It’s noon right now, as I write this, and it’s a Friday—a school day. My eight-year-old is not in school, however, but is sitting a few feet away from me, cozied up on our couch watching his fifth hour of Netflix.
The Covid test was negative, but he has a head cold. And those optics aren’t great—sending a snotty, raspy-voiced kid to school. Even if he is masked. And anyway, who wants to wear a mask when they’re stuffy and raw? So here he is. And here I am, writing about the challenges of working while parenting during Covid. (Irony! One thing the pandemic hasn’t destroyed!)
And sure, I know: Kids get sick, miss school. That’s parenthood. It’s just that when you add to the normal little blips and holiday breaks the various exposure pauses and quarantine breaks for two kids at two different schools, plus a handful of full-on remote school weeks, I’ve had three “normal” work weeks since early December. And the months before that were similar, and that was, of course, on the heels of a year and half of remote school and gaping childcare holes.
Which is all to say: The new normal is not normal. The new normal is iffy.
Now? It’s time to make those shifts that will lighten the load now and going forward for these women who have shouldered the majority of the free labor for two years (ha, sorry: forever).
I’d like to write more about this, but it’s lunchtime and I have a child to wrench off a screen, feed, and interact with. Work will have to wait until … Well, I haven’t quite figured that out yet.
The burnout is real
Somewhere amidst the large pile of work I’m behind on, there are notes I’ve made to myself during Covid, things I want to write about at some point. Ideas brewing. And somewhere buried in those notes is a Post-It on which I’ve scribbled this:
Possible Covid Story: Making Peace With Never Being Able To Plan !?!
I have thought about this Post-It many times over the past couple years, but haven’t written anything on the topic yet because, firstly, there’s that whole “pile of work” thing, and secondly, because I haven’t actually made peace with it. With the iffy.
This feels particularly true now, at a time when the world’s expectations, patterns and pacing have in so many ways moved on, while many aspects of children’s lives still have not. For me, there’s a certain cognitive dissonance to this moment—Life is so much easier now! Wait, why isn’t life much easier now?—that makes me feel like I’m missing something obvious. Doing it wrong. Like my brain has atrophied over these last two strange, surreal years, and I’ve forgotten how I used to make everything work, pre-Covid.
Because I did make it work, mostly. Reliability is a boring, unsexy attribute to tout—especially for writers—but still, I prided myself on it. Throw a bunch of stuff at me, even the occasional sick kid, and I’d get it all done. Now? Not so much.
The sheer scope of stakes and challenges, of obstacles and pain among moms out there also strikes me as part of the whole problem, as a Tolstoyian truth: Every burned-out mom is burned out in her own way.
Obviously, many (many!) women in our city and beyond have far bigger and more noteworthy struggles than mine. Illness and hunger and loneliness and impossible choices and no choices and, as always, racial and economic injustices that take your breath away. Moms, by all measurable quantities (and plenty unquantifiables, too), have been taking the brunt of all of this.
I know this because I’ve seen it, and also because I’ve seen the stats: Nearly 1.5 million fewer mothers with children 18 or younger in the workforce in March 2021 compared to February 2020, with January 2022 seeing the lowest percentage of women in the workforce since 1988. Working-class moms especially have been pummeled, leaving the labor force in droves. And a majority of moms polled (70 percent!!) saying, yes, they’ve felt overwhelmed at least once in the preceding two weeks, while more than 20 percent of Latino and Black households with children had an adult worker who left or lost a job. In White households, it was 16 percent.
And surely you’ve seen the headlines, right? It’s possible I’m projecting, but they’ve practically screamed in their urgency as the pandemic has gone on: Covid Parenting is Reaching a Breaking Point! America’s Mothers Are in Crisis! Coronavirus Is Killing the Working Mother!
Hey, here’s a fun trick: Google “moms, Covid, struggle,” and see how many different stories turn up. (Hint: Infinity!) The stories detail the challenges that range from existential (dreams deferred, ambitions quashed, parental/professional confidence mangled) to actual survival (trying to feed children, house them, keep them safe), the latter of which will bring you to your knees.
