Tough as a Mother: Working Moms Fight For Balance During the Pandemic
Moms living and working in Erie County report long hours and mom-guilt throughout the pandemic
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, upending everyday life across the world. While many bemoaned canceled concerts or postponed spring break plans, 50 million working parents across the United States watched their reliable childcare structures crumble. Since then, most of the childcare responsibilities have fallen on working moms.
Women working full-time, year-round in the United States earn about 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. When in-home childcare became the only option for some families, the lower-income earner took on the childcare responsibilities, and those who could afford it had one partner quit their job, the New York Times reported.
The 2020 Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.org in partnership with McKinsey & Company quantified that working moms spent more time on household responsibilities among dual-career couples. Despite moms noting that partners who step up and help with chores make daily life more manageable, data shows moms are picking up more hours around the house. More than 50 percent of moms with children under the age of 10 are spending at least three extra hours daily on household responsibilities compared to before the pandemic.
With many women leaving the workforce, moms who are able to continue working feel lucky.
"I was very fortunate that I could transfer all of my teaching abilities online," said Kristy, a full-time professor at a local university and mom to a seven-year-old son.
She chose to take her child out of school. "I was terrified it was going to suck. [Before the pandemic] we had such demanding schedules to stick to — getting up at 6:30 a.m. and all that garbage. I imagined that stress was going to transfer over, but not having anywhere to be [during the pandemic] shored up so much time to not panic and stress. I feel fortunate [in that aspect]."
Rolling out of bed without needing to go through the pre-pandemic morning routine may feel luxurious for some workers, but the reality isn't always as easy as hanging out in pajamas all day. Data from virtual private network service provider NordVPN Teams shows that Americans are working 2.5 more hours per day on average. Employees working through their previous commute times and logging in to reply to email in the evening attribute to some of the increased hours.
Shannon, a local teacher and mom to a five-year-old daughter and six-year-old son, worked long hours when the pandemic began to keep up with the demands of remote learning.
"It would take two hours for me to create something that takes my students 15 minutes to complete," Shannon explained. "I had a very terrible work/life balance. By the spring I felt like this isn't fair; the responsibility at home falls on moms. My husband was gone all day and I felt a little jealous he was able to go to work. We would get in fights — he would say, 'It's 10 o'clock at night, you're working. I think you're working too much.' But it was the only time I could work."
Mom stress also manifests in the form of "mental loads." Mental loads refer to the intangible work moms perform as the household CEO, like remembering doctor appointments, scheduling play dates, keeping grocery lists, monitoring online classes, unearthing ways to entertain kids, and the list continues.
"My husband is an awesome partner," Shannon said. "He does a ton of housework, probably more than me, but definitely a lot of the school responsibilities fall on me. I am the one who's going to check iPads and backpacks to see if the kids completed their work. It was so mentally taxing to keep track of this all. At the end of the day, I'm asking the kids 'Why do you have six incomplete assignments?' and then instead of having quality time with the kids, it's spent fighting with them to do work."
Other taxing items on moms' pandemic to-do lists include tasks like filing for unemployment for the first time.
"I always choose to get stuff done but filing for unemployment is so annoying because I want to sit down at night and figure it out and I can't because the site closes at 10 p.m.," photographer, hairdresser, and mother to a two-year-old son Roxann explained. "I've called the national line and PA line and it's busy, busy, busy all day. I can't get through to even file and am too busy with work [now that salons are open again] and childcare to dedicate more time to this during the day."
Psychotherapist Dr. Robi Ludwig told TODAY Parents, "[Many] parents feel badly that their young kids can't be with their friends or virtual school isn't working. Parents are emotionally feeling negatively that life is not as it was even though they have no control over it. Parents tend to take on that guilt whether they can control it or not."
When Shannon had to physically return to the classroom, it meant sending her kids to a program for care. "My son, who loved going to school before the pandemic, was so upset and asked me, 'Why can't I do school at home like the other kids in my class?'" Shannon said. "So you're trying to explain the situation to a five- and six-year-old, 'Mommy and Daddy both have full-time jobs or the other parents are allowed to work at home.' My work-life balance is easier now, but the mom-guilt is worse."
"We did go to the zoo in the summer and pumpkin patches in the fall," Roxann explained. "There was also one family we did play dates with and then we stopped everything after the second wave [of coronavirus] hit and the poor kid hasn't been anywhere. So you feel the mom-guilt."
USA Today reported, "Since May, polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health care research group, has consistently shown women are more likely than men to say the pandemic has negatively affected their psychological well-being."
"I have severe anxiety so I started talking to a therapist right before the pandemic and when this hit I was a mess because I was afraid to do my job," Roxann explained about working with the public.
"You feel like you can't be anything but positive — this toxic positivity," Shannon continued. "You feel like all the other moms have it together and you can't even admit it that you don't have it all together.
"I'm much more short-tempered with my husband and my kids, and I feel bad about myself. Sometimes it's not so bad but sometimes it's not so good over here."
Kristy had to adjust to the changing circumstances at home. "It was really the [lack of] childcare and learning not to get frustrated because of the stress I was under and learning how to not take it out on my son or my husband. A couple of times I failed and had to learn really quickly to adjust and I feel we are doing much better than when we started."
Having support from employers can make a difference.
When Roxann contracted coronavirus her employer didn't provide extra accommodations for her. "They just gave the impression that they didn't want me to come back for a while."
Shannon's school district has not directly addressed the hardships working moms face, but offered work from home as an option recently if "we had a place free of distractions and I don't have that option."
Kristy's university provided flexibility. "[They said] here's complete freedom and do what you need to do and we'll get through this. I figured it out and made it work how it is best for me."
McKinsey & Company recommends employers offer more support for women to sustain diversity and inclusion in the workplace. They suggest reviewing performance criteria to help prevent burnout, offering allyship training to bring awareness of issues some are facing during the pandemic, and providing flexibility by rethinking the norms around productivity, mental health, and inclusion in a remote setting.
In September 2020, the U.S. Labor Department's data showed 865,000 women left the workforce compared to 216,000 men. By the end of 2020, over 2 million women permanently left the labor force. To read more about how to alleviate working moms' stress and prevent losing them from the workforce, visit the 63 page 2020 Women in the Workplace report from LeanIn.org in partnership with McKinsey & Company.
Moms interviewed for this article are only identified by first name to shield their identities and prevent biases that working moms face in their workplaces.
Marie Turko is a full-time working mom and wife in Erie, trying to sort her way through the pandemic like the rest of the world. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.