I am haunted by the soul-deep sigh from an accountant I interviewed about switching to part-time work last year. “Are you burned out?” I asked.
She paused before pushing out a shaky exhalation that seemed not to originate from her diaphragm, but from somewhere more primal.
She went on to describe a weariness that predated the pandemic. A marriage where her husband had gradually become the breadwinner while she took on the task of managing the family’s mental load. A year that had prompted her to question not just the value of her own work, but the value of work itself, when the world seemed to need so much more than number crunching. She needed a reboot. A chance to totally shut down.
Would it be unprofessional, I wondered, to tell her that by sharing her story, I was actually telling my own?
It had long been a joke of mine in the days of cocktail chatter that my job as editor-in-chief of Working Mother was essentially life-hacking. If I felt bad about my toddler’s morning meltdown, I’d write a piece about how high-quality child care benefits kids. If my husband and I were arguing about buying milk, I’d write a piece about the best apps to help you split the mental load with your spouse.
I was well aware that the tips and tricks I dispensed were mere Band-Aids on a gaping wound in a country without paid maternity leave, paid sick days or affordable child care. But short of the revolution which has yet to materialize, something has to suffice for working moms.
For the most part, plugging the dam worked, until it didn’t. Even before the pandemic — perhaps when my son entered public school, or we had our second child, or my husband and I skidded into the most demanding time of our careers simultaneously — I could sense my juggling act was coming to an end. Either the plates would crash or I would.
How do you hack your way out of a choice between bone-deep exhaustion or financial loss? For most working moms without spry and game grandparents nearby, or an exceedingly accommodating manager, or the income for an army of assistants, those are the options. The ones I know who “have it all” can claim most or all of these privileges, (plus, if they’re married, a partner who isn’t a dead weight at home).
For the rest of us, we sacrifice our time, health and mental energy to tackle a never-ending list of work and family duties, telling ourselves the half-hour we spend scrolling Instagram before falling into a dreamless stupor is “self-care.” Or, we pour our entire paychecks into day care and summer camp and house cleaners and takeout.
For years, I wrote and edited pieces about how moms should keep working, even when child care costs more than their paycheck. Financially, this is sound advice, particularly for women who work in industries with a predictable pattern of promotions and raises. Taking just a year or two out of the game can cost a mom hundreds of thousands of dollars — since she loses out not just on her current salary, but also on retirement savings and promotions, opportunities and raises.
Turns out it’s not so easy to approach the issue like a clear-eyed economist.
When my son’s school went hybrid in fall 2020 and we chipped in to share a nanny with friends for his remote days and after-school care, 80% of my take-home pay went to his sitter and our daughter’s day care. The articles I’d written before didn’t reassure me. They angered me. I was just as likely to get a thank-you from my toddler as my boss, so why couldn’t I opt for a reprieve for our family without wrecking my career?
“When my son’s school went hybrid in fall 2020 and we chipped in to share a nanny with friends for his remote days and after-school care, 80% of my take-home pay went to his sitter and our daughter’s day care. The articles I’d written before didn’t reassure me. They angered me.”
I knew that Congress had granted me a solution, of sorts. I gently inquired about taking a couple days of paid leave a week under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, legislation I’d covered for the site. I received no response from our HR director.
We’ve all heard the horror stories of working moms who were forced to breast-pump in full view of colleagues, or told point-blank the boss doesn’t like pregnant employees. But what doesn’t make headlines are the subtle pressures so superfluous they rarely rate mention over commiserating cocktails with girlfriends. The projects pushed onto your pile when yet another co-worker is laid off, and the tight, toothy grin of your boss as she asks, “You got this?” The meandering, agendaless meetings scheduled 30 minutes before day care pickup. The puzzled frown from the company president when you ask to take FFCRA leave two days a week, to cut back on the child care costs consuming your paycheck: “But will you be able to complete your work in three days a week?”
The smart manager understands there is little need for old-fashioned, heavy-handed discrimination when veiled threats are so effective.
And it’s less effort to accept more work than to rigorously enforce boundaries, particularly when the world is so eager to tear down women who dare to seek self-preservation.
That’s true at home, too, of course.
When my husband and I went to my parents’ house for help with the kids in the early months of the pandemic, he claimed my father’s office, while I worked from the kitchen table, orchestrating our son’s virtual classes and our daughter’s diaper changes. Our years of painstakingly crafting an equitable partnership unraveled, without conversation, in a mere matter of days. He is our family’s breadwinner. His climb up the career ladder is clear. In survival mode, did I really want to add to our collective stress by redivvying up parenting duties? Again, it was easier to accept the work.
Before long, I began skipping workouts and dental visits and anything else I convinced myself was extraneous, narrowing my focus down to staying on the wheel I’d been pedaling like a hamster on methamphetamines. Work. Kids. Work. Kids. Work. Kids.
I was a working mom in the truest sense of the phrase, because I had become nothing else.
And if I had snapped under this pressure, it would have been chalked up to the pandemic instead of the people and systems who took my labor as a given. Who have always taken moms’ labor as a given. (Case in point: A coalition of mostly moms fought tooth and nail to get a paltry four weeks of paid family leave added to the Build Back Better Act.)
It was simply expected by my son’s school, my husband and my employer that I’d carry on.
So quitting suddenly became liberating.
That’s not to say the decision was easy. I knew quite well just how hard it might be for me to find full-time work again (even as my friends reassured me that the pandemic would amount to a get-out-of-a-resume-gap-free card). And I also knew that, while I might be making a “choice” that was best for my family, I would be adding to a sea of setbacks for women, collectively, by jumping ship.
I might be one dot on a labor economist’s graph, but those dots, taken together, equal a future that’s far less bright for our daughters. Globally, reaching gender parity will take a generation longer to achieve. In the United States, the labor force participation rate for women is at the lowest level since the 1980s. If companies aren’t proactive, fewer women in the workforce will mean fewer women middle managers and fewer women executives. The wage gap will widen.
I also felt guilt that I could opt out, when I knew so many moms, especially single moms, could not. And that so many moms had already been pushed out of jobs without so much as a chimera of a choice.
My husband and I are back to an even split now, but it still doesn’t feel feasible for both of us to work full time. There’s simply too much to do. If two parents work and commute 40-plus hours a week, best of luck keeping a reasonably clean home, eating home-cooked meals, staying somewhat fit, enjoying time as a couple, and seeing friends and family without a significant — and costly — amount of outsourcing.
A few days after I put in my notice at work, my son ended up in the ER after suffering an asthma attack. He’d never had one before, but his allergies were particularly fierce this past spring. The night before, my husband and I had gotten into a tense conversation about who who’d forgotten to grab his medication from the pharmacy. Watching my son suck on a nebulizer was clarifying: It didn’t matter who dropped the ball, but someone needed to pick up and carry the damn thing. And that someone would be me.
A friend of mine texted after I confessed I was quitting: “If Working Mother isn’t at the forefront of these issues, there’s probably no hope for the rest of us.”
I wish I had a solution, but I’m fresh out of hacks.
Until child care is more affordable, managers are more reasonable and dads do their fair share, full-time working motherhood is a raw deal for all but the most affluent.
Audrey Goodson Kingo is a freelance journalist and the former editor-in-chief at workingmother.com. During her time at Working Mother, she interviewed everyone from Rep. Pramila Jayapal to Ayesha Curry to White House communications director Kate Bedingfield. Audrey has appeared on TV, radio and numerous podcasts to discuss women’s health, parenting and work.
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