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The Vision for Working Moms in a Post-COVID World

I have always worked full-time and that didn’t change with the birth of my children. Certain events throughout the course of my employment changed my workplace dynamic. After my third baby in five years, I was burning out. I worked as a physician assistant for an orthopedic practice and my husband works in construction; both professional cultures continue to exude antiquated patriarchal values.

“Why are you working?” was a question I would get from both sides. Would you ask a man that question? Why do men work? Beyond the income, it’s not so farfetched to believe that people enjoy working. It offers structure, teamwork, a sense of pride, example setting for their children, independence, and so much more. Work is a beautiful outlet. It makes me a better person and a better mother. But, being a mother and being a worker didn’t fit into the “system.” As Amy Westervelt so eloquently pointed out in her book, Forget ‘Having It All', “We expect women to work like they don't have children and raise children like they don't work.” I had to choose. And with a world pandemic surging through the United States, there are no good options.

Of the 47 percent of working women in the U.S., 70 percent of them are working moms with children under 18 and of those, 40 percent are the primary or sole earners. An additional 23.2 percent of mothers are “co-breadwinners,” which means that their wages tally at least 25 percent of their total household earnings. A startling fact is that over half of job losses during COVID have been women. So, if mothers are the primary or sole earners in 40 percent of households and 54 percent of overall job losses globally are women, where does it leave these families and how is this helping the economy?

Each and every one of us have been pushed into a corner, back against the wall, asked to make a choice: Work or child rear. We were making our long-awaited arrival into the business world as (almost) equals and have effectively been knocked back “in our place.” Women have actively left the workforce because we have been put in an impossible situation due to lack of options and support with regards to childcare and work culture. In the wake of a world pandemic, there is also the concern of public health and safety for our children. We are scared for our children’s health and wellbeing while also fearing job security. And if we are able to maintain job security, will it be at the expense of our children? Mom guilt is reverberating to all corners of the planet while we shuffle forward, doing our best as we burn out and become a shell of our prior selves. No one is winning.

Working moms have always needed more support than they have received. As they walk a tightrope, attempting to balance work on one side and home on the other, the rope is thinning and the weight on each side of the balancing pole keeps changing. One misstep and it all comes crashing down. Life as a working mom has always had its challenges, but these challenges have been exacerbated by a monumental shift. This shift only supports the current systemic structure and nothing more. History repeats itself time and time again but, it doesn’t have to.

PART 1: How We Got Here

As far back as 1869, women have been advocating for their space in the corporate world. The Knights of Labor Union fought for 8 hour workdays and equal pay for people of all genders and races. Unfortunately, the union fell out of favor as the concept that allowing women to work would diminish male respect for women so, back to the home we went. Then in 1903, women formed a new union called Women’s Trade Union League which consisted of both middle and upper class women. These women provided legitimacy and allyship to women across all socioeconomic classes, which led to the Uprising of 20,000, the largest strike by female American workers to date. It resulted in better hours, equal division of work, and negotiation wages, which are all wonderful, but a much bigger and more impactful wave was formed. By creating fairer working conditions, it urged men to strike as well, which they did in 1910 in the Great Revolt. The overall outcome from these two strikes resulted in the “needle trades,” those involved in clothing manufacturing, to become the best organized in the United States. Women made massive gains in this strike because it solidified them as competent union activists and changed the mindset of many.

Not so different than today, the Great Depression was yet another huge setback for women. Many unions believed that men should be the first entitled to job openings. Once men were deployed in WWII, women finally received their opportunity to hold jobs normally taken by men. Women continued to push and by 1964, The Civil Rights Act was passed, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or ethnicity. This helped push the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1970. Decades of economic growth promoted an incline in female employment. This peaked in 1999, with 60 percent of women in the U.S. employed. We then hit yet another series of setbacks in the form of 9-11, the burst of a housing bubble, and a stock market crash. Since 1999, female employment has been on the decline all because of these economic regressions. Here we are in the year 2020 with yet another major setback in the form of a world pandemic.

When the economy is thriving, women are given an opportunity to advance their careers. However, when the economy is in a recession, women are the first to be directly impacted. Over the course of history, there has always been a direct correlation between a booming economy and female career opportunity and advancement. We have been tethered to this system for far too long. We know how this will end each and every time: women taking on the brunt of the country’s economic downfall. Change the system and we change the outcome.

Recent reports show that if at least one third of an executive committee is female, the company has more than ten times the net profit margin. Time and time again, women have proven their value. If we are ejecting ourselves from the workplace, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, it is no surprise that the economy is tanking. If we are playing by a game of numbers, and women are paid, on average, eighty cents for every dollar a man is paid, then why are women the first to be let go? Beyond history repeating itself, the answer to this is twofold.

