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The Struggles of the Working Mom in 2021

the impacts of COVID will be felt for years to come

Becky Fette watches wistfully from a metal park bench as her boys play on their neighborhood jungle gym just outside north Fort Worth. It’s a chilly December evening, right before sunset, and the single mother appears pensive. She’s a working mom. She’s spent the last nine months carefully balancing her job as a cardiovascular sonographer with the schoolwork of her sons Covy, 9, and Gunnar, 7, and she sounds tired as she answers my questions.

“Was I able to be a good teacher, employee and mom to my kids at the same time? No way,” says Fette, reflecting back to when schools first closed. “I am in no way qualified to be a teacher, much less a dyslexia teacher,” she says, referring to the learning difference experienced by one of her sons.

New to the North Texas area and recently divorced, Fette was forced to take 12 weeks off from her job during the initial outbreak of COVID-19 back in March to homeschool her children.

Her employer kept her on payroll, with two-thirds of her pay, under the Emergency Family Medical Leave Act (EFMLA) during this time. “They gave me the option to go on unemployment and get the extra $600 per week—some of my friends actually did this and were making more than me—but I wanted to make sure that my job was secure and chose the EFMLA route.”

School closures were the first of many obstacles to come that families all over the world encountered as the number of COVID cases grew. And as unemployment rates continued to rise to numbers similar to the ones the United States saw during the infamous 2009 recession, an obvious gender imbalance was thrust into the public eye.

This imbalance, where women were dropping out of the workforce (or seriously considering it) at a more rapid and consistent rate than men, led to the coining of a new phrase: the 2020 “she-session.”

A chart provided by economic consultant Thomas Roney out of Dallas shows data gathered from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dallas Federal Reserve and Texas Workforce Commission. It demonstrates how men and women in the workforce have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

In the three years leading up to COVID-related job loss, the unemployment rate of Texan men and women stayed pretty similar, with men at 3.8% unemployment and women at 4%. Based on the current data, men in Texas are currently sitting at an unemployment rate of 6.6%, while the women have jumped up to 7.3%, which is still pretty close.

So while Texan women may be faring “OK,” the nation as a whole can’t say the same.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the number of women in the workforce from October 2019 compared to October 2020, revealing a startling fact: 2.2 million fewer working women in just one year.

Could it be that the jobs women typically hold were the first to go?

“There are certain areas like teaching and hospitality that have a high proportion of female employees, and those positions have been extremely hard hit,” says Roney. “The problem is, if you’re a waitress and you lose your job, no other restaurants are hiring right now. It almost demands a career change, which is always difficult but even more so right now.”

Fette is just one of many mothers who struggled to manage the situation created by the pandemic.

Vanessa Bailey, owner of Farmgirl Gardens & Market in Collin County, had to significantly modify her business model in order to stay afloat. “Everything plummeted in the spring,” says the mom of three, who specializes in edible garden coaching and permaculture homestead consulting. “Then I went from an on-site, boots-on-the-ground model to exclusively virtual. Instead of clients 15 or 20 miles from my house, I’m now on the phone with someone while they stand in their yard using Google satellite maps to help them virtually. I started seed sales because so many places were closed, and I had to create content that didn’t exist before to make up for the lack of physical interaction. The changes definitely took some getting used to.”

Kristi Kelly works as a proposal and document manager at a civil construction company in Fort Worth, and says that overall, her company has been as accommodating as possible regarding her obligations as her family’s caregiver and as one of their vital employees.

Still, it doesn’t take away her insecurities of how she may be perceived by her coworkers (predominately male) when she has to miss work.

“My company has been pretty great about letting me work from home,” says Kelly. “They’ve been extremely understanding, but it makes me feel incredibly guilty because I hate missing work. I don’t feel like a part of the team. It’s harder to communicate with my coworkers. It’s very hard for me to do my job.”

Women are Balancing Traditional Roles with Work

The struggles that working women are experiencing compared to their male counterparts appear to boil down to good ol’ traditional gender roles.

Kelly said that there was never a question of whether Mom or Dad would stay home while schools were closed. “Moms always get the shaft, you can put that,” she says with an exasperated laugh. Kelly, who had been exposed to COVID-19 through work, was home on quarantine with her 6-year-old son, Paxton, at the time of our Zoom interview.

“I think moms end up being put into this category where, even if we have a partner to help, it’s up to the women to stay home from work,” says Kelly. “It’s just expected of us, and it’s very frustrating.”

Bailey agrees. “I think the narrative for women has always been that we take on the extra load no matter what environment we are in,” she says. “When the world was on fire and we didn’t have answers, it was the women who stepped up to try and make things better, and we still had to have dinner on the table at 5pm.”

She also believes that this pandemic has exposed the contribution of women in our communities. “We don’t speak about it, but society expects so much more out of moms,” Bailey says, in reference to the cooking, cleaning and child-rearing duties that women typically assume. “This pandemic made sure that our hard work is no longer a societal secret. It’s out for everyone to see.”

Casey Osborn-Hinman, senior campaign director for the nonprofit MomsRising and a mother of two, says she knows from personal experience that there is a default expectation that moms are going to hold it all together and make everything OK.

“I think we’re actually really good at doing that, but the problem is that the people around us, including our leaders and decision-makers, don’t necessarily see the fallout,” she says. “Meanwhile, we are impossibly overwhelmed. We feel like we are failing our kids who are trying to learn remotely or are coming at us with 50 different requests a day that we have to say ‘no’ to—because we’re either working or trying to find work.”

She emphasizes that women in this situation are not alone—and that’s becoming increasingly apparent.

“The value of being open about that is we can see that this is not a series of individual crises,” says Osborn-Hinman. “This is a systemic problem. There’s a reason that so many moms are struggling with the same issues right now.”

Although school is not designed to be a babysitter, many working women depend on the time that their kids are in class to balance home with career. Sudden statewide school closures caused panic for many mothers in the workforce, who were faced with the decision to either pay for childcare that equaled over half their salary or to quit their jobs altogether.

And this is assuming that childcare could even be found; childcare centers were not allowed to operate from March through May, and upon reopening were set at 25% and later 50% maximum capacity. Women were placed on the spot overnight to “prioritize” either family or work—an unfair position from the start.

“Moms are being put in an impossible situation where every day they are having to figure out what they’re going to do with their kids while they are working, and COVID has been the straw that has broken the camel’s back,” notes Osborn-Hinman. “Childcare providers were already operating on poverty wages themselves. Now add to that decreased enrollment, since a number of families are keeping their children at home temporarily because of public health concerns. They’re taking in less tuition each month, and yet they’re having to pay more for required PPE and other safety and health measures to keep the smaller ratio of kids who are still going safe.”

Osborn-Hinman adds that meanwhile, parents are being stretched thinner than ever. People are losing their jobs, their homes or their unemployment benefits, but they are actively looking for work and have nowhere to put their children. “They can’t pay for childcare without a job, and they can’t have a job without childcare.”

So is there anything that working moms can do to secure our jobs and our pay while continuing to meet the needs of our families?

Education Can Help Workers Remain in Demand

Roney says that the key to staying relevant in your field is education. “The major factor in the level of earnings is education,” says the economic consultant, stating that the wage gap between someone with a GED and someone with a four-year degree can be a difference of up to 50%.

“Within the last 30 years, people without a four-year degree have barely been able to keep up with inflation as far as their earning capacity. In comparison, those with more education have seen their wages stay 1–2% above inflation,” says Roney, which he explains means that those with higher education aren’t only making more money, but their wages are also increasing at a faster rate.

“If a young woman with young children is trying to maximize how much money she can make over a lifetime, the best thing she can do is to seek an education,” he advises. “Match yourself up with what you like to do. Once you make that career decision, the more education you can get in that field, the more desirable you make yourself to prospective employers.”

While this is good advice, it’s not an immediate solution; education takes time to complete. It doesn’t guarantee you a spot in the workforce, either.

Let me give you a little of my own backstory: I recently graduated with my bachelor’s degree in communications and public relations from the University of Texas at Arlington. Before I knew just how debilitating this pandemic was going to get, I sent out my resume and cover letter to a few different PR firms scattered across Dallas-Fort Worth in anticipation of graduation. The responses that trickled into my inbox were all similar in tune: They couldn’t afford to bring in any new staff right now but had some unpaid internships available if I was interested.

Now, let the record show that I am not above an unpaid internship. Not to toot my own horn, but I do have a pretty impressive resume already, including internships.

However, it was impossible at this time for me to accept a position where experience was offered in lieu of pay, because of a pandemic-induced decline in business on my husband’s side of things. He owns and operates a barbecue business in Fort Worth, and the constantly changing state and local policies and restrictions caused our sales numbers to drop significantly. Like other restauranteurs, we adapted and began to run a to-go service. We are a small, family-run company, and this is our only source of income.

In the face of desperation, our restaurant quickly became my full-time job. It was the only place I could bring all four of our children (ranging from 4 months to 11 years old) to work with me—even though it was extremely difficult, since I was still the one responsible for them.

Even with my newly acquired degree in a completely different field, I felt obligated to take the job where I could contribute to our income and not have to deal with the stress of scrounging around for work and paying for childcare to do so. I feel extremely blessed to even have a job ready for me, but like many, I am unable to use my degree in this economic climate. And while I will never regret getting my bachelor’s, I have a feeling that it will be a while before I’ll be able to use it.

Concern about a Lack of Public Policy Supporting Working Moms

Osborn-Hinman believes that a lack of any real public policy has also hindered the working mother’s rights within the workplace. “From our vantage point, women are being forced out of the workforce because we don’t have a public policy infrastructure that supports the caregiving responsibilities of parents, and we all know that most of these responsibilities default to mothers,” she says.

“There are a number of policies that we’re noticing the absence of, mainly paid family medical leave. A national unpaid family leave policy is in place right now that is limited in terms of who is eligible, and while it’s important to have that policy in the books, what we really need is a paid program so that all workers can afford to take time off to be with their families when their families need them.”

Kelly sees confusion among businesses. “There’s just general direction for employers to follow,” says Kelly. “It seems like the details are really up to each individual company. I’m very thankful for my company’s response, but it still doesn’t change the fact that no one knows how to handle it. Some workplaces say that if you get exposed, you need to stay home until you can produce a negative test. Others, like my husband’s, say you have to work unless you can produce a positive test. I’ve heard even others say that if you have been exposed to someone that tested positive, you have to stay home for two weeks no matter if you get tested or not. It’s really just a free-for-all at this point.”

Roney also says the pandemic hasn’t sparked a policy that has provided major support for working women. “I haven’t heard any discussion of public policy regarding women in the workplace since COVID … State officials have been very quiet on that issue,” he says. “I consider myself a pretty well-informed person, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of debate on how to help people, especially from our federal government. I have a feeling that these stimulus bills will be ‘too little-too late’ in helping our economy, which affects both men and women but especially working mothers in this case.”

Texas Health and Human Services has issued several executive orders signed by Governor Greg Abbott, and those orders are regularly amended to stay current. They do provide protocol for missing and returning to work in the event of contracting COVID-19; however, there are several slightly unclear stipulations listed for employers.

Then there is the question everyone is asking: Are these orders legally mandated, or just strongly suggested? Alexis Craig, an associate attorney at Freeman Mills, a law practice with offices in Dallas and Fort Worth, says businesses need to take note. “Executive orders do have the same weight as a law or a statute and it is illegal to disobey them,” she says.

Make Your Voice Heard—Tell Lawmakers What You Think

I wish I could provide a “how to” section here with multiple resources to help working moms cope, but the truth is, I can’t. This is all too new.

While there are some statistics made available to us, there simply isn’t a wealth of data yet for us to analyze and fully understand to what degree our economy and families have been affected by COVID-19.

“I think that the impacts of the pandemic and the ‘she-session’ are going to be long lasting,” says Osborn-Hinman. “The impacts of COVID right now have been so devastating that it feels kind of insignificant to talk about earning potential and employment potential, but the truth is that at some point, our economy is going to hit a ‘new normal’—and women are not going to be situated in that new normal the way that they were in our old normal.”

Perhaps the best thing working women—and men—can do right now is to speak out to lawmakers. That’s a good way to not only educate yourself on what resources are made available to you, but also to advocate for what isn’t in place.

“There’s a lot of work to do, particularly at the state and local level, regarding paycheck fairness and job protection for working moms,” says Osborn-Hinman. “But if we don’t pressure our lawmakers to proactively put policies in place that promote equity and opportunity, then women are absolutely going to be behind when we get back into the workforce. Just because public health is thriving again doesn’t mean that women will be able to return to work. Our public policies need to rise to the occasion and set up that infrastructure now rather than later in order for women to return to the workforce.”

As difficult as it’s been for the moms out there navigating these unfamiliar waters, Fette reminds me that this isn’t only our burden to bear. She says that although she has encountered her fair share of struggles (and continues to do so), it infuriates her to hear that this is being referred to as the “she-session.”

“The elderly and immunocompromised people, the already mentally unstable who are suffering even more, the small business owners who have invested and then lost everything, the frontline workers who fear death everyday—I mean, the list could go on and on,” says Fette. “There is no need for any gender to claim it as its own. This is everyone’s pandemic.”


Rise Up & Get Connected

MomsRising is a resource for women across the country who want their voices and opinions to be heard by local, state and national leaders. The website momsrising.org creates a platform for concerned citizens to tackle civil and social issues by providing a straightforward way to contact those who make the decisions affecting you.

The organization—composed of women with a common goal to “hold corporations accountable for fair treatment of women and mothers”—works against injustices such as pay disparities between genders, expensive childcare and non-paid sick days for the working mom. The MomsRising site was named one of Forbes.com’s Top 100 Websites for Women four years in a row and appeared on the “Best of the Net” list in Working Mother magazine.

Workforce Solutions for North Central Texas assists those seeking a job, with services ranging from workforce training and educational workshops to child care and virtual career fairs. Get more information online at dfwjobs.com, and visit a workforce center to meet with a specialist who can help with career coaching, resume preparation and interview skills.

Image courtesy of iStock.