People around the world are suffering immensely because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But one group of Americans that seems to be suffering more than most are moms. Specifically, working mothers who are not only dropping out of the workforce at an alarming rate because of the pandemic but who are also finding themselves taking on the roles of teacher, chef, housekeeper, babysitter, therapist, and more as they struggle to keep their families functioning.
If it sounds like an impossible task, that’s because it is. This is why so many working moms are screaming — whether silently into their pillows or out loud to the masses — that they need help. One thing is abundantly clear: for working mothers during this pandemic, This. Isn’t. Working.
A recent report from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that nearly 80 percent of all adults in the U.S. who stopped working during the month of January 2021 were women.
Since last February 2020, more than 2.3 million women have left the workforce. And while for some, the job market and employment numbers might seem to be looking up, that’s not the case for women and women of color especially. The current unemployment numbers as of March 2021 are 5.2 percent for white women but 8.9 percent for Black women and 8.5 percent for Latinas, as reported by MSNBC.
Sure, there is some humor to be found in the struggles of working moms who suddenly find themselves stuck at home with their gaggle of children and their partners (who are also working from home). There are countless Instagram and TikTok videos of moms who are right there with you — pointing out the absurdity of it all and sharing the ugly and hysterical truth of what our days look like. See Cat and Nat absolutely nail this message.
Some moments are undoubtedly hilarious; imagine trying to conduct a productive work Zoom call while also helping your children with school, preparing breakfast (and lunch and snacks and dinner), making the beds, feeding your baby, and maybe, just maybe, brushing your hair and putting on a bra. Chaos and hilarity ensue. And yes, laughter is an essential tool if any of us are going to survive this insanely tough year. Screaming into pillows helps, too, as does a giant glass of wine and a lock on your door so you can pee in peace. But we digress.
As we continue through 2021 and enter year two of this global health crisis that has turned all of our worlds upside down, working moms are still struggling, perhaps more than ever. So, let’s dig into the problem, and equally important, the potential solutions for a better future.
Let’s Talk About the She-cession
Working moms are disproportionately leaving the workforce due to the Covid-19 pandemic — a phenomenon people are calling a “she-cession.” Remember that it took a long, long time for women to get to the point we were at pre-pandemic, with pathways to success and leadership opportunities in the workplace.
Experts are justifiably concerned that this global crisis is doing irreparable harm to the progress that has been made over the past few decades. “It took a very, very slow-moving process from the 1970s until today to get women where they are professionally,” explains journalist Claire Cain Miller, who reports for a New York Times series called “The Primal Scream,” where she documents how the pandemic has affected the lives of mothers. “I do worry that this has erased so much of it so quickly that it could be a massive setback for decades.”
A piece on NBC’s The Today Show notes that 1 in 4 women who left the workforce said it was due to lack of childcare. Those numbers are even higher among Black and Latinx mothers. Those mothers who don’t leave their jobs altogether are certainly scaling back hours to meet their families’ needs.
With schools closed, childcare centers shut down, and parents being forced to determine what is safe in terms of community spread and children, working moms have been faced with an impossible choice and an even more challenging task. They have been forced to take on the role of not just mother but teacher, housekeeper, chef, therapist, gym teacher, soccer coach, and more.
With so much that needs to be done for their families and so little time to do it all, women are leaving their jobs and pushing their own needs and their own mental health to the side.
“It’s bleak. It’s all just bleak,” Jasmine Tucker, director of research at the National Women’s Law Center, told Fortune.com. “There’s pain across the board, but women are definitely bearing the brunt.”
A recent New York Times article documented the startling statistics as well as concerning (yet honest) anecdotes surrounding working moms and the impact the pandemic has had on them, both professionally and personally. “I hear… from people I interview — and I feel that myself — that women stepped up, mothers stepped up. And at this point, a year in, there’s just this deep feeling that we’ve been forgotten about,” says Miller.
Moms are at their breaking points.
Take, for example, Dekeda Brown, 41. She recently told New York Times editor-at-large Jessica Bennett that “with everything going on, I just don’t have time to take care of my mental health right now. I have to keep it together for everyone else…I feel like a ticking time bomb that is constantly being pushed to the breaking point, but then I am able to defuse myself. Goodness, this is taxing.”
And who can blame her? Consider the unreasonable amount of work women are being asked to step up and handle during a global crisis.
“People talk about how moms can lift a car off their children, but even though you can do it, it doesn’t mean you didn’t do damage to your body when lifting the car,” explains Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan who advises policymakers on issues affecting women and families. “2020 was like lifting a car off your kids; 2021 is going to have to be ‘How are those women able to heal?’”
Working Mothers’ Burnout Is Real
Considering just how much extra work working mothers are doing during this pandemic, it makes perfect sense that moms would be experiencing accelerated burnout. A recent Marketplace-Edison Research Poll found that 63 percent of women reported that they were primarily responsible for supervising children’s remote school during the pandemic. Compare that to only 29 percent of men.
In addition, the latest “Women in the Workplace” report from LeanIn.org reports that “mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving. In fact, they’re 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an extra three or more hours a day on housework and childcare – equivalent to 20 hours a week, or half a full-time job.”