In 60 percent of households, women are not the breadwinners, nor the holders of the family insurance. Furthermore, women are bearing the burden of increased unpaid labor. We are being relegated to home responsibilities with no opportunity for career advancement. What can’t be ignored is that women’s earnings are often necessary for the family’s economic stability, but we’re being cast aside as if our contributions outside the home are meaningless.

Part 2: Why are We Here?

In some circumstances it’s our place of employment: They aren’t offering flexible work conditions or office culture doesn’t account for the possibility for female advancement. This is frequently seen when women endure the “Motherhood Penalty,” a term coined by sociologists to describe the systemic disadvantages women face in the workplace after they become mothers as compared to childless coworkers. Other times, it’s a lack of support in our own homes. Whether it’s intentional or not, women take on the brunt of the childcare and household responsibilities.

The toll of taking on both career and childcare in a pandemic without proper resources has caused women to experience symptoms of severe stress and burnout, tacking on an additional 20 hours to their workweek on average as compared to men as they shoulder the unpaid labor. To make matters worse, Black and Latina women are spending more time than that (over 21 hours) and furthermore, single moms are not surprisingly taking on the most (81 percent of single mothers are spending 21 or more hours per week on housework, compared to 62 percent of women overall). On average, women do 75 percent of the world’s total unpaid-care work. They are carrying the burden of a mental load and executing the majority of tasks relative to all non-market, unpaid activities such as caring for children and elderly, cooking, and cleaning. Now more than ever is proof that women do more.

Women have taken to all outlets to unleash their fury and stress. An article released by Scary Mommy, titled 2020 Will Be the Death of the Working Mother states, “Unless you can survive on three hours of sleep, telework, and have the magical ability to wash clothes with your mind, this is impossible. We went from wondering what we would cook for dinner, to wondering if we should even keep the careers we’ve worked so very hard to obtain…Forget climbing up the corporate ladder; we are hanging by our fingertips from the gutters.” None of this is conducive to overall well-being.

There are a lot of important issues being addressed around the country at this very moment in time, so it’s hard to get anyone’s undivided attention on this very imminent and detrimental problem that working women are facing. It yet again shows that we often find ourselves clawing our way to a seat at the table while screaming, “We need answers! We need practical solutions!” as people cover their ears and turn the other way. Working moms are scrambling; they’re nervously awaiting government news and they’re frantically researching childcare options while weighing if and how they can continue working. They are overwhelmed, overburdened, and overstretched.

Will the daycare that is available be as good as what we had?

What if my child gets sick?

What if I get sick?

I am wrought with guilt over the idea that if something happens to my child, I may never forgive myself, but what am I supposed to do? We need to survive.

Will schools be open?

How am I supposed to help my child with their virtual lessons when I have work to do?

If we can’t find a suitable place, will I have to quit my job? Then what?

Can I afford not to work?

I have to work, how am I going to do this?

How am I going to continue to juggle it all?

I call to working moms nationwide: We can do this better. We can make this better.

Part 3: The Solution

The system didn’t work before, it’s not working now, and it’s time to create a solution for the future. That solution is not going to be based on rules of the patriarchy. As stated by Jennifer Palmieri in her new book, She Proclaims, “Our dependence on the old male models and our belief that following their path would eventually work out for us has ended up sustaining the very power systems that keep women from succeeding.” We have advocates on both sides of this equation, playing this from all angles. We have thought leaders who have brought excellent information to the table. So why is no one listening? Because we’re on the forefront of major change and that is scary. According to Melinda Gates, “If policymakers ignore the ways that the disease and its impacts are affecting men and women differently, they risk prolonging the crisis and slowing economic recovery. But if they use this emergency as an opportunity to replace old systems with new and better ones, countries can build back more prosperous, more prepared, and more equal.” We start in two places: Government Policy and within our own homes.

We should be looking towards Iceland, New Zealand, Scotland, and Wales as countries that have implemented frameworks that include childcare. Well-being, Economy, Governments, better known as WEGo is about governments that see national success as being defined by a citizen’s quality of life rather than the growth rate of a country’s GDP. Modeling a WEGo framework would allow the U.S. to revolutionize the culture of our overworked society.

In light of a need to pivot from traditional child care options, without completely overturning the current government model, the concept of CareCorps has been presented by Katherine Goldstein, journalist and the creator and host of The Double Shift Podcast. CareCorps is “based on the AmeriCorps model of voluntary domestic public service. CareCorps could be staffed by recent college graduates, students taking a year off, or other young people looking for employment in an abysmal economy as well as a way to serve their country and those in need during the pandemic.” Goldstein outlines several benefits to this model including freeing moms to work which would maintain a minimal gender pay gap, the corporation would function with standardized regulations including temperature checks and sanitation techniques to ease working parents’ minds, and offer the potential for a “domestic au pair,” as Au pair services have been halted indefinitely by work visa bans.

