I was the editor of Working Mother, and I couldn’t hack motherhood at work
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I am haunted by the deep sigh of an accountant I asked about transitioning to part-time work last year. “Are you exhausted? ” I asked.
She paused before pushing out a shaky exhale that didn’t seem to come from her diaphragm, but from a more primitive place.
She went on to describe a weariness that pre-dates the pandemic. A marriage where her husband had gradually become the breadwinner while she took charge of managing the mental load of the family. A year that had made her question not only the value of her own work, but the value of work itself, when the world seemed to need more than just calