Frantic, Fed Up or Fired: A Sobering Look at Covid-19’s Effect on Wilton’s Working Mothers

Let’s stipulate to one fact: everyone has faced extraordinary challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. It has forced changes and created difficulties in most aspects of daily life for the young and old, male and female, student and retired, employed and not employed outside the home. No one has been immune, either to the virus itself or its many negative impacts.

But mounting evidence shows that mothers working outside the home have taken the brunt of the economic and emotional toll.

A recent article in The New York Times, for example, painted a grim portrait of the pandemic’s impact on working women, and working mothers in particular, not just in terms of impeding their career advances but potentially reversing some of the progress working women have made over the years.

Across the country, women are suffering most of the job losses during the pandemic. New unemployment claims in Connecticut also prove this to be the case. In the three month period between March 8 and June 8 (the peak of the economic impact of the coronavirus), 56% of new unemployment claims in our state were made by women. (A breakdown of Wilton’s newly unemployed residents by gender was not available for analysis.)

While The New York Times analysis took a macro-level view, GOOD Morning Wilton sought to explore the issues on a qualitative level among Wilton’s working mothers. We invited discussion and conducted interviews with members and leaders of the Working Moms of Wilton Facebook group and others in the business community with insights on these topics.

Their stories reveal the complexities of personal, professional, economic and cultural forces at play in these unusual times. To protect their privacy, their identities have been kept anonymous.

The Great Disruptor:  Childcare

Connecticut childcare programs have been allowed to be open during the pandemic, but many have been unable to remain open. This is despite the “CTCARES for Family Child Care” initiative launched by the state in mid-May to provide support to licensed family childcare providers during the COVID-19 crisis, including grants to help with operational expenses.

Essential workers had the most urgent need for childcare when the pandemic first hit. “Since the start, our state has viewed access to child care as a top priority for health care workers and other frontline workers,” Governor Ned Lamont said in a statement at the time of the CTCARES program launch.

For non-essential workers, the federal COVID-19 relief package included the emergency expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA, or EFMLA) which provided paid leave for employees unable to work due to closure of schools and child-care facilities. The law applied to all employers with under 500 employees (though those with under 50 employees were exempt) and offered the employee 12 weeks of leave, most of it paid at two-thirds of their usual rate (capped at $10,000). If not ideal, this was a lifeline for some Wilton moms, including a marketing manager at a New York engineering firm, who could no longer send her 4- and 8-year-old children to daycare. “Luckily my company offered [EFMLA] so I can make it work.”

But despite the good intentions, the reality is “the current childcare supply is down 85%” versus pre-pandemic levels, a shocking statistic cited by Wilton First Selectwoman Lynn Vanderslice in her June 10 coronavirus update to town residents. (Vanderslice attributed the statement to Beth Bye, Connecticut’s Commissioner of Early Childhood Services.)

Mainly because of the widespread lack of childcare, there is general agreement that mothers of young children (those too young to be unsupervised) have faced the most daunting challenges during the pandemic. One such mother, who works in accounting, has two children under the age of four and previously relied on a daycare center while she worked. “Both my husband and I work for Fortune 50 companies. The adjustment to [work-from-home] has been quite the challenge being that the expectation of job performance hasn’t changed,“ she said. “How are two [full-time] working parents supposed to squeeze in 16 hours of work in a 24 hour day while taking care of the kids?”

Though she had the option to continue sending her children to the daycare center, she struggled with safety concerns; one child has asthma, the other is just a few months old. She decided to keep her children at home, but learned she would have to continue paying the usual fees to the daycare center (one of the few that remained open) in order to “hold their spot”.

Other childcare supports have disappeared, too. Many working moms in Wilton said normally they rely on their own parent/in-law or other family members to care for their children, or they hire outside childcare workers to come to their homes. With COVID-19, those childcare arrangements were no longer an option. While GMW found a few cases of working moms with live-in/au-pair help, the vast majority were frantically scrambling to juggle their children’s needs with their workday responsibilities, without help.

And during the pandemic, most of these young children needed more than supervision: they needed to be schooled.

The Curve Ball:  Remote Learning

As if shifting to a work-from-home environment was not challenging enough–carving out a suitable workspace, equipping it, learning new meeting platforms and security measures, adjusting to new work processes and procedures–parents of school-aged children suddenly needed to learn distance learning platforms and even curriculum in a way no one could have prepared for.

“[With the distance learning model] there is an assumption that an adult is there to provide oversight and participate in the learning,” said one working mom. Women recounted frequent situations where they needed to step in to assist their child or supervise learning “above and beyond” what is typically required during the school day. (One example was a lesson that needed to be done outside, with a child that was too young to go outside unsupervised.)

And while young children required more “hands-on” involvement from parents in distance learning, older kids posed their own set of challenges. As one mother said, “I had to keep checking, is he actually in class, or on X-Box?” with similar points made by several other mothers about the need to continuously follow up to be sure their children were meeting distance program expectations.

Always “On”

Even those who had a relatively smooth adjustment to working from home (such as consultants who already had a home office setup and were accustomed to remote team meetings) were struck by the suddenly blurred lines between work time and family time. “It’s not like you leave the office [and go home]. There’s no division between the end of the day and your workday,” said a corporate risk consultant. “Having a dedicated workspace [in the house], a real office, definitely helps,” even mentally, to maintain some separation between being “on” and “off”.

While still in the throes of heightened demands both at home and work, some of Wilton’s working moms simply can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

One woman, a marketing executive, reported her assistant was laid off, her pay was cut and her job responsibilities increased, all while her children’s needs were also growing. “None of that is going away any time soon,” she said. “This just isn’t sustainable. I’m ‘on’ all the time. I’m always working and always parenting.”

Echoing her concern about sustaining the pace, another mom, who works in a hedge fund’s back-office operations, said, “I had to take on more work since we had to downsize at work. [That] means I’ll probably need to sacrifice more home time, and that can only go so far before I need to make a decision [about] what’s more important.” She added it “has been tough all around” including for her rising kindergartener and 3rd grader.

For young children like that, it has been a confusing adjustment. One mother put it, “The mom used to go to work. When she was home, it meant she was available [to the child]. Young kids don’t necessarily understand that now, mom is home, but not free.”

As a result, “the interruptions are constant,” said one mother. To avoid interruptions, many women described a bookend workday:  working extremely early in the day and extremely late at night in order to have enough focus to “actually accomplish something”. For example, one woman starts her workday at 5:00 a.m. to get some work done before her children’s needs begin. “I can get quick tasks done here and there [during the day] but then serious work has to wait again until after [kids’] bedtime.”

One mom described the dilemma of wanting to “catch up” by working on the weekends, but being reluctant to send emails because co-workers might then reply, or bosses would take it as a signal that weekend work was fair game.

Beyond just the tremendous workload, the uncertainty about schools and businesses reopening is the big unknown variable that keeps these mothers up at night. “I just don’t know how long this will be going on for,” said a Wilton hedge fund lawyer and mother of two school-age kids.

That uncertainty makes it nearly impossible to plan for future childcare. Several women cited poor communication from their employers, having “no idea” when they might be summoned back to the office and bracing for the possibility there may be no advance warning. That creates significant anxiety for these working moms.

Those who had long commutes before WFH may be the very few who see a net gain. One mom, who works in financial services, was accustomed to very long workdays, factoring in a nearly 2-hour commute each way to and from lower Manhattan. “With the quarantine, I am still ‘on’ all the time, but the commute time is replaced with kid time. I [make] breakfast with them. I help with the violin. I help with the work. So it is constant work but [I am] thankful for the time with the kids.” She also noted, “It’s actually a more intense workday without the downtime of the commute.”

Gender Roles

Most (though not all) of the women interviewed for this article talked about shared responsibilities and mutual support of their husbands/partners. One said, “The saving grace in all this has been my husband. We’ve been able to lean on each other and be each other’s supports. We have a schedule that works for us” referring to their tag-team approach to childcare. She says they arrived at that schedule not because of gender roles, but their own preferences (she is “a morning person”) and job requirements (“he is in sales and needs to be available during certain hours”).

But in households where working fathers are present, statistics show working mothers still take on more of the household-related duties, were more likely to take the lead on their children’s distance learning, and are providing more of the childcare during the pandemic. They even get less sleep than their male partners.

Many Wilton women described those dynamics in their own households but tended to see them as broader cultural norms rather than an indictment of individual men. “Do we as women take this on ourselves?” mused one woman. She described mothers as usually being “the default parent,” the one children go to first when they need something, have a question, etc. even if both parents are available and both are capable of providing the solution.

Another mom observed, “The mental load is definitely on the moms. Working or not working, the moms are taking care of things, noticing everything. We are the worriers, the planners.”

Letting Go and Accepting Imperfection

In an effort to get through the workload and keep their sanity, a few women told GMW they are taking a cue from the “Let Grow” program that was introduced at Wilton’s elementary schools. It’s a timely mantra for working moms to encourage their kids to be more independent. One mother said, “It’s going to be a ‘let grow’ summer!” while another said, “It’s true, [the kids] can figure out what to do without us sometimes.”

A Wilton mother tries to preempt interruptions by her children as she works from home during the pandemic

But accepting some imperfection also seems to be par for the course; some ideals have been let go (always serving healthy foods, limiting device time). As one working mom said, “I don’t like to admit it, but I’m okay with TV and electronics. I have no choice sometimes.”

Sadly, many working moms are experiencing strong feelings of failure, guilt, or the belief they are neglecting their children’s needs during the pandemic. As one said, “My husband and I often say ‘what got missed?’ Every day, what got missed? Either because we totally forgot something, or couldn’t get to it, or something had to give. Today I missed my kid’s last Zoom meeting for school.”

Career Progression

Whether due to an unexpected job loss or shifting priorities during the pandemic, many working moms are suddenly evaluating their prospects for a new job.

Kathryn Sollmann is career coach, founder of 9 Lives For Women, LLC, based in Wilton, and the author of Ambition Redefined:  Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead.

Based on a national survey she recently commissioned, Sollmann says the vast majority of working women are still committed to their careers despite the havoc wrought by COVID-19. GMW’s interviews support that finding. Very few of them want to, or have the financial freedom to, just walk away from employment. Many consider their working status an important part of their personal identity.

The issue, Sollmann believes, is less about women wanting to leave the workforce and more about their desire to find a role where they can continue to grow professionally while also managing the other demands in their lives.

Sollmann sees some distinction between women forced into the job market due to a layoff (or a change in their partner’s job status) and those who would elect to make a change for lifestyle reasons. “A job search is a big undertaking,” she said.

Along those lines, one of Wilton’s working moms admitted, “[I thought about a change but] I don’t think I could have taken on a new job during COVID-19” because of the “emotional and time drain” of family responsibilities.

Drawing analogies to previous economic downturns, Sollmann acknowledged, “It is chaotic out there right now, but it will get better” and cautioned women against the temptation to take a hiatus from their job, especially if they were generally happy with it pre-COVID-19. “A lot of women will tell themselves they’ll stop working just for a short while. Many will say, ‘I’ll leave until this COVID thing settles down’. But inevitably, that becomes a long time. There’s always a reason not to go back: a child is having issues, a parent needs help, etc. It’s endless. On average, twelve years go by.”

Even for a short hiatus, the opportunity cost is tremendous and is almost always underestimated at the time women make the decision to leave the workplace. They not only give up their current salary, but the added value of benefits, 401(k)’s or other savings, and increased earning potential. Compounded over time, all of that adds up to many multiples of their current income.

Still, a forced hiatus can have silver linings. One of Wilton’s working moms, employed full time in construction project management before being furloughed for several weeks during COVID-19 and ultimately fired, views it as “sort of a gift”. She sees some upside in being more available to her children this summer. Pre-COVID-19, she would typically catch a 6:45 a.m. train and return 13 hours later, missing many of her children’s events/activities or often relying on her husband’s more flexible schedule and shorter commute. As youth sports and activities resume, she appreciates being able to drive her rising 7th- and 9th-grade children herself and participate more fully than she could before. She added, “And the COVID part was also easier to deal with because I was at home and not working.”

Though she wants to continue working and is taking steps to find new employment, unemployment compensation is reducing her sense of urgency, as is the lingering uncertainty about the virus. “If I find another job, what if it all happens again?” she wondered, given the potential for the virus to return again in the fall or next winter.

The Flex Trend 

Not everyone had the option to work from home during the pandemic. One such woman works at a veterinary practice, which remained open during the pandemic as an essential business. When she expressed discomfort with what she considered “inadequate safety precautions” in the workplace, she was given the option by her employer to stay home for several weeks, but eventually felt pressured to return, despite communicating her lack of available childcare for her 2-year-old son.

“I didn’t really have a choice,” she said, but to accept a revised role and lower pay. “I have to keep a roof over my head.”

Non-essential employers, on the other hand, were forced to accept work-from-home arrangements for their employees. Sollmann observed, “Before the pandemic, flexibility was being embraced [by employers], but little by little. But in a very short time, there’s been tremendous progress.”

Among Wilton’s working moms there is widespread hope and belief that employers will continue to be flexible as a “new normal” even after the pandemic.

However, several of the women were deeply skeptical that their employers would retain any flexible work arrangements when offices re-open. “[Where I work], working from home was really frowned upon before. I hope [the pandemic] will shift things here but I don’t necessarily think it will,” said one woman.

Another described WFH as “a totally taboo subject” and even in the pandemic feels pressure to be 100% available for meetings and phone calls, lest the company think she is slacking off.

But Sollmann is more optimistic that the return-to-work will have greater flexibility built in, even those companies that may not have embraced it before. She sees the pandemic serving as a grand experiment for employers to test WFH results. “[WFH] has been a huge Petri dish during this COVID period in terms of [employers figuring out] what works, what doesn’t work, in this telecommuting space. Right now, they are re-thinking their entire workforce models,” said Sollmann.

She predicted, “Not every single company will say everyone can work from home now. But in the near term, very few companies will just flip the switch and bring everyone back. It will take a long time for employers to get everyone back safely.”

A case in point:  one of Wilton’s commuting moms said, “[My employer] doesn’t expect me to come back to the city any time soon. In fact, I may never go back [to the office]. And that in effect will give me a [significant] raise with not having to pay for train/parking.”

Sollmann points out that flexible work arrangements and gig jobs were trending even before COVID-19. But she believes many women are hindered by an outdated perception that a flexible job is a rare thing to find. ”It used to be more black and white. [If you wanted a career] you did the commute to the corporate job. But today, there are so many ways they can work flexibly.”

Too often, Sollmann says, her clients make assumptions that their employer is not open to flexible arrangements, or they stop pursuing it after a simple inquiry. “They need to make a proactive pitch to make the case. Talk about all the details, how it will work… a real proposal, from a position of strength.”

Sollmann believes now is the perfect time for women to make the case. “Now, after COVID, you can make that pitch [compelling], because you have real data about how it has worked.”

An individual may not have to make the case alone. Pre-COVID, flex-work arrangements were often made “under the radar” on a case-by-case basis, but now, “Entire teams are doing it,” says Sollmann.

Whether a working mom is asking for more flexibility at her current job or changing jobs to something more flexible, Sollman believes now is the time. “There are opportunities for good, talented people in every market. There’s never been a better time to be a professional working mom because there are so many flexible opportunities… COVID or not,” she said.

Echoing that point is Kenyetta Banks, a program manager for the Women’s Business Development Council (WBDC), a Connecticut non-profit that provides business advice, networking, virtual classes and other resources to female entrepreneurs and business owners. (Multiple Wilton residents are involved with the organization.) Banks is elated by what she has seen in the last 3-4 weeks, describing a noticeable shift in inquiries to the WBDC. “We’ve had about 15 new calls from women wanting to start a business,“ she said, and judged that number to be fairly high compared to a typical, pre-COVID month.

“This is the best time to start up,” she said. “There are tons of resources right now. Free online classes, on every subject. You can learn Quickbooks [for example]. There is so much available and all free. You can get help and develop a great business plan, the best marketing plan… you might be scared [to launch right now] but you can take this time to make a great plan.”

Banks compared those recent inquiries to the early days of the pandemic when she was getting dozens of calls a day from members overwhelmed with the chaos. “It seemed like everything was falling apart. It didn’t matter where the client came from, demographically. Every woman with children was in the same boat:  worried about childcare, and trying to figure everything out, unemployment, small business loans, [etc].”

But through the networking and support of the WBDC community, many of the members “figured out how to pivot,” said Banks, citing an example of a woman who owned a pizza truck, who devised a way to package pizza-making kits to sell to consumers at home.

Perhaps a corollary to the flex trend, Banks also noted the coronavirus impact on something she called “Plan B”. “[The pandemic] is forcing women to have a backup plan. ‘I used to cut hair, I opened a salon, but now I can’t cut hair, so what can I do?’ They’re asking themselves ‘what if I can’t do that’ or they want to find a way to supplement their income. They’re thinking about a Plan B and a Plan C in a way they didn’t do before.”

Author’s Note:

In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly advancing change, like forcing employers to accept work-from-home alternatives, while in other ways, it feels like we’re treading water and stuck in a wait-and-see mode. Both can be unsettling.

At least one of the descriptors headlining this article (“frantic”, “fed up” or “fired”) applies to virtually all of the working mothers interviewed for this article, but “finished” does not. Far from being defeated by the challenges of the coronavirus, these women were focused on the necessity to just keep going, albeit with frequent feelings of desperation and agonizing uncertainty about the next several months.

The conflict of work/family balance is nothing new for working moms, but the intensity and urgency of the challenges presented by COVID-19 have just been ratcheted up to a distressing all-new high.

To assist and encourage Wilton’s working moms though this marathon run, we’ve compiled a list of resources below. We welcome our readers to add to this list other helpful resources they have found.

Resources:

Kathryn Sollman
In response to the pandemic, Sollman is offering a six-week online course to aid women in their job search or thinking about their career path; the course is titled “Crisis or Not: How to ALWAYS Find the Work that Fits Your Life”

Department of Children and Families
As part of the Connecticut’s COVID-19 response, the Department of Children and Families is providing helpful resources on its website, including information on childcare (including subsidies many essential workers don’t realize they qualify for), provider referrals, and other resources.

Talk It Out CT
The state has also created a helpline for parents and caregivers struggling with stress and anxiety related to childcare during COVID-19. “When it builds up, talk it out,” urges the Talk It Out homepage. The Talk It Out phone line is 833.258.5011.

Women’s Business Development Council
The WBDC offers guidance, networking, virtual classes, and myriad resources to female entrepreneurs and business owners, with additional resources in response to the pandemic.

Working Moms of Wilton
The Working Moms of Wilton Facebook group offers advice, support, and camaraderie for any working mom who is a Wilton resident. This active group has over 1,000 members, a serious purpose, and a distinct sense of humor.

CT.GOV
The state’s official COVID-19 response website offers extensive information for both workers and employees, including FAQ’s on employment matters, guidance on return to work for high-risk individuals, job search and training, and other timely information.

CT Department of Labor
Workers and employers can consult the Department of Labor’s Shared Work program as an alternative to COVID-related layoffs. The program allows employers to reduce employees’ work schedules by 10 to 60 percent during business slowdowns like the COVID-19 crisis, while supplementing workers with unemployment benefits for the reduction in work.

EEOC and CHRO
If you think discrimination was a factor in any change in your employment status, seek workplace accommodation, or have concerns about a wrongful termination during COVID-19, you can consult the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission or the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

 

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