We just celebrated our second Mother’s Day during a pandemic. This health crisis has not been easy on anyone, but arguably has been particularly brutal on working mothers.
There are countless articles written by various voices that spotlight the unique struggles that women and working mothers have faced during the pandemic. In fact, the New York Times is running an ongoing series on this subject called, The Primal Scream, that has me nodding along and shouting that’s me! that’s me! as I echo the emotions of so many women, mothers and caregivers across the nation who are sharing their stories about trying to balance the role of professional and parent in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic.
And while there is something comforting in knowing that we’re not alone with so many working mothers collectively feeling overwhelmed — it is maddening to also feel so isolated to weather this crisis without the social safety-nets to address widespread childcare needs in our communities, nor the cultural consciousness needed to build more equity into the workforce.
The gender wage gap is real. Women consistently earn less than men and for women of color the gap is even larger. Stories reflect that many couples made decisions about caregiver roles during the pandemic based on income and benefits. And in many homes that meant men stayed in their jobs while women left positions or scaled back on their hours.
Expectations are also at play. Well before the pandemic, studies have shown again and again that women often bear the brunt of caregiver, both for children and for elderly adults. As a result, the Learner Center for Public Health Promotion reported last summer that of adults who are not working because of caregiver needs, 80% are women. Vox reports that at one point during the pandemic, women were pushed out of the workforce to care for children 8 times more men. For Black and Latinx women, the disparities are even greater. And the stressors are magnified even more in single-parent homes, with special needs children, and in low-income households. Many women have had to leave the workforce, cut back hours, risk being fired over performance issues, or find a way to balance a full-time job with remote learning and caring for their children.
Burnout is real. The loss is real. And so are the consequences.
For many working mothers, this means our mental health has suffered and is suffering as we grapple with the loss of income, or try and sustain the unsustainable.
It also means women are at greater risk of both short and long-term economic instability, and finding our way back into leadership positions in the workforce. As Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress reports in the Times, the ramifications for mothers leaving work or cutting back include a broken pipeline for higher-level jobs and a loss of Social Security and other potential retirement income. Fortune reports that working women have now lost more than three decades of labor force gains in less than a year.
Meanwhile essential workers have been left with even fewer options. Many of these jobs are low paying and provide inadequate benefits, meaning workers far before the pandemic were already lacking a savings cushion, as well as healthcare, flextime and paid time off — all of which have been particularly essentially during COVID-19. And quitting to prevent exposing family members, or to care for your family not only means a lost income, it often disqualifies you from unemployment benefits.
Personally, I try to latch on to moments of gratitude. This mother of three has been able to stay in my job, keep my hours and work from home. I am provided the resources I need to do my job and the flexibility to try and help my kids navigate Google-docs, work through a math problem and make sure they aren’t (always) eating cereal for lunch. I have had options, but even with these graces, I am stretched thin. And now my kids are back at school — and I’m juggling the relief and guilt that comes with these options too. Sigh.
Look. We know the value of moms and caregivers. And it’s beyond time that our practices and our policies reflect how important these people are in our homes and in our workplaces. These are not new issues — especially for low-income families — but have been amplified by COVID-19 and now more and more of us are sitting up straight and paying attention to learn and act toward creating solutions. The Biden administration’s American Families Plan offers some places to start. Among other things it includes universal pre-school for 3-4 year olds, subsidizes childcare costs based on income and boosts the wages of childcare workers. It also would provide national paid family and medical leave.
But what is clear, action is needed.