In Praise of Working Mothers Under COVID

A Working Father’s Confession

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In Praise of Working Mothers Under COVID
The Zen of Zoom/ Getty images/ Newlines

I heard the martini glass shatter upon impact with the wall, then a high-octave scream a younger Kate Bush might have envied. My wife’s face, a rictus of fury and exasperation, told me not to interfere with or even inquire about the inevitable march upstairs where, I was certain, the next sound I’d hear would be that of a door slamming, loudly. I was right.

Julia, our 5-year-old, had finally broken her mother, and broken her to the point, once unimaginable in our household, of wasting a perfectly good cocktail. What had done it? Poorly timed verbal abuse, the kind to which we’d grown so accustomed after several months of lockdown with a tiny mood tyrant? (Hearing “I don’t love you,” had become our new normal whenever YouTube Kids had to be turned off or a ration of Goldfish crackers denied.) Or perhaps it was another bout of animal cruelty visited upon our long-suffering and surprisingly pacifist Labrador?

No, this time it was first-degree assault: Julia had struck the person who bore her, repeatedly, and despite warnings to cease and desist after her mother had just clocked out of a particularly demanding work day at a job she’d only just started weeks earlier, at the height of social distancing. Amy, a director of human resources, hadn’t even physically met any of the humans for whom she was meant to be resourceful. Nor had she found any time to herself between the transition from onboarding corporate executive at a startup to mother and wife, save perhaps for the making of that 6 o’clock drink, now a sodden and smashed projectile on the living room floor.

We picked up the broken glass, and then we picked up the conversation on a subsequent date night. I felt bad for my wife and wanted to make light of her unexpected Gloria Swanson turn as a bit of necessary catharsis. That was my first mistake. My second was realizing I didn’t feel bad enough because I didn’t know the half of it.

I’m a journalist, a scriptwriter, and now hopelessly distracted second-book author, doing what I thought was my part as a working father. Had my Zoom calls not been interrupted just as many times by impromptu Frozen II musical revues? Was I not doing my fair share of bed-and-bath routines, homeschooling (such as that went), grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning, and taking up the rest of the domestic responsibilities? Divvy up the time apportioned to parenting and housekeeping, I argued, and the split was, more or less, even. Where was I failing my partner and why, all of a sudden, were we decidedly not all in this together?

“You don’t understand,” Amy said. “It’s so much harder for women.”

She came bearing stats. According to a recent Women in the Workplace study, conducted by McKinsey and Lean In, women in senior positions are disproportionately more put-upon than their male counterparts. They are about 10 percentage points higher in feeling “pressured to work more,” “exhausted,” and “burned out.” COVID has been dire for gender equality trends, too, the study found, with “as many as two million women … considering taking a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether,” the first time since Women in the Workplace got underway six years ago that more women than men were considering voluntarily exiting the labor market or reducing their role in it.

Numbers only tell part of the story. The psychological effects of the pandemic on working women are equally devastating. On average, they feel far more judged in their professional lives, particularly if they’re mothers struggling to divide daylight hours between earning a living and taking care of their children. Mistakes, they sense, are more criticized and achievements less praised than they would be if they were men. Working mothers are also more reluctant to share their “work-life challenges” with colleagues or superiors for fear of coming across as needy or insecure or worse: incompetent.

As Amy put it, “When Julia disrupts my meetings, it’s cute the first time, maybe the second. But after a while I sense everyone can’t understand why I can’t keep my fucking house in order and get to work. It’s always cute, though, when she Zoom-bombs Daddy’s meetings. No one gets frustrated. Everyone laughs.”

“You have no idea what it’s like to think you’re failing as both a mother and an employee. And to think that all the time.”

Not only was that true, but I rarely felt I had to over-explain being late for an editorial meeting or even missing one, much less did I feel guilty about doing so. It seemed a given that my colleagues understood that I was muddling through like everyone else and no schedule or deadline could be considered ironclad anymore. I’d make the work up later. Moreover, I thought I was doing a reasonably good job as a father, all things considered, which is why I painfully ceded the point when Amy added the following: “You have no idea what it’s like to think you’re failing as both a mother and an employee. And to think that all the time.”

The false consciousness of domesticity now began to lift, and I set out to find if other working heterosexual couples with small children experienced the same disparity in comparative suffering. I also wanted to know if working fathers really appreciated, or were even aware of, what their working spouses were experiencing. I solicited my own demographic on Twitter. Within hours my inbox was full.

Daniella Blinder is a Spanish-language linguist who starts working at 4 p.m. and doesn’t stop until midnight. She and her husband Daniel, an IT specialist who tests software for the National Archives, live in Fairfax, Virginia, with their 6-year-old, Jeremy. “I thought about dropping out of work during the first week of online schooling,” Daniella told me on a Zoom call with Daniel. “It was just so overwhelming and frustrating. My son was very needy that I felt like I had to be there with him, by his side and that I couldn’t move.”