They are fighting to stay afloat under the weight of decision fatigue and juggling and psychic numbing and shifting schedules and feeling forgotten and all the sick days. The sheer scope of stakes and challenges, of obstacles and pain among moms out there also strikes me as part of the whole problem, as a Tolstoyian truth: Every burned-out mom is burned out in her own way.
Now? It’s time to make those shifts that will lighten the load now and going forward for these women who have shouldered the majority of the free labor for two years (ha, sorry: forever). Because amid the burnout and the setbacks, there’s still hope for the lot of them. The lot of us, I mean. So many small changes and shifts in how we do things as a society—and, okay yes, also some pretty big shifts—could mean relief for all the moms.
And relief is what’s needed.
It’s time to buoy the moms.
Making work work for moms
“Four-day work weeks would be life-changing,” muses one of my friends, a mom of two who works in marketing and business development. She’s just finished telling me how sad and guilty she feels that the “lessons” she learned took from those terrible early days of the pandemic have evaporated—lessons about how much better she felt at parenting when she wasn’t constantly multi-tasking, when she wasn’t trying to “fit my kids into all my responsibilities.”
She sighs. “I was a better mom then. I felt like I had this big awakening, a chance to see what was most important to me. I saw it, and I was going to hold onto it. But here we are, two years later, and I haven’t been able to.” What she really misses and craves, she says, is more time in her life when she’s not expected to be working.
Here are some ideas:
A FOUR-DAY WORK WEEK
As an established norm within companies, a four-day work week would mean a whole new day of no emails, no meetings, no deadlines: Three days off, four days on. According to the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, 78 percent of employees with a four-day work week say they’re less stressed. And hey, Iceland actually tried it beginning in 2015, and declared it an “overwhelming success,” with productively holding steady and workers experiencing lower stress levels, less burnout, and better health and work-life balance. Quoth the BBC: “They also reported having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies and complete household chores.”
Here in the States, where a Gallup poll reported that only five percent of us work four-day workweeks, the idea seems to slowly be gaining some traction. (Remember Andrew Yang!?) In November, the New York Times wrote about Primary, a kids’ clothing company, which experimented with the four-day week, with happy results. “The voluntary attrition rate has fallen slightly to 7 percent this year, even as workers in the United States are quitting jobs at record levels.” Also: Kickstarter, Shake Shack and Unilever New Zealand have also all experimented with the three-day weekend. (Shake Shack’s didn’t stick.)
MORE FLEXIBILITY WITH WORK HOURS
“Forty hours is soooo 1940s,” writes another mom I know, a preschool teacher with a toddler. “It assumes one partner is at home caring for the house.” She, too, loves the idea of a shorter week, but even just more flexibility with what hours we work would go a long way, she thinks: “Seven to three is just as valid as nine to five,” she says. It’s a seemingly manageable shift, especially given that the future of work post-Covid is almost definitely going to be more flexible for many people, in terms of cementing the new hybrid schedules and remote work days.
TIME MEETINGS BETTER
And speaking of hours, one very small and simple (and free!) way to ease some of the pressure for working moms and caretakers is to simply consider the timing of meetings and other communications. For instance, “3 to 5 p.m. is a really hard time for a meeting,” my marketing friend says. She works from home; her husband works in an office. “So I pick up the kids, get them settled, give them snacks,” and either has to do so on mute on her phone, trying to juggle both or has to be the person—“the only person in the group” constantly saying, No, sorry, that’s not a good time for me.
“Just thinking to ask, When do you prefer to meet, or to talk, or be communicated with?—that would take off that layer of stress,” she says.
TURN OFF THE CAMERAS
Even something as small as “normalizing ‘cameras off’ on Zoom,” as the preschool teacher suggests, might also ease a little pressure. (You know: the social pressure, clean work-space pressure, hair-brushing pressure, diaper-changing-during-meeting pressure, and so forth.)
Another thing employers can do—and this is a biggie—is to refuse to penalize women who have “taken a break” to be a parent, especially (for God’s sake!) in Covid, when so many women felt utterly backed against a wall as caretakers, most notably Black and brown women. Offer partially-paid or unpaid leaves, and then don’t hold back promotions or raises for people who take those leaves. Offer part-time schedules. Offer jobs to people who took “time off,” without taking their salaries back to square one. And fight for tax credits for businesses who commit to doing these things.
