In September, 865,000 American women quit working permanently or indefinitely, compared to just 216,000 men. The toll of COVID-19 is so much wider than physical health, and that toll is being paid overwhelmingly by women, who are both more likely to work in industries impacted by the pandemic and more likely to find themselves saddled with caretaking duties at home that make it difficult to maintain employment. As with most societal discrepancies, Black women and Latinas like myself account for most of those left behind.
In September, I became one of those 865,000 women to leave the workforce. There is some dark humor to be found in a society that pushes young girls to strive, to achieve and to demand more, only to reject them when that society hits a rough patch. Eventually, I’ll find the joke.
Last year, I left my career and New York City to pursue work in a field I find truly fulfilling in every sense. While it involved a massive pay cut, I was excited to embark on a path more aligned with my values. I was especially proud of being living proof for my young daughter that life is absolutely what you make it.
If you want to be an activist and accomplish something you truly believe in, nothing can stop you. Not even motherhood! Just pack up your child, and dog and cat, and forge a way for yourself.
What I learned is that we are not unstoppable. While my daughter and I are still blessedly healthy, I have had to stop work due to COVID-19. I met my match in this country’s abysmal sick leave policies combined with a work culture predicated on how much an organization can squeeze out of you until you are no longer useful.
In the weeks leading up to the closures, when the numbers of active cases and deaths were rising so rapidly as to be surreal, especially in our former hometown of New York, the notion that this could affect us hung like a spectre. We were aware of it, and even scared of it, but only vaguely, as something in the shadows.
As a working, single mom on the very low end of the wage earning scale, the initial panic is never even about the health or well-being of your family ― that would be a luxury! The initial panic is logistics. If schools close, what am I supposed to do with my kid so I can work? My new nonprofit career was extremely hands-on, blue collar work. I envied the moms who had the option of staying home with their kids while still earning a living, despite knowing full well that is its own unholy burden.
I frantically began researching day care centers outside of the school only to learn that if schools closed, day cares would be closing as well. I looked into New York state’s paid family leave policy, but in the beginning it had not been expanded to cover COVID-19 related work absences. The state and federal governments are woefully unprepared in the event a U.S. citizen breaks their arm and can’t work, so navigating a global pandemic was obviously above their pay grade.
My job would not offer me paid leave or free housing (which they do for many employees) to alleviate the burden of rent while scrounging for full-time child care, nor would they agree to allow me to bring my daughter to work. The one thing they could provide was a small weekly stipend to offset the cost of child care. I will pause for laughter for all the moms who have ever looked into hiring full time private child care on a single income. Y’all know.
Making it through March was a series of favors, odd babysitters, and using up my sick time. By April, I had to beg. In case this essay reads like a litany of complaints, let me be very clear that I am so fortunate to have friends and family who love my daughter and me. While we moved very far away from everyone we know, and so much of suffering through 2020 was done in loneliness, the way people came through for me was legendary.
Loved ones from Baltimore, New York City, and California made their way to us, spending their time out of the office to watch my child so I could continue doing the work that I loved. Some of them had lost their jobs permanently or temporarily due to closures, so they had the time. Others, like my mom, drove thousands of miles while teaching remotely to offer child care.
I want to also be very clear that while people close to me stepped up to be there for us physically so I could keep working, that it did not have to be this way. My managers could have offered a more flexible schedule. My organization could have offered me leave ― or any of the other multiple solutions I brought to the table that they denied. Our government could provide any type of safety net for working families.
It is not lost on me that in a team of essential workers, I am the only one who was forced to stop working. I was also the only single mother, and the only Latina. (It’s worth noting there was only one other mother in my department at all.) I don’t walk around feeling like a statistic or a quota, but sometimes the singularity of our experience is too evident to ignore.
In the end, despite the Herculean efforts of myself and my support system to make sure I could continue working, the situation became untenable. My work days were split between the work I loved and pleading with my managers to provide a way that I could continue doing that work. Schools were not reopening, and there is only so much you can do yourself.
This week, my daughter and I will be driving across the country to move in with my abuelita until there is work available to me again. I suppose the punchline to the joke ends up being that it’s never just a single mom who bears the brunt. It’s her mother, and her grandmother, and the community of mothers who will inevitably take on more of a burden in order to lighten someone else’s.
That’s the story of the 865,000 of us out of work in September: taking on more responsibility for less of the credit. It’s not really laugh out loud funny. I guess I have to work on the delivery.