Covid-19 has created unique challenges for women. Preliminary research conducted by the journal Nature Research shows that women in academia are publishing fewer journal articles than they were before the outbreak. To get an idea of whether the same could be true for women authors in general, PW reached out to some who are also mothers to learn how the lockdowns have affected their work.
Prior to the pandemic, a study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women in the U.S. spend an average of two hours per day more than men on domestic responsibilities. This is due in part to the fact that women are more likely to have partners who are also employed, to be single parents, and to have elder care responsibilities. Additionally, the division of domestic labor often comes down to who earns more, and women are consistently paid less than men.
This issue has been compounded by the pandemic. Though data on women’s publishing rates in academia is clear-cut, gendered data on book publishing rates is harder to find. However, women in both fields face the same challenges: the extended shutdowns of schools and childcare facilities mean that parents, and especially mothers, have had to take on homeschooling and extra caregiving responsibilities. Hours of the day that were once devoted to work have been spent trying to keep children educated and entertained.
Alessandra Minello, a social demographer and professor at the University of Florence in Italy, studied publishing rates of women in academia and found that they typically submit fewer studies than their male counterparts. Minello works on a project called Smart Mama, for which she and another researcher recently interviewed 38 academics who are mothers in the U.S. and Italy. They found that these women had to prioritize childcare and teaching duties—both of which they are more likely than men to be responsible for—over publishing.
Minello fears that young mothers beginning their careers during the pandemic will struggle to obtain higher degrees and receive grants as a result of publishing less, which will affect advancement in their fields. She suspects that mothers who write trade books, though less likely to be responsible for teaching duties, will also slow their writing as they are forced to prioritize childcare.
Marcy Dermansky, author of Twins and Bad Marie, is a single mother to an 11-year-old daughter. Dermansky used to schedule her writing time when her daughter was in school, but that changed when schooling shifted to home. “It was just pretty much impossible to work, because she required a lot of help,” she said. “I think it’s always hard for mothers in writing with childcare, but the pandemic has made it exponentially harder.”
Spending time helping her daughter with e-learning meant Dermansky hasn’t been able to make much progress on her upcoming novel. “During those months, I didn’t even try to work,” she said.
Vanessa Lillie, author of Little Voices and For the Best, is currently working on her third book and has found that she is a month behind where she thought she’d be. Lillie has a five-year-old son and previously worked while he was at school or soccer practice. Her husband, a lawyer, spends much of his days on Zoom calls, meaning Lillie is the only one available to care for their son most of the time. “Having children in the house is just a stream of constant disruption,” she said. “It is really difficult to write on that deeper level I need when I am constantly interrupted.”
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author of Somebody’s Daughter and Necessary Roughness, has faced unique challenges balancing revisions on her upcoming novels, Finding My Voice (Soho Press) and The Evening Hero (Simon & Schuster), with caring for her autistic son, who also has other learning disabilities and medical issues. Lee and her husband are schooling and caring for their son without any outside help in their small New York City apartment. Lee said she struggles to focus at home but has managed to get some work done at a friend’s apartment. “I just have days where I feel like I am not in control of anything,” she added.
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, author of Bittersweet and June, has a four-year-old and an 11-year-old. She sold her latest book over the winter and initially thought she’d have plenty of time to complete it by the summer. However, when the pandemic struck, she found herself scrambling. She and her husband moved in with another family to share childcare responsibilities, and though she said the arrangement has provided her with a great advantage in comparison to other writer-mothers she knows, it has been difficult for her to meet her deadline. “I don’t know how I am going to hand my book in in two weeks,” she said in late August. “I guess I’m just not going to sleep.”
Robin Romm, author of The Tilt and The Mercy Papers, also found writing in the pandemic to be nearly impossible. Caring for her 15-month-old and four-year-old has left her exhausted and unable to work. “It’s not only that you don’t have the physical time,” she said, “but you don’t really have the mental space to think expansive thoughts.”
Romm’s husband is also a writer, but he works full-time as a professor. Though he has been able to help with childcare, he had to attend meetings to prepare for a drastically changed fall semester. Romm’s more flexible schedule has meant that she has to bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities.
The pandemic has highlighted a number of long-standing issues within publishing, and the challenges it has created for women authors appears to be yet another that needs to be addressed.
Zoe Ettinger is a freelance writer in New York City.