These numbers are even more drastic for women of color, according to the report. The study shows that Latina and Black mothers are more likely to have partners working outside the home during the pandemic, thus leaving them to shoulder the bulk of the responsibilities at home. In fact, Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely than white mothers to be in charge of all the childcare and domestic work, even though Latina and Black moms are also more likely to be the primary breadwinner for their families.
So, what does that all add up to? Moms are juggling way more than they typically have to juggle. A year ago, moms were treading water, but now they are drowning. All these extra responsibilities and hours of work, domestic, professional, parenting, and otherwise, are adding up to a whole lot of burnout, which could have serious repercussions.
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is defined as a “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Even before the pandemic hit, the WHO classified burnout as an official condition in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
During the Covid pandemic, burnout has reached a whole new level of impact. According to Dr. Sheryl Ziegler, a psychologist, and author of Mommy Burnout, this is a serious situation for moms everywhere. “Burnout is actually a pretty serious condition,” Ziegler told CNBC‘s Make It. Burnout might look and feel slightly different for everyone, but generally speaking, the signs are both emotional and physical, ranging from fatigue and lack of motivation to headaches, chest tightness, stomachaches, nausea, and even hair loss. “The pandemic has revealed how closely tied mental health and stress are, and I think a lot of people have hit their breaking point, and they just can’t get by anymore.”
And Sheryl Sandberg and Rachel Thomas from Leanin.org agree that burnout is not a phenomenon our country should be taking lightly. “Some companies may think that worrying about employee burnout is a luxury they can’t afford right now. In fact, it’s mission-critical. If companies rise to the moment, they can head off the disaster of losing millions of women and setting gender diversity back years,” they argue.
How Can Working Women and the Country Move Forward?
Consider just how dangerous this she-cession could be not only for working moms today but also for future generations of women. It’s a slippery slope from where we are now, with women leaving the workforce at a much higher rate than men, to where we might end up, with working women struggling for equal career opportunities in the future.
“Just before the pandemic hit, for the first time ever, for a couple months, we had more women employed than men,” Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress, told the New York Times. “And now we are back to late 1980s levels of women in the labor force.”
There are also concerns that this pandemic-related economic crisis could widen the gender wages gap significantly and that women of color will be the most harmed by this recession’s lasting impact. Young girls growing up will have fewer role models in the workforce who look like them, and young women might have fewer opportunities for advancement thanks to a lack of successful female leaders in positions of power to sponsor their success.
Despite the severe repercussions that might arise from this disastrous situation for women to date, not much has been done on a federal level to help protect these working women and moms who are suffering. It’s safe to say President Joe Biden and his administration have a lot of work cut out for them to address this economic crisis and its impact on women.
The recently passed stimulus bill — a whopping $1.9 trillion relief bill — is certainly a big step in the right direction. It includes targeted support for the childcare industry to increase resources for both childcare facilities and parents. “The child care sector has lost a significant number of jobs, making it difficult for women to return to work and care,” said C. Nicole Mason, president, and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The stimulus bill also expands on the child tax credit, which ranges from $2,000 to $3,000, plus an extra $600 for children under five years old. This credit is intended to make it easier for families to pay for childcare, thus supporting working moms and enabling them to rejoin the workforce.
But is it enough? It’s clear that while immediate relief is essential, long-term policy fixes are equally important, along with temporary support. This is why in January, prominent women in the U.S. called on the Biden Administration to implement a Marshall Plan for Moms — a 360-plan to “provide direct payments to moms and pass long-overdue policies addressing paid family leave, affordable childcare, and pay equity.”
The plan is intended to help get women back to the workforce and provide support.
According to Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, who proposed a Marshall Plan for Moms, “this is about focus and not exclusion. If you ask moms what they need right now, they need money. They need money to pay for child care. They need money to pay for food. They need money to actually make choices. We’re not choosing to leave the workforce. We’re being pushed out,” she said on the 3rd hour of TODAY.
The Biden administration is currently reviewing the Marshall Plan for Moms (at the time this article was published). Both Congress and the White House will need to pass the resolution for its policies to be implemented.
It would be a huge leap in the right direction, and this support has never been more critical.
To put it bluntly, “Covid took a crowbar into gender gaps and pried them open,” argues Stevenson. And she suggests the long-term impact goes well beyond wages and equal opportunity. What will happen to the next generation of women who watched their mothers struggle so desperately during desperate times, with little to no relief from the government or even from their own partners? Will they want to have children of their own? Will they just accept that they won’t be supported in their careers or their domestic roles? Will it just become okay that women are drowning?
To all the working moms and working women out there who are suffering, know this: you are not alone. Millions upon millions of women feel your pain.
This pandemic has exposed some of the harshest realities and unfair burdens that fall on moms and especially women of color. We are all just trying to survive the day, the week, the year, the crisis. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just breathe and make sure you take a nice long exhale.
Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Multi-tasking is a skill that moms have become far too good at — don’t think you need to do it all, and definitely don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it all well. Breathe in. Try to be present for one moment at a time. Manage your own expectations. Breathe out.
And if you need to really let it all go, call the Primal Scream Line. Dial this number, wait for the beep, and then just SCREAM. We promise, it helps.