The statistics are as stark as they are clear.
COVID-19 has driven women out of the workforce in historic numbers: 2.2 million since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Rand Corporation. Some women lost their jobs; others left to care for their children after schools went remote and child care centers closed. And a recently released report indicates more women are considering "downshifting" their careers.
As a working mom, this doesn’t surprise me because COVID has nearly broken me, too.
Many Americans aren’t sure it matters if women leave the workforce in large numbers. Yet, our economy and our families depend on us. About 72 percent of households with children rely on a mother’s earnings for their wellbeing.
Stopping this hemorrhage depends on those of us still in the workforce driving short-term, actionable solutions. We don’t need abstract concepts taught by management gurus. We have our lived experiences. The long-term, systemic fixes are expensive. They require government action and agreement, but we know that is unlikely to materialize anytime soon.
Each working mom’s story is both different and the same. Pressures at home and at work, exacerbated by COVID, make maintaining any semblance of "balance" a farce. My goal these days is sanity. My life — the real one, not the social media version --- encompasses three daughters dealing with COVID-college, a time-consuming small farm, an elderly, recently-widowed mother and a job I love in an education non-profit that became more rewarding, more demanding and less financially secure with the arrival of the pandemic. The recent strain for me: a health crisis for my husband, who has been the secret weapon in my work-life integration for the last three decades.
As is often the case, it was the mundane that nearly broke me. The pandemic puppy got into the trash. Garbage littered the house. I sent an ill-advised early morning text to my daughters with a picture of the mess. I fed the cows, jumped in the shower to get ready for a day of meetings and I cried. More specifically, I sobbed.
Over the previous exhausting weekend, I had been wrung dry of energy dealing with critically important meetings and a deal three years in the making. Then, my husband’s weekly bloodwork contained anomalies that reinforced our on-going challenges. For weeks, my stomach had physically ached with worry. He had already survived several near-death experiences from complications related to his kidney transplant.
As I let the tears stream down my face in the shower, out of sight of the two co-eds studying remotely, I knew I had a huge problem. I was pretty sure my brain had stopped working. In a meeting the day before, I struggled to control the agenda because I was just not sharp. It was both extremely frustrating and demoralizing. And scary.
My usual stress management tools were failing me. Not being able to think means game over, but I’m the breadwinner. The game is never over. Truth? If I could have sent in my resignation from the shower stall, I would have. Instead, I fantasized about winning Powerball, as I trudged through the snow to my office in the barn. I would muddle through and hopefully achieve my one goal of not crying in any Zoom meetings.
For those women (and men) straddling the fault lines of work, family and sanity, it is often one or two relatively small actions that can save us. Sure, the long-term answers lie in systemic changes to daycare, maternity and family leave, health care coverage, and other policies that relieve the big stressors. But no bill was going to pass in the middle of last week’s snowstorm that would provide enough relief to kick-start my brain back into action. That had to come from somewhere else.
For me, it came from empathy. Despite my leadership position, I still worry that I will be judged more harshly than my male peers for struggling to balance family responsibilities. So I know that other mothers harbor that same fear. On my worst day, I decided to embrace my lived experience and I did something I would never have done 20 years ago — maybe not even 20 days ago.
The snow forced closings of daycare centers in the region, and the educators we serve would have to miss a much-anticipated workshop with a national expert. I decided to have the team send an email most of my best-intentioned male counterparts would not have known to send, something to the effect of, “If you have a child care crisis due to the snow today, please don’t feel like you have to cancel. Our organization is run by a working mother and this workshop is perfectly fine to attend with children on your lap, in your hair or under your desk.”
What happened? Exceptionally strong turnout — lots of kids on laps in Zoom windows during the workshop, and best of all, this private message: “I appreciated that you invited kids since school did close early for one of mine.”
So, yeah, it matters if we can find small ways to keep women in the workforce and bring back the ones who have left. And I’m still here.