How the Pandemic Has Changed The Game For Working Moms—And What Comes Next

We’re mid-pandemic, peak work from home, peak remote school, peak burnout. And that’s if we’re lucky: Hundreds of thousands of mothers have been pushed out of the labor force entirely. But experts say this crisis could speed workplace equality, normalize flexible schedules, and lead to more meaningful and sustainable jobs for us all.

If you've been feeling as if the world is on fire, you're right. It was, literally, for a while: As if a pandemic, a recession, a racial reckoning, and a contentious election weren't enough, 7.7 million acres of land and thousands of homes burned in the wildfires that swallowed the West. We've lost so much in the last year. Loved ones. Time. Sanity. And jobs.

Last year, my friends and colleagues, suddenly separated from their lives at work, joked that they missed wearing heels and pants that weren't sweats. But beneath the jokes was something else: grief. "Grief is loss of your present, of your perceived future," says Rebecca Soffer, cofounder of the Modern Loss community. "You feel untethered."

mom on laptop with small child
Nothing like answering a time-sensitive email as your kid pleads with you to play zoo. Photography: Zoe Adlersberg; Producers: Sara Noël and Matthieu Cabouret; Talent: Melanie, Jayson, & Ulysse Frimmouse

Working women have been gravely impacted by the events of the last year—more than 865,000 of them left the workforce in September alone, as compared with 216,000 men. In December, an additional 140,000 jobs were lost, all of them belonging to women. According to the most recent numbers available, Latinas have the highest unemployment rate (9.1 percent), followed by Black women (8.4 percent) and white women (5.7 percent). Industries dominated by women, such as hospitality and retail, have been hit hard, but that doesn't tell the whole story. In October, the 2020 Women in the Workplace report by and McKinsey & Co., on the status of women in corporate America, revealed that one in four women surveyed were considering downshifting or quitting under the pressures of family and work. That number likely reflects only a fraction of us who have considered such a move, wondering if our paychecks and ambition outweigh the cost to our kids, our mental health.

We're lucky if we have a choice. Many women who were laid off or furloughed had to scramble to find work without knowing if schools or day-care centers would be open. "The scale is alarming," says Marianne Cooper, Ph.D., a sociologist at VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University and coauthor of the Women in the Workplace report. "We're not talking about a short-term bump in the road; we're talking about major steps backward." If that sounds grim, it is.

But the truth is, this bleak moment has set the stage for us not only to fix the system but also to build a better one. "The crisis laid bare what was broken and what happens when you don't have a care infrastructure in place," Dr. Cooper says.

A graphic about parenting during COVID.
Graphic: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay.

Often it's the working mom's reflex to think she's failed—if only we could work harder, we'd be able to salvage our careers. Let's be clear: You did everything right. You likely built support structures so you could rise at work as you built a family; split duties with your partner (or tried to); enlisted friends, family, and carpoolers to pitch in; hustled at work to show that you could do it all—not only to impress your boss but to prove that it's possible. That you're possible.

But those outside partners are gone now. Daycares have closed. Our families can't come around. There are no more hours you could work or compromises you could make that would fix this.

"The pandemic has made visible the day-to-day invisible work of parenthood," says Courtney Leimkuhler, founder of Springbank Collective, a firm investing in services that support working families. She notes that companies have scrambled to add flex-time schedules and mental health and child care benefits, and bolster their paid family-leave policies. "That's a genie that's hard to stuff back in the bottle." It's a good start that could snowball into the normalizing of accommodations that families need. But even these concessions can't turn back the clocks to the pre-pandemic era. We have to leap ahead. Many experts are optimistic that we will.

A graphic about parenting during COVID.
Graphic: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay.

"I think there's enough hunger and anger about how disrespected our work is—the work we do for free to keep our families and communities going," says Katie Bethell, executive director of PL + US, a campaign to win universal paid family leave in the U.S. by 2022. She lays out a vision for where we could be in just a few years if we use this crisis as a springboard for bigger change. "We're going to see a new class of powerful women leaders, and they're going to be running for office and pushing for positions of higher leadership in major companies. They're going to stop asking others to solve these problems; they're going to get into positions of power so they can solve them themselves."

A graphic about parenting during COVID.
Graphic: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay.

Work That Works Better

It's thrilling to imagine a sea of women saving us all. But where do you start now, when you're pushed to your limit? A lot of women have been forced to wonder, "Is this how I want to live my life?" And many have decided, no, this isn't working. Blessing Adesiyan, of Katy, Texas, was one of them. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was a chemical engineer at a large chemical company, navigating homeschool for her 11-year-old and nursery care for a 2-year-old, breastfeeding a 6-month-old, and cultivating a side hustle as founder of Mother Honestly, a digital support community for working moms. The idea of leaving her job, in which she earned slightly more than her husband, was terrifying. Living on one income was impossible. She didn't know what to do. "There is no playbook for making this decision," she says. So she wrote one.

