My mother went back to work full time when I was fairly young, and I became a latchkey child long before the term became popular. I remember how weary she was after commuting to work on a bus and train for 1-1/2 hours each way Monday through Friday, leaving me responsible for cooking, homework and watching after my younger brother. In 1968, when I was about to start 6th grade and my brother was starting 4th grade, public school teachers in New York City went on strike, which meant we were out of school until mid-November. For my family, the income my mother earned was essential to pay our mortgage and keep meals on the table, so staying home with us was not an option. Her job outside the home was not for personal fulfilment or a desire for advancement; the second income was a necessity. After trying a number of ad hoc arrangements involving elderly grandparents and accommodating neighbors, our parents enrolled us in a private school at considerable financial sacrifice. It’s hard to know what they would do today as schools operate virtually due to social distancing challenges and tutor-assisted home schooling is cost prohibitive for many.
Always expecting that I too would be a working mother, I returned to work full time less than a year after giving birth. Fortunately, we had the security of an excellent extended day program that catered to many medical professionals who worked even longer hours than I did. I can’t imagine how I would have been able to forge ahead with my legal career and demanding practice if a crisis of closure, whatever the cause, hit during those early years. Without the benefit of cell phones, laptops, internet and Zoom, I would not be able to fulfil my client responsibilities remotely, assuming I did not have anything else on my plate. But even with the benefit of access to modern technology, what is a working mother to do in today’s unprecedented environment? How can working parents, as it is not solely the mother’s responsibility to raise children, sustain the momentum of a full time career, manage a household, and educate children?
Over the past several months, I have been on Zoom calls interrupted by doorbells ringing, dogs barking, and children crying. I have worked with colleagues to schedule calls around overseeing children’s remote learning, shopping for aging relatives, and grieving for ill or lost family taken by the virus. As a mother, wife, sister, friend, colleague, and business owner, I see these challenges from many perspectives. I am sensitive to the delicate balance we are all struggling to maintain. Whatever your perspective, there is no denying that working mothers are getting the short end of the stick in many ways. Too many of them are suffering to manage their workplace expectations and their personal obligations. This tug of war (which is not new, but has been exacerbated with COVID-19) has resulted in increased discrimination against working mothers and retaliation against them for raising concerns or seeking accommodations to address the walls closing in on them.
A recent article chronicles “Real Life Horror Stories” from mothers struggling to maintain their jobs and their families since COVID-19 struck our country, leading to massive closures, loss of childcare and adapting to working from home. Working mothers who already had to juggle competing demands are faced with a Hobson’s choice – either resign or get fired – because employers are not willing to accommodate mothers who cannot be all things at once. However, just like my mother fifty years ago, many working mothers need the income so their families can make ends meet. In the current environment, they are in a stranglehold and unfortunately, these challenges are compounded for many diverse working mothers who are more likely to be deemed “essential” workers, among other risk factors.
On the other side of the issue, many jobs cannot readily be performed remotely or need to be performed during specific hours even if someone is working at home. With many businesses struggling financially from the direct and indirect impact of the pandemic, employers cannot necessarily afford to accommodate everyone’s competing needs, but as a result working parents, particularly women, are being squeezed and there is no relief from the increasing pressure.
I have not heard of many viable options for parents with children unable to take care of themselves, too young to stay home alone or to attend virtual school without supervision. To compound the challenges, many schools have reopened, only to close abruptly due to incidents of the virus among students or faculty, and others have still not finalized their plans for in person or remote learning even after the traditional start of school post-Labor Day. When family or friends cannot help out and the cost of alternative childcare or educational support is beyond the budget, what can working parents and their employers do to deal with these problem humanely while sustaining the business?
- Employers with the resources to do can set up socially distanced and sanitized onsite childcare or supervised remote learning sites for employees who have no other option for caring for their families.
- Employers can offer employees the opportunities to job share or modify their shifts so that in dual parent households, parents can stagger their work hours. They can also give employees meaningful breaks during the workday to deal with the increased personal demands they face.
- Employers can create a “suggestion box” – a means by which employees can propose problems that need to be addressed or share suggestions on how to solve them.
- Employees can create cooperatives where families share and rotate responsibilities with others living in the same area.
- Employees can try to create “neighborhood families” with retirees or out of work neighbors with whom they can barter childcare for other goods and services, such as groceries or lawn mowing.
Our nation was built on ingenuity and hard work and those skills can be put to work to tackle these challenges. But private employers and individual families cannot do this alone – they need legislative assistance as well as support from the broader community. Over the long haul, a generation of working mothers will lose income, job security, professional experience and opportunities for advancement and a generation of children will be short shrifted on education, attention and overall care if we do not all chip in. Let’s not backtrack on the progress made over years of advocacy but instead seize the opportunity to step up and make a better world for all of us.