The idea had been forming on the edges of Jessica Calarco’s mind for some time. So when she got a set of questions late last fall about the pandemic’s toll on families from the journalist Anne Helen Petersen, Calarco recognized her chance to pull it into focus.

After another long pandemic day of working and caring for her young children, Calarco felt it click.

“Other countries have social safety nets,” Calarco responded to Petersen. “The U.S. has women.”

It was just one line in a long interview. But Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington, knew she’d crystallized something important. So did Petersen, who used it as the subject line for that issue of her newsletter, Culture Study. Momentum grew from there: Scholars quoted the line on Twitter. So did Hillary Clinton.

“The U.S. has women” combined Calarco’s research on inequities in education and family life with her sociological position that many of the challenges Americans tend to regard as personal — finding appropriate child care, juggling work and caregiving responsibilities — are in fact systemic, and distilled it into something that could be a bumper sticker, or a rallying cry. Across the internet, women read those words and found something that’s been in short supply during this pandemic year: a skeleton key for understanding what they were living through.

Like many academics, Calarco has long used her scholarly lens to make sense of the world around her. But now, the problems she studies have grown more urgent — and relevant for more people. The Petersen interview merely accelerated a trend already underway: Journalists are increasingly turning to Calarco to help explain how the pandemic has set women back.

“The U.S. has women” is the kind of simplification many experts try to avoid. On Twitter, some readers took issue with her statement. Other nations lean heavily on the unpaid labor of women to keep families, schools, and communities running, too. Not every other developed country has a strong social-safety net. Calarco knows all of that, and agrees that nuances matter.

Clay Lomneth for The Chronicle

Jessica Calarco gives a presentation of her research from her home, in Bloomington, Ind.

Coming up with a grabby distillation is a technique, one Calarco often uses in her teaching. She’ll make a point in general terms, then unpack it, and add further context. Students, she knows, won’t remember everything she said. They’ll remember the headline. The public — especially now, with everyone’s emotions running high and focus fractured — is the same way.

Giving families the support they really need would require a sea change, Calarco acknowledges, in both policy and culture. The first step is getting people’s attention.

Calarco’s parents married young; she was born when her mother was still in college, midway through a fall semester. So for a time her mother toted her along to some classes. It was too much, though, and her mom took a long hiatus from her education before eventually becoming a teacher. College wasn’t designed for mothers.

Calarco’s own path was much straighter. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Brown University and, six years later, received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She had her children after that. But she thinks about her mom’s experience a lot.

When the pandemic hit, Calarco was studying how mothers make controversial parenting decisions — about breastfeeding, for example, or leaving the work force, or screen time. Her sample was 250 Indiana women who were pregnant in 2018. Calarco expected her research to reveal how women’s preferences are swayed by their social networks, and what happens when they can’t make the choice they want to. The pandemic, of course, has changed the calculation on a host of parenting decisions, and introduced new ones. Calarco and her research team are now asking 139 of the original participants and their partners pandemic-specific questions.

Some of the mothers are students, too. One with an 18-month-old child was on the cusp of completing a degree that would have made possible a career in health care, earning more money than her husband made working at a warehouse. She had only a couple of classes left, but Covid-19 meant she was now also providing full-time care for her toddler. That, Calarco says, left this mother “too tired to get homework done,” and “just exhausted all the time.”

Most students at Bloomington are recent high-school graduates. But Calarco doesn’t assume that college is all her students have going on.

So when she was figuring out how to move her courses online last spring, she made compassion a priority. One of her first decisions: telling the 250 students in her intro course that none of them would receive a lower grade than they’d had before going remote. Calarco was also part of a university committee on equitable assessment in the pandemic. On that panel, she argued that giving a traditional exam — closed book, taken at a set time — would increase disparities among students.

That argument put Calarco at odds with some of her colleagues, who were worried about maintaining academic standards — and preventing cheating. But Calarco’s view was that to continue as if nothing had changed would be unethical.


Clay Lomneth for the Chronicle

Calarco chases her daughter.

Calarco thinks in terms of systems: whom they harm and who has an advantage as long as those systems remain in place. For her dissertation, Calarco observed third graders, then followed them through several years of school. Her work revealed that middle-class children tend to request and receive extra support from their teachers, giving them an edge over their lower-income classmates.

