And So I Quit: Tired of the Grind, Parents Are Creating New Work-Life Balance for Themselves

In the thick of a pandemic and grappling with issues like childcare, work-life balance, and parental leave, more parents than ever are leaving stable jobs to pursue side hustles and other opportunities.

Working parent and child at home
Photo: Getty | 10'000 Hours

Much has been made of the Great Resignation. But you might call it the Great Reimagination, or Great Reshuffling, depending on whom you ask. This exodus saw a historic 47.4 million Americans leave their jobs in 2021. Workers cited low pay, no opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work as the top reasons they left, according to Pew Research Center. The fourth-most common reason? Child care issues.

Since the pandemic began, parents have named a host of reasons for leaving their jobs and more flexibility around child care was top of mind. Two years in, we spoke to several parents to learn where they stand in the aftermath of this Great Resignation. Many looked for corporate opportunities that were more agreeable on remote work and flexible hours. Others embarked on their own ventures in pursuit of a more sustainable work-life balance. The question we are left pondering: Is this the shift in work-life balance we've all been fighting for—or is this just the latest wave of hustle culture that's all too familiar for working parents?

From Burnout to Start-Up

Chenadra Washington, 35, left her 13-year career in financial services in August 2021 after reaching a plateau as she approached middle management. As a Black woman in her industry, Washington, who lives in Houston, says, "I didn't have a peer. I couldn't even find another manager that was in my age group that looked like me. You kind of get this 'a-ha' moment, like, 'Maybe this ship is not going to take me to the promised land.'" With 60 to 70-hour work weeks, she also felt severe burnout, and wanted to prioritize her now 4-year-old son, Ryan, and being a caregiver to her grandparents. Then, when George Floyd was murdered in May 2020 and protests erupted, something else changed in her.

"I'm sitting here watching this unfold in the midst of the pandemic and looking at my son, and my heart is breaking over and over again every time I watch the video," says Washington. "I had all of these emotions coupled with the fact that I was burned out, tired, overlooked, underpaid."

In November 2020, she hired a business coach to help plan her "escape route." That's when she started Black Orchids PR, through which she helps women of color publicize their brands. "There is something powerful about helping people build something they love," she says. "And the greatest accomplishment is still being able to stand—I started a business in the pandemic when everything was uncertain. Now, I have strategic partnerships. I got several awards last year." But the biggest benefit has been saying goodbye to two-hour-long commutes and long days at the office, which means more quality time with Ryan. He goes to school four days a week, and Fridays are their "hangout days."

Melissa Moran, 42, also left a draining corporate job to start a business during the pandemic. Moran, who lives in Wellington, Florida, spent 20 years in corporate America doing product development and brand marketing. After saving up and working on her business part-time, she left her job in November 2021 to start Swingly Toys, an imaginative-play toy company. She initially made it work with the help of a Kickstarter campaign.

Moran says she is now able to spend more time with her two children, who are 8 and 10. She says her husband, who is a firefighter, had spent more time with them during the day because she was always in the office—or on a Zoom call, once remote-working started—and she felt acute FOMO. "My kids are at a pivotal age where I think a lot of core memories are being made, and I just didn't want to miss that," Moran says. "I was also at a point in my career where I felt like I needed something to myself that I had passion behind. And I wasn't getting that from my employer."

Now, when the kids come home from school around 2 p.m., they hang out together and do different activities—and sometimes the kids even help with social media for the company. "Before, we didn't even have a chance to ask, 'How's your day?'" says Moran. "We're having so many beautiful conversations with the kids now. We're not just rushing around from place to place and not having time to connect with them. Slowing down has shown us what is important in life."

Self-Care and Self-Employment

While some parents left the corporate world to start businesses, others saw an opportunity for self-employment. After working as a magazine and digital editor for over a decade, Anna Patil, 35, became a freelance editorial consultant and says she loves the flexibility. She accepted a buyout after her publication underwent a massive shakeup in early 2021. While she says she was sad, she was also incredibly burned out—her beats were primarily COVID and mental health—and desperately wanted a break. Another full-time media industry job just didn't seem right.

It was about more than personal burnout for Patil. The stark realities of the pandemic—women forced to leave work due to lack of child care, rampant layoffs—shone a less-than-flattering spotlight on the corporate hierarchies. "I don't want to be anyone's boss," she says. "I don't want to have to give a working parent a performance review when any performance issues are probably not their fault at all. I don't want to have to choose who to lay off next because the budget has been cut. It's all miserable. I'd rather just make cool shit and sort of fly under the radar."

She was able to make it work pretty quickly, due to her past experience and expertise. She says her family's financial stability helped, too: "I have to acknowledge that my husband having a great job with benefits that cover all of us is a huge safety net that made me feel like I could take this risk without being terrified." After a couple of months, Patil says she found her anchor client, a major athletic apparel company. She is focusing on a project she is super-passionate about: "The subject matter and approach is so perfect for me it feels like I incubated it for myself in a lab." Because she's working with brands, she says she's making the same amount as before while only working between 20 and 30 hours a week. But the best part, she says, is the flexibility.

"Honestly having flexibility is incredible," she says. "This week, my son is home quarantining because someone in his class has COVID. My husband is traveling for work and if I had a full-time staff job I would be so stressed out right now. Instead, it just feels like a minor inconvenience, and I can easily shift things around and just deal with it. Or on another week when my kids are both in school and I have some free time, I could do some gardening, or take a long walk, or catch up with a friend, or go to physical therapy. I actually have a little bit of control over my life instead of every single second being dictated by work or children."

Leaning In to Figure It Out

For other parents, it was the opposite: Transitioning from freelancing to a steady, full-time gig is what has improved their work-life balance. Sona Charaipotra, 45, was running her own book packaging company, working as a freelance journalist, and writing novels when the pandemic started, which easily amounted to 80-hour work weeks—and few guaranteed paychecks. "I decided I needed some kind of structure and stability," she says. "Running your own business, you're doing every part of the job, and I actually don't miss that."

The answer was a senior editor position at Parents—a job she says is pretty solidly 9:30 to 5:30, which is rare for the media world. "Almost the whole staff has a family and children," she says. "So, we get it. I've definitely been home more, so that's great. And honestly, it's really great to be able to be like, 'Okay, it's 5:30. I'm closing the computer, and I'm not responding to Slacks.'" She says this schedule has helped her be more present for her kids, who are 8 and 12. She still gets writing done, too: Her latest book, How Maya Got Fierce, is coming out in July.

Know Before You Go

Self-employment has been on an upward trend during the pandemic, says Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America and author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. She cites the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which found that the number of people who reported being self-employed in March of this year was 618,000 above the average for 2019. "The fact that self-employment remains high, even as the labor market has tightened enormously, indicates that self-employment is a choice rather than an act of desperation," according to the Center's analysis.

But the rise in self-employment is also a sign that companies need to step up and provide more flexible arrangements for parents and caregivers, says Schulte. "To me, the fact that there is so much more uncertainty in the path that many of these women and mothers are choosing is indicative of how untenable their situation has been for them," she says. "They're leaving stable income, many of the benefits, and leaving a potential career path. I think that that speaks volumes about how much the traditional way of work hasn't worked for women and parents." One example of how traditional work culture in the U.S. disadvantages people, particularly parents and caregivers, is by expecting constant in-office face-time and undervaluing those who are unable to put it in because of demands at home, she says. "Companies need to recognize their own failed imagination. It's costing them talent."

That said, Schulte says it's important to note that starting a business or becoming self-employed often requires considerable funds and resources, and, for people who are not opting for lower-paying self-employment in the gig economy, is thus often a matter of privilege. "It's really an issue of class and education," she says, citing the fact that college-educated women have had an easier time recovering from pandemic unemployment than those without advanced degrees, according to Department of Labor statistics. This is all the more reason, Schulte maintains, that all employers need to get the basics right in order for parents to thrive: fair pay, reasonable hours, family-supportive benefits, and flexible work policies.

Patil agrees, and says she feels thankful for having access to family support, healthcare coverage, and two stable incomes in her household. "What I've been able to do is not at all possible for the majority of people, and I'm grateful for everything I have," she says. "This country does not care about kids and it does not care about parents, and any parents who feel like they can make their lives work without completely losing their minds are truly just lucky and outrageously privileged. It shouldn't be this way."

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