A graphic about parenting during COVID.
Graphic: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay.

Adesiyan created a road map to help families navigate the complicated decisions of career change. She guides women through a values exercise, helps them establish "KPI" (or Key Performance Indicators, a tool companies use for measuring success) to gauge how well the family functions, and asks them to list criteria to help decide if it's time to move on. When Adesiyan was making her own decision, she compiled data and ran a focus group of people who left or changed jobs and found success. The goal, for Adesiyan and others using the road map, is not to stop working but to find work that works better. Adesiyan decided that going full-time with Mother Honestly would give her the flexibility her family needed, a salary (albeit a smaller one), and a chance to help fellow moms. "My goal was not just to leave a bad situation but to move to something better."

Adesiyan is clear about the stakes at play. "At all costs, do not drop out of the workforce," she says. "We will set girls back, set our kids back. You have to plant your feet so you can't be moved."

mom on phone with small children
Photography: Zoe Adlersberg; Producers: Sara Noël and Matthieu Cabouret; Talent: Melanie, Jayson, & Ulysse Frimmouse

Why Honesty at Work Matters

According to the Women in the Workplace report, mothers are three times as likely as fathers to do most of the housework and child care—and more than twice as likely to worry that their work performance is being judged negatively because of these responsibilities. "Moms don't want to seem uncommitted to their jobs, so they opt out of benefits they need, like flex hours, and then their employers think the moms are fine," says Christine Michel Carter, author of Mom AF and founder of the networking community Mompreneur and Me. She advises being honest at work about the pressures you're facing. It's the only way to signal that you need help, and if bosses want to keep the women who make up nearly half the workforce, they have to step up. "We don't need donuts on Friday. We need someone to look after our mental health."

The pressures are particularly acute for Black women, who are often more likely to be breadwinners, care for multiple generations, get COVID-19, and feel unsupported by white colleagues. Last summer, a survey by reported that only 45 percent of Black women felt they had strong allies at work. "There's a misunderstanding that Black women need a handout," Carter says. "We need a hand up. Opportunities to be in front of corporate leaders and people assessing talent so we have chances to ascend."

A graphic about parenting during COVID.
Graphic: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay.

To truly shift your company's culture, top brass has to be willing to embrace change. This is where we need women leaders to light the way. The role of leader and mentor—particularly for working moms—is one that Susan Chapman Hughes, executive vice president and Global Head of Digital Capabilities, Transformation, and Operations for American Express, performs with enthusiasm. When her 4-year-old crawled into her lap during a Zoom meeting early in the pandemic, she let her stay and told everyone else it was okay if their kids did the same. "Having grace for the team is critical right now," she says. "The team responded with this feeling of, 'Oh! I can be human.'"

As a Black executive, she felt a similar responsibility to lead during the racial reckoning of last summer. "I realized there were things in my experience that I had not talked about that needed to be at the table. My willingness to be open, and to create a space for Black employees to share their experiences, created a sense of freedom," she says.

In the crush between the pandemic and your career, Chapman Hughes suggests using the skills that have gotten you through tough times in the past. "You are more resilient, and you have more power than you think," she says. She's optimistic that more career opportunities will open up. "When there's lots of change, that is the best time to position yourself to be in a better place."

A graphic about parenting during COVID.
Graphic: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay.

The Policies We Need

All the resilience in the world won't help until government and corporate policies support working families. Mothers need paid family and sick leave, flexible work schedules, and family-care benefits that address the reality of life now. "We have to fix the structure of work that assumes you have a partner at home to take care of your children," Leimkuhler says. We've been slowly remaking a system that was built when men were the sole breadwinners and women the sole caretakers. And now, after years of incremental gains to support working families, the crisis has accelerated wider adoption of corporate and government policies that support working families. "There's a momentum that's different from what we've seen in the past. It's no longer just good will but actual policy change and shareholder accountability."

A graphic about parenting during COVID.
Graphic: Julia Bohan-Upadhyay.

Dr. Cooper is hopeful. "Right now we see clear connections between public policy, company policy, employee well-being, and the economy. When people really see how all these dots connect, we can do something big. It will be a different world for women if we get that right."

"If we learn the lessons 2020 has taught us, we'll design public policy that supports care work as a key enabler in the economy, like roads and bridges," Bethell says. "We'll write public policy that acknowledges that women's work—up and down the wage scale—is essential."

The takeaway is clear. If you've felt unsupported or overlooked, know that there's optimism out there that the forces are now aligned to make massive systemic change. It's about time.

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This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's March 2021 issue as "A New Day for Working Moms." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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