Investing in the moms
Beyond the professional world, there are more, even bigger ideas for making life more do-able for moms. In 2020, Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code and author of the forthcoming book Pay Up: Reimagining Motherhood in America, pitched a Marshall Plan for Moms, a “historic investment in women’s economic recovery and empowerment” that would aim to mitigate some of the damage Covid wrought in women’s lives, and to compensate them (yes, with money!) for the unpaid labor of motherhood.
A “means-tested $2,400 monthly payment to the women who are the bedrock of our economy and our society” would, she wrote, begin to abate “the gross disregard for the value of mothers’ unpaid, unseen, unappreciated labor.” Also? It would stimulate the economy, she argued, by giving women the support they need to get back to work, and it would show the world that our society “values the contributions of women, and that their careers, dreams, and lives will not be taken for granted.”
The Mama Marshall Plan as Saujani envisions also includes the greatest hits of the Mom Wishlist—paid parental leave, affordable childcare, pay equity. But it was the income idea that got the buzz, garnering national press, celeb endorsements, a little political traction. And how could it not? $2,400 a month could mean childcare, babysitters, summer camp, less work time and more family time, more work time and less juggling time, more food, more housing, less worry for countless thousands of families. It would be life-changing for countless thousands of women, and for their children.
Motherhood, in all its many iterations, is vital and important. And having competent, experienced women in the workforce and as part of our economy is also vital and important. These are two truths that corporate America—no, America itself—has never convincingly espoused.
It’s not completely unprecedented: This was the (notably less generous) spirit behind the Child Tax Credit (which was great for mothers and children alike, while it lasted: now, some 4 million American children have been kicked back into poverty, bringing all the familial and societal pain that comes with that.) And a hundred years before that, our country paid single moms pensions so they could stay home and care for their children. So yes: It can be done.
If America can’t wrap its head around income for caretakers (and hey, maybe we still can!? Philly is experimenting with universal incomes, after all), the moms are ready to suggest other means of investing. Another mom friend of mine sums it up thusly: “Why, again, can’t America offer reasonable paid leave and subsidized child care like every other developed nation in the world?”
She’s not far off with that characterization, and most countries are far and away better to parents than we are: In Sweden, new parents get 16 months of paid leave to use over the first eight years of their children’s lives, and the government pays for three hours of preschool a day, beginning at age one.
In France, too, families receive “early childhood” benefits from birth until three years old. Finland, Denmark, South Korea: They all help pay for childcare.
There are dozens of models and templates there; we should keep fighting (and voting, and fighting and voting) to replicate one of them. Any of them! The Times put it bluntly last year: “Rich countries contribute an average of $14,000 per year for a toddler’s care, compared with $500 in the U.S.”
It’s embarrassing. It’s sinful. It’s also why moms are where we are: Burned out. Stressed out. Struggling, each in our own way. The pandemic pushed so many of us close to or right over the edge … in large part because we’ve been living too near it to begin with.
Why does this matter so much, now, at a moment so many women are trying to make the decision about whether they can work and be a mom? About whether they can keep it up, whether it’s all worth it, whether they can care for their families the way they need to, whatever that means for them?
It matters because women who take even one year off from paid employment earn 39 percent less than women who work without pause. It matters because a woman making $50,000 a year who takes two years off to be a caretaker, reported the Wall Street Journal, loses $300,000 to $400,000 over a lifetime. It matters because breaks in work, whether optional or not, also hit hard at retirement savings.
Mostly, though, it matters because motherhood, in all its many iterations, is vital and important. And because having competent, experienced women in the workforce and as part of our economy is also vital and important. These are two truths that corporate America—no, America itself—has never convincingly espoused. That’s a choice we don’t have to keep making.
The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow the project @brokeinphilly.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of an author paraphrased. It was Leo Tolstoy.
Woman Working from Home during Maternity Leave. Photo by CIPHR Connect, Wikimedia Commons