Ultimately, CareCorps is a wonderful option for families needing childcare and people looking for employment alike. There have been countless positive results using such a model. High-quality early childhood programs benefit not only young children, but also society as a whole. A reduction in crime rates, increased earnings and better physical health are just the tip of the iceberg. These outcomes can result in lower public expenditures for health, criminal justice and assistance programs. As stated by Childcare Aware of America, “Cost-benefit analyses of high-quality programs show returns of between $4 and $16 for every dollar spent. Researchers studying the life-cycle benefits of high-quality programs found a 13 percent rate of return on investment.” So, we can increase employment rates through CareCorps, increase working mom employment rates because of increased childcare options, which results in a 13 percent rate of return? That sounds like a win for everyone.

We also have U.S. senators going to bat for the working parents, lobbying for a $50 billion childcare bailout. Senator Tina Smith states, “Here’s the stark truth: when the time comes, we will not be able to rebuild our economy if this country’s child care system has collapsed beneath the economic burden of this pandemic. When the economy can start to safely get back on track, millions of parents will not be able to return to work or reopen their own small businesses if they cannot find safe, affordable, and reliable care for their children. And if childcare providers must close their doors for months, we risk permanently reducing the supply of childcare in this country.” 13 percent on $50 billion seems like a pretty solid business deal.

Modeling a new framework would allow the U.S. to revolutionize the culture of our imbalanced society. We knew prior to COVID-19 that a decrease in child care options reduces employment of mothers by up to 6 percent. Now, we’re at record highs due to lack of childcare for working families and the pending virtual learning to be implemented this upcoming schoolyear. In a NY Times article polling parents with school-aged children, nearly half of men say they are contributing to the majority of homeschooling while only about 3 percent of women agree. There is a clear misconception amongst men and women when it comes to childcare and household responsibilities. I further highlighted this discrepancy in my featured article, Stop Giving Working Moms Advice, What About Working Dads? The burden of running a home while working full-time always spotlights the mother. It is time that we bring fathers into the conversation to highlight changes they can make and how they can help.

Eve Rodsky makes the compelling argument in her book Fair Play that change begins when the tasks within a home are viewed with equal importance. This means that everyone needs to be on board with the concept that women’s time is just as valuable as men’s time. By quantitating the household workload and dividing these chores fairly, it brings us closer to gender equity: the fairness of treatment for men and women according to their respective needs. Rodsky states, “First, we must recognize that an hour of holding your child’s hand at the pediatrician’s office is just as important as an hour on a conference call.” As the cards currently stand, 39 percent of women reported that they are solely responsible for staying home when their children are sick. That number must change in the home for it to change within the economy. There are plenty of instances in which spouses contribute to the current dynamic. As much as we want to relieve ourselves of this responsibility, we also have to learn to trust our partners to provide and execute the same level of care. As we want to be treated equally in the workplace, we have to offer the same level of confidence to our spouses in the home.

I have also been a proponent of the “village.” I see this concept most applicable in the idea of pandemic pods. A pandemic pod is a social media group formed by parents in a community to develop “pods” of approximately five children to meet daily for homeschool or virtual learning. Some parents are even opting to hire private teachers to supervise the pod while they work. There are clear advantages to this option including smaller groups, more flexibility and independence for working parents, socialization amongst peers, and consistency in school as compared to a hybrid model. However, it is viewed as a luxury option for the wealthy. This model would work best if pods were assigned by school districts. They could evaluate students’ ages and locations and then assign pods accordingly. To allow parents to make these groupings without school district input would increase risk of segregation. Nonetheless, it’s worth considering and exploring because it has the potential to yield stronger relationships within our communities.

Consistent, affordable childcare, work-life balance, female equality in the workplace and equity in the home – all of these are foreign concepts in the United States. In dual-income families, approximately 11 percent of the family income goes to childcare with that number going up to 37 percent for single-income families. We keep getting on a hamster wheel built for the benefit of a patriarchy. We are working in a system and for a system that isn’t working for us. So, let’s build a new one. In light of COVID, we have an opportunity to go beyond fixing a broken system. We can rewrite the script.

Ultimately, we have hit rock bottom. Now we rise, with a stronger foundation than what we have stood on for the past 100 years. Lorna Fitzsimons, co-founder of The Pipeline stresses in a recent interview, “During the most unprecedented economic challenge of our lifetime, the economy can’t afford for businesses to continually miss the opportunity to be more productive. Businesses and governments need to actively address this as an economic imperative if we want to come out of the inevitable recession any time soon. We will then emerge from this crisis together, stronger, and more united than ever in a post Covid-19 world.” All good things take time and when it comes to what we’re building for our children, working moms will do what we do best: Persevere.

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