Exhibit A in the defense’s case was Jeremy, who zipped in and out of our interview over the course of an hour, typically to interrupt Daniella’s train of thought and demand her attention even though Daniel was right next to her.

It’s usually like that in the Blinder family, as it is in mine: A task Daddy could easily shoulder becomes Mommy’s marching orders or else a tantrum ensues.

Daniel takes the early morning shift with Jeremy, which ends at 8. Then Daniella is on duty, monitoring the computer classroom activity and tending to the kid’s other needs until 3:30, when she gets ready for work. “Since lockdown started,” she said, “Jeremy has sort of regressed. He’s been having pee accidents and talking like a baby.”

Daniella’s shifts, as mentioned, carry on late into the night four days a week, including Saturdays (she’s off Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays). So on those working days, apart from eating and sleeping, what times does Daniella get to and for herself or to spend with Daniel? “Practically none,” she said. They haven’t been out together as a couple in months.

Nor has her employer been especially accommodating, perhaps because none of her bosses could relate to her circumstances. “I have three supervisors, very young,” she said. “None has children, only one is married. At first, they said they’d be flexible. ‘Take time off if you need to.’ I did, mostly for safety reasons. Then, when online school started for Jeremy, I skipped work and I didn’t even realize it — four times in one month and my job called me out. If I do it again, they said, they’re gonna write me up and take me off the schedule. My boss told me to talk to HR, but I had a feeling that HR’s answer was: ‘We don’t care what’s going on with your life.’”

What’s going on involves caring for and supporting Daniella’s 68-year-old father, who has diabetes and kidney disease and lives in the same house where, owing to his poor health, he can’t help out much with Jeremy. “We’re supporting my dad, too.”

Daniel has had more latitude in his job, and a more generous leave regimen. Both he and Daniella agreed he’s been supportive and accommodating but for the odd man-cave sessions when he’ll disappear into the basement “for a couple of hours” to exercise, assuming all is humming along smoothly upstairs as if through inertia or divine intervention. (Periodic daddy occultation was also a complaint in my home.)

“I’m not going to say I don’t like being a mom. But I like depending on myself, having my own money and salary,” Daniella said.

“So what are you going to do?” I asked.

“I’m going to try to keep up with being at home with my son and supporting him at school and going to work. But if I feel like it’s too much, I’m going to have to give up work. My son is more important right now.”

Tyler Thompson remembered the time African rebels burst out laughing on his computer screen as his 2-year-old son Jet followed him down the stairs. He works for the United States Institute of Peace, which means he talks to all manner of foreigners on a daily basis; these marveled at the presence of the “little man Zoom bombing” the American conflict resolution expert. Tyler’s employer, a federal government institution, has been “very forgiving” under COVID strictures, he told me. “Because I’m a guy, even more forgiving.”

His wife Kim had worked in the service industry but left her job in February, a month before lockdown, to open her own hair salon in Alexandria, Virginia, about a half hour’s drive from their home in Washington, D.C. The salon stayed open for 30 days before lockdown started, Jet was pulled out of daycare, and another unforeseen development hit the Thompson household: Kim found out she was pregnant. Even though her salon reopened in June, she took her time returning for safety reasons and now works part-time until the baby is born and she has to pause her professional life yet again for maternity leave. Kim used to be the breadwinner in the marriage, but no longer. “This is the first time in our relationship that I’m dependent on my husband,” Kim said.

Nor did it take much prompting to get her to tally Tyler’s spousal shortcomings, all of which he acknowledged in good humor. The grand jury indictment had truly been unsealed about halfway through the interview and suddenly I found myself occupying a perilous space between reporter and witness for the prosecution.

“Being home forces me to do everything when it comes to family chores,” Kim said. “I’m also more proactive when it comes to those things. If I want something done, I have to physically say it to Tyler. He is the messiest person I’ve ever met.”

“What else does he do to annoy you?” I pressed on.

“He’ll take a nap when he says he’s working. Oh, and then he’ll come out with stuff like: ‘I’d really love to learn bass.’ I’m like, ‘When the fuck do you think you have time to learn how to play guitar?’”

Jet usually wakes up at 7, and Tyler takes care of him until around 9, preparing his breakfast, then taking him on a bike ride. Kim comes downstairs at that hour and Tyler retreats to his Fortress of Solitude in the basement to start his work day. On days Kim goes into the salon, Tyler will switch off at 2 and spend time with Jet until she comes home, or he’ll put Jet to bed if Kim is working late. It sounds like a well-timed relay race, except that it isn’t.

