by the end of June," one woman said in the survey.
But those options weren't available to all, Madsen noted, including single mothers.
Other points highlighted in the research:
- Burnout: Of caretaker respondents, 73.2% said they had difficulty managing both their home and work responsibilities as schools and child care centers closed, and had no time left over for themselves.
- Guilt: Another 30% of survey respondents mentioned feelings of guilt alongside general mental health struggles, researchers said. Many working moms felt they couldn't meet all of the needs of their family members, as well as their own.
- Spousal support: Nearly 76% of survey respondents described their spouse as unsupportive with child care and household tasks, while 24.4% described their spouse as supportive.
- Workplace support: Slightly more women discussed issues with employers that did not provide support such as work-from-home options or flexible schedules during the pandemic. Of those surveyed, 44.7% discussed supportive work environments, while 55.3% talked about their employers' lack of support.
About 3,500 women in Utah completed the survey distributed by the Women and Leadership Project with the help of nonprofits, chambers of commerce, government agencies, universities, churches and other organizations. The survey was provided in both English and Spanish.