Working Mothers Still Aren't Okay

Written by
Kelly J. Baker

Dec 1, 2020

Dec 1, 2020 • by Kelly J. Baker

It's November, the day after the election and after my new book was published. I'm once again sitting at my dining room table or, as I like to call it, “school.” My first grader is watching yet another video on word sounds before he completes yet another worksheet. My sixth grader is taking a pretest in science with her brows furrowed in concentration. Weeks ago, we had to pull her from the county's virtual school and move her to online homeschool. She's beginning to like school again, a small victory.

I'll take the smallest victories right now. Any victory really.

Distractions, Distractions, Distractions

While they do schoolwork and I don't have to actively guide them through their lessons, I'm frantically typing this column. My brain is distracted. My brain is usually somewhat distracted because of my ADHD. Drinking a lot of coffee helps, but as months of the pandemic stretch on, my brain is more distracted than ever before. I'm being pulled in too many directions all at once. I should be writing. This is one of my only pockets of time to write. And yet, I can't.

My attention is pulled to the news as I resist my desire to furiously check and recheck election results. My attention is pulled to the book promotion that I'm dodging because there are too many other things to do: finishing an assignment for another looming deadline, helping my first grader with spelling and sight word tests, teaching my sixth‐grader how to schedule her assessments, worrying over my stepdad's new round of radiation for his stage 4 cancer, and observing and worrying over the surge of COVID‐19 cases. I would rather be watching an episode of Justified than tackling all the work that lies ahead of me.

I should be writing. I try to force myself to focus. I know there will be yet another interruption coming soon. There always is.

Working while Mothering

On any given day, I never know how long I'll have before I need to switch roles. I constantly shift: writer and editor, elementary school teacher or middle school teacher, mom, partner, daughter or some combination of all of them. More distraction, not less. I'm always overwhelmed and tired. I rush to get as much work done as I can before anyone needs me. Later, I'll need to revise and revise again what I've written in these small pockets of time. I've come to realize that I'm not the best writer or editor with my children sitting right beside me. Work takes so much longer during a pandemic. I work so slowly that some days I want to tear my hair out. (I haven't. Yet.)

I think about being a working mother during the pandemic often because I am one. I've already written a column about how COVID‐19 exacerbates the motherhood penalty at work, in which employers view mothers as less serious and less competent at their jobs than other employees.

For many women, the motherhood penalty is becoming worse as the pandemic rages on. NPR reports that in September, 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in the United States, which is four times more than the amount of men who did. From March through September, over 2.6 million women left the workforce entirely. There are greater consequences for some women more than others: Black and Latinx women are facing the steepest unemployment rates, according to CNBC, both at around 11%.

Mothers Bear the Burden

The women who haven't yet left or have been forced out of their jobs are still thinking about quitting or scaling back their careers. I know I still do. The Women in the Workplace Report 2020, from McKinsey & Company and Lean In, found that one in four women have considered “downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID‐19.” The report focuses on women in corporate jobs from over 300 companies and surveys over 40,000 employees. Their data show the current burdens that working women face or the likely negative consequences for gender diversity in the workplace. (No, duh.)

CNBC pulled these important findings from the report: “[M]others are three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for a majority of housework and childcare during COVID‐19. Mothers are also twice as likely as fathers to worry that their work performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic.”

Women are losing jobs, doing more child care and housework and taking care of other relatives who are unable to care for themselves. The pandemic's costs weigh heavily on our shoulders. COVID‐19 makes clear what many women already know to be true: Gender inequality is still the norm at work and at home. Patriarchy continues to be a heavy weight on our shoulders too.

Working mothers' careers are getting derailed. Working mothers are passing up opportunity after opportunity that could improve both their careers and their lives. Working mothers are quitting their jobs if downscaling isn't an option. Losing your salary has immediate and long‐term impacts. We don't know exactly what the consequences of the pandemic will be for women, but they could be dire.

For working mothers to continue to have careers or be able to move back into the workforce, employers must recognize the pandemic's toll on women. Working mothers aren't okay. I know I'm not. We need employers who understand what we are going through. So, when my first grader interrupts a Zoom meeting shirtless and holding an angry cat, my boss assures me it's okay. And it should be okay. Employers should support working mothers, not penalize us for things we can't control.


Editor's note: The photo above is a shot of me and my kids at our school/work table. It could be from any given morning. 

Photo credit: Chris Baker