Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I slogged away as a Ph.D. student, a primary parent of two young daughters, and an occupational therapist with two jobs: one as a part-time outpatient OT at a hand therapy clinic, and one at the local hospital in the pediatric intensive care unit on weekends.
I was furloughed from my position as an outpatient OT at the beginning of the pandemic, and I needed to remain home with my two daughters anyway when schools closed. While we hunkered down, they watched ungodly amounts of TV and I miraculously finished my dissertation. (My kindergartner did not fare as well academically on Zoom school.)
I defended my dissertation anticlimactically via Zoom, wearing a button-up and slippers. I came downstairs a doctor, and immediately needed to clean up homemade slime from the floor.
After nine months of picking up on-call weekends at the hospital, I found a part-time research position where I could work from home. My daughters, 4 and 7 at the time, were still at home due to school closures, so working from home was a necessity.
I wasn’t alone in this situation. Following the onset of COVID, women left the workforce in droves for these same reasons. Even for those whose jobs could be performed at home, many were driven out by the added demands of household management and caring for children who were suddenly home from school and day care.
Even once my children’s schools reopened, any COVID symptom could still require them to stay home, which added a spontaneous spin to the game I called “How Much Can I Work This Week.”
My younger daughter likes to crawl on the bathroom floor (because she’s a kitten, obviously) and then lick her hands, causing her to develop approximately 295 colds per year and take subsequent sick days off school. I also needed to be ready at any given moment to pick my kids up when there was an inevitable positive case in one of their classrooms, lest they marinate in a COVID petri dish a moment longer.
While I felt grateful for my remote research position, especially with my kitten-human hybrid child and her perpetually runny nose, I desperately missed the connection with patients ― and I needed more hours of work.
Around this time, someone actually asked me whether finding a new job would be “fair to the employer,” given the unpredictability of my schedule amid the roller coaster of school closures and COVID waves.
I mourned the losses suffered by women in the workplace as data emerged and headlines read “Coronavirus child-care crisis will set women back a generation.” I’d worked tirelessly my entire adult life to earn advanced degrees, and yet in a blink, they seemed inconsequential. I felt I had failed at expanding my daughters’ understanding of what women were capable of, an effort generations in the making.
A year and a half into the pandemic, I finally returned to steady inpatient hospital work during the week, once my daughters’ school schedules felt relatively reliable. I assumed everyone would be understanding of my interrupted professional life, given the upheavals we’d all presumably experienced in the COVID era.
I was assigned to a new department, which I was very excited about. There, it soon became evident that I was expected not only to learn new clinical skills, navigate the culture of the department and refresh my lost self, but to do so quickly.
Where I had expected empathy, I was instead greeted with hostility, apathy and criticism about the gap in my patient care experience. I was told I lacked “basic” skills (after 10+ years in the field), and that my “break” from clinical care was detrimental.
“This is why full-time is different from weekends,” a supervisor sneered, as if I’d recently returned from vacation. Being a parent during the pandemic had required a total paradigm shift in my work, yet the outside world seemed unchanged.
Naturally, the people who said such things were not parents themselves. They found it difficult to understand what parents experienced during the pandemic, like the gravity of our professional despair as our lives revolved around homeschooling and the monotony of making snacks every nine minutes.
At work, I cared for infants. It was not lost on me that my ability to quickly develop a rapport with new mothers, and provide personal insight into the trials of breastfeeding, came from the same parent who’d spent the previous two years keeping a family alive, psychologically safe and intellectually stimulated. The employer enjoyed the former skill set, but not the latter.
Within two months, it became evident that I was not welcome to bring my whole self to this position. I attempted to salvage my role, to no avail. I left the hospital altogether two months after that.
I continued working remotely part-time, doing research for my other institution. But I did not want to completely leave patient care behind. I’ve recently started part-time at a new hospital, and have been met with flexible scheduling and photos of colleagues’ children, which felt like a warm hug.
This phase of the pandemic is providing the opportunity for more women to return to work— but only if they are welcomed.
It may take a beat for the mothers who left the workforce in 2020 to regain our professional footing. Some of us may have years-long gaps on our resumes due to caring for children, parents or other dependents, responsibilities that often fall to women. Companies need to expect this, plan for it, and consider it another casualty of the pandemic, rather than a reflection of a woman’s capabilities.
This is necessary to reclaim the net 5.4 million women’s jobs we lost during the pandemic.
Of course, I am beyond fortunate. I was not trapped with an abuser during this time. I have a partner and that partner kept his job. In general, Black and Latina women fared far worse than white women when it comes to employment. I also want to recognize that some male parents stayed at home with their children during the pandemic.
For many, though, the pandemic drove families into antiquated gender stereotypes.
It’s likely that COVID is not over, and that a new wave will be upon us soon. Parents again may need to leave work at a moment’s notice when a COVID case forces a child’s classroom to close. Organizations need to work proactively to welcome mothers back into the workforce nonetheless.
Otherwise, we are actively supporting our collective regression into generations past. We are effectively undoing our mothers’ and grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ battles to give women a choice.
I, and the many other moms who’ve had to take time out of the workforce, need your grace and understanding. This might take the form of flexible work schedules, awareness of important meetings held in the late afternoon or early evening, or a mutually agreed-upon timeline of skill acquisition. We need help easing the transition, and empathy about the gaps in our work experience.
In many ways, the pandemic stripped away the illusion of boundaries between work and home. We can no longer work like we don’t have children, or parent like we don’t have jobs. We are bringing our whole selves to work, and we deserve respect for our experiences, including motherhood.