By Chabeli Carrazana

It struck her one morning last July, when an email arrived from her son’s day care. In a flash of clarity, Emily Way knew her time in the workforce was about to end.

The day care that their 2-year-old, Owen, attended was reopening in August, the email read, and families needed to start paying again if they wanted to save a spot. Way was seven months pregnant and on the cusp of unpaid maternity leave. She knew she and her husband couldn’t afford to send Owen back while she wasn’t getting a paycheck. Even if he did go back, what about the virus? Someone needed to care for both kids full-time now. She knew it would be her.

But why did it feel like being forced to make a choice that was really no choice at all?

For four months, the Ways had balanced their lives on a thin rope as the pandemic raged. That rope kept Way employed while both parents split time caring for their son and working from home in Iowa City. But now, with no child care, no paid leave and a second child on the way, that rope felt like it was snapping. Way was falling through.

She emailed her husband, Jason, that July morning, cursing in frustration. “I won’t be getting paid. And we wouldn’t want to send him when we have a newborn anyway. I would envision sending him when we send the baby, so sometime early December in all likelihood.”

“I’m not upset,” she added quickly. “I’m just trying to figure this out because it looks like I will have to quit.”

That night, the Ways confronted a reality that has unmoored working women across the country. Child care and paid leave, the two cogs in the wheel that keep many working moms employed, had fallen out for them. So, she, a 32-year-old administrative secretary for the county, would have to leave the job she had spent years trying to obtain. He, a research psychologist, with a flexible job and significantly higher pay, would keep his.

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