“I wake up and before I’m Kim, I’m Jet’s mom,” Kim said. “When Jet takes a nap at noon, that’s my time to get ready for work. And guess what? There is no transition. Fifty percent of the day I’m a mother, 50 percent of the day I’m a colorist. If I’m failing at both, that’s a bad day.”

While Tyler enjoys the sunnier side of parenting, Kim, like most mothers, is her toddler’s emotional lightning rod. “I feel like I’m competing with Tyler to be a fun parent, but I can’t keep up. And Jet always tests his boundaries with me. All he does is punch and smack me. Half the time I think we gave birth to Ted Bundy.” (The Thompson residence has so far been mercifully spared of airborne libations.)

One of the hardest revelations for Kim, she said, was discovering that other women don’t necessarily show much solidarity with her, particularly if they don’t have children. Some of her clients stayed loyal to her throughout her nascent business’s closure and partial reopening. Others did not. “Women supposedly supportive of women — they’ll just fire you if you’re not available for one appointment.”

Kim’s business is still alive, fortunately, thanks to a dedicated and flexible staff and — here I’ll file a rare amicus brief on behalf of the defendant — Tyler’s disheveled assistance. But she’s further away from fully embracing her entrepreneurship than she thought she’d be eight months ago owing to plague, pregnancy, and politics.

She and Tyler aren’t the greatest admirers of the incumbent president. As capital residents, they’ve seen up close how certain dispensations they once took for granted, ones which directly affect their lives and livelihoods, have been threatened or rescinded in the last four years. They fear what a post-November American landscape will look like, especially after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

“When RBG died, I had an emotional relapse,” Kim said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to be a working mother, after all. I’m going to have to choose.’”

“When RBG died, I had an emotional relapse,” Kim said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to be a working mother, after all. I’m going to have to choose.’”

The relapse was short-lived. “I’m not going to be the mom that stays at home.”

Adam Van Dyk wakes up at around 5 a.m. for his morning workout — no stealth man-cave retreats for him. An hour later, his wife Kristen dresses their two children Will, 9, and Luke, 7, prepares their lunches, helps them with their homework, and feeds them breakfast. Adam then drives Will to a “pod school” at 7:45, comes back home, then chauffeurs Luke to Catholic school at 8:30, which is within a 15-minute window for Kristen, who’s in sales and recruiting, to log on for the first of what will be many meetings of the day. At 3:30, Kristen picks up Luke and balances tending to him and finishing the workday, before she can set her sole focus on helping her youngest with his homework. Adam picks up Will from school and takes care of him until dinner. Both boys go to bed at 8. Sometimes Adam, in-house counsel for a small company, has to work well beyond that hour before getting whatever sleep he can and starting the whole cycle over again the next day.

I’ve known Adam and Kristen for more than 11 years; in fact, I first met them at their wedding in Chicago (where they still live), after about five months of dating Amy, who went to college with Kristen and later shared an apartment, post-graduation, with her. I’ve seen their boys grow up in real time, too, and I’ve stumbled past Amy’s virtual happy hours with Kristen and her other college girlfriends. These are often interspersed with adolescent caterwauls, what sound like strange gurgling or even mild strangulation noises, and the admonition, usually shouted by Kristen, “Don’t have another child!” directed at my wife.

“I feel like I have more time with the kids now than before, and yes, I’ve always struggled with mommy guilt,” Kristen said. “COVID actually gave me more of a work-life balance than before. Now I’m always with them all the time.”

She took a 50 percent pay cut at her job, even though she’s been hitting the same benchmarks as before. But the substantive difference is that now she doesn’t worry about the “optics” of being a working mother; feeling professionally deficient or remiss for having to step out of the office to make a pediatrician’s appointment. There are 10 salespeople on her team, only two of them with kids, and only one with two. No one gives her side-eye because they don’t share the same real estate anymore and what Kristen does with her time is her own affair. Uncharacteristically for my informal study, as a working mother, she has become fully autonomous in a remote setting, which somewhat makes up for the pay cut and the exhaustion and anxiety of straddling motherhood and work.

It wasn’t always so, however. In the earlier phase of the pandemic, without the respite of a quiet house, there were two-bottle evenings curled up on the floor, crying. “In the spring or summer, I thought of quitting my job if the kids didn’t go back to school,” Kristen said. Will and Luke played video games all day, and got ice cream for breakfast sometimes, and you know what? That was just how it had to go.”

For Adam, the only way current conditions maintain is if he ceases to be Adam throughout the workweek. He doesn’t touch a drop of alcohol from Monday to Thursday and his schedule is regimented and structured. The crack-of-dawn gym routine seems as much a part of this self-disciplining as it is a conscious desire to stay fit.

As a result, Kristen said, her husband can be “very moody” and difficult to be around at times. But it’s the only way he can function as an attorney on call all hours and a caregiver and equal partner. “By Friday,” she said, “he grabs a beer and Adam returns.”

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