That study became Calarco’s first book, Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School (Oxford University Press, 2018), which won the Pierre Bourdieu Award for Best Book from the Sociology of Education Section of the American Sociological Association. It also deterred her from doing further scholarship on elementary and secondary education, at least for now. The ways that school systems deepen class stratification are so well established, Calarco says, that documenting them feels like “screaming into the void.” The problem isn’t that people don’t know about education inequity. The problem is that a system that entrenches existing advantages suits some families just fine.

On a snowy afternoon in February, Calarco conducted an interview over Zoom with a mother whose children were 2 and 6. For an hour, Calarco asked about pandemic precautions, remote schooling, and family relationships.

Last spring’s sudden shift online halted a lot of academic research. For Calarco, it presented challenges, but also a big opportunity. She decided to try to capture the pandemic’s toll on the mothers she’d been following. She brought on a new co-author, who contributed more health-oriented questions and some additional funding. She also secured new approval from her institutional review board and rushed to get an additional survey and round of interviews into the field in April. Even though she already had approval to conduct interviews by phone or video call, it was a mad scramble.

The result: Calarco’s Pandemic Parenting Study has produced more data, on more topics, than she can possibly analyze. She’s working with seven current and one former graduate students who are using the data as a source for different projects.

Moving her research interviews to Zoom was easier than, say, shifting her large introductory course, Calarco says. She and her graduate students had often interviewed mothers in their homes, so peering into them through a video camera wasn’t such an adjustment. Still, participants’ home lives are not what they used to be.

On that afternoon in February, the subject’s whole family was home. The parents had opted for remote learning for the 6-year-old. The 2-year-old’s school was closed. The mother works part time as a data specialist, and is pursuing a certification; her husband works full time as a marketing director, holed up in their bedroom.

So while the family’s younger child napped through most of the interview, the older one made a few appearances on Zoom. After her mother told Calarco about a day when she’d had a terrible migraine, the girl popped into view, making a silly face. When the mother was describing the challenge of keeping the family running with no outside support, the kindergartener re-emerged to show off a set of drawings she’d done for school.

Then the 2-year-old woke up. “I’m just going to step away for one second,” the mother told Calarco. She got out of her chair, revealing a view, out the window behind her, of a snow-covered backyard swing set.

“No problem,” Calarco replied. She waited.

After a brief lull, the 6-year-old came back into view, alone. “My mom’s just helping my brother,” she told Calarco.

“Thank you so much for letting me know,” Calarco replied. While her own 6-year-old is attending in-person school, that day was a snow day, so she was watching TV in another room.

Near the end of the interview, Calarco asked about the family’s school and child-care plans for the fall. The mom said it wasn’t yet clear what options they’d even have — and mentioned how strange it would be to be away from her children after so much time together.


Clay Lomneth for the Chronicle

Calarco answers emails as her son and daughter play in the background.

But the mother didn’t feel great about that time. “Right now,” she said, “there’s just no way to balance the ugly with the fun part of being the mom — who is also the teacher, who is also the task manager, and the rule enforcer, and the eat-your-vegetable yeller.”

American culture already conditions mothers to view those frustrations as personal problems. Hunkering down at home with far too much to do during the pandemic has made it hard for them to even compare notes. But a clear pattern has emerged, and it’s starting to get public attention.

One notable example: The New York Times’s recent project titled “The Primal Scream,” which documents American mothers in crisis through narratives, data, advice — and, yes, audio of mothers’ actual screams.

Stories, on their own, don’t solve the world’s problems. But they make people feel seen. And they make it harder to pretend societal problems stem from individual choices.

This is Calarco’s pandemic story: She remembers the last mom she interviewed in person, how she checked that it was still OK to visit her house, how they mostly sat outside. She anticipated that life would move online: Her husband, Daniel, then the chief of staff for the university’s vice president for information technology, spent early March in contingency-planning meetings. Calarco started recording her lectures, and gave students the option of watching online about two weeks before the university decided for them.

Those first six weeks were the worst. Calarco recognizes all the advantages she has: a partner, a good job with tenure, the ability to work from home. Even from that position of strength, it has been an overwhelming time. Calarco started teaching hundreds of students online while remaking her research plans. Her husband, now in her words “the incident commander for the pandemic for IT,” spent his days in endless meetings for setting up Wi-Fi in parking lots, getting personal routers to students, and just figuring out how the university could function fully online. He worked from the home office; she set up in the kitchen, as far away as she could get on that level of the house. But there were no doors, so Calarco could still hear everything.

Then there were the kids. Their daughter was in kindergarten when her school went remote last spring. In the beginning, she was given something like 25 pages of worksheets a day. Worksheets that almost immediately killed the family’s decade-old printer. Worksheets that she couldn’t read herself, because she was still learning how. Her little brother, then 2, was also home, his child-care center closed.

The kids, Calarco recalls, were confused and angry about how much their parents, right there at home with them, had to work. “My kids watched a lot of TV,” Calarco says. “That’s how we got through it.”

It’s a last resort plenty of parents are familiar with, and one that Calarco has been open about, including on Twitter, where she has some 26,000 followers. There are countless ways to present oneself on social media. Calarco’s Twitter account is clearly professional, and she frequently comments on issues related to her expertise. But while she’s careful about her kids’ privacy, it’s very clear she has them. Calarco tweets about those kindergarten worksheets, her daughter’s drawings, snippets of amusing things her kids say to her. Not long ago, she shared images of unfolded heaps of clean laundry and groceries on shelves still in their bags.

That willingness to pull back the curtain extends beyond Twitter. It’s the theme of Calarco’s most recent book, A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum (Princeton University Press, 2020), meant to buoy graduate students from less-advantaged backgrounds and the faculty members — often women and people of color — who advocate for them.

In both cases, Calarco is using her platform to help foster “an honest dialogue about what life is really like in academia,” says Elaine Hernandez, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana who is a collaborator and a friend. The posts about working while caring for young kids, she adds, resonate much more broadly than that.


Clay Lomneth for the Chronicle

Early in the pandemic, Calarco recalls, her children were confused and angry about how much their parents, right there at home with them, had to work.

Calarco decided not to pursue another project on education because the problems felt well established but impossibly stubborn. Now she feels the same frustration about gender.

Gender inequality is so persistent that new findings feel familiar, says Annette Lareau, a professor of sociology at Penn who was Calarco’s dissertation adviser. That pattern just played out for another former graduate student, whose groundbreaking work on how unemployment among professionals differently affects men’s and women’s home responsibilities was greeted initially as something everyone already knew. Of course the unemployed men spent their days searching for jobs. Of course the unemployed women spent theirs doing child care and chores — even if they had been the primary breadwinner.

As consistent as patterns of gender imbalance have been, Lareau says, “in the pandemic, it’s really taken on new forms.”

Some 2.3 million American women have left the labor force since the pandemic began, according to a recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data conducted by the National Women’s Law Center. Women’s labor-force participation rate stands at 57 percent — the lowest level since 1988.

The first paper Calarco submitted from her Pandemic Parenting Study was rejected. The reviewers weren’t sure the Indiana moms were representative. And they said the paper was too journalistic.

So Calarco fielded a nationally representative, in-depth survey of 2,000 parents across the United States. But she’s wrestling with the other critique. Calarco’s research, colleagues say, is rock-solid. She’s meticulous. Her publication record is stellar. But she wants to share what she’s heard in her interviews with a broader audience.

“I just want to tell these stories,” she says. “I don’t care — I mean, I have tenure — I don’t really care what academia thinks. I think this is an important story to tell.” The public, Calarco says, needs to understand the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on women — and the deep societal inequalities that reveals.

She’s working with an agent, and hopes to land a book drawn from the Pandemic Parenting Study with a trade publisher. Calarco wants to write it for women like the ones in her study. Women who are blaming themselves as they struggle to carry this burden; who haven’t caught their breath, much less had time to consider the broader picture. She wants to reach their mothers-in-law, the ones who urge them to enjoy this extra time with their kids. She wants to reach younger women, who might not yet realize that, one way or another, this is on track to be their problem, too.

Will any men read such a book? “Probably not,” Calarco says. “I mean, if they do, that’s great.”

The pandemic, Calarco’s interviews suggest, has made fathers more aware of the stress of parenting. But that hasn’t led them to take on more of the work.

Despite the viral quote she gave Anne Helen Petersen, she acknowledges that this country does have some social safety nets. But those safety nets are mostly private — they’re tied to employment in professional jobs, or family money, or social connections. Right now, even those are frayed. Will privileged women join a movement to demand a public safety net? Or just repair the boutique ones they had before?

The pandemic has shaken so many things loose that we’ll have real choices to make about how to put them back together. But just because progress is possible doesn’t mean we’ll choose it.

If Calarco holds out some hope, it’s because of this: In the early days of her study, the mothers she interviewed expressed grief and guilt. But as the pandemic ground on, something shifted. She started hearing more anger.

Just maybe, that marked the beginning of what Calarco believes it will take for things to really change: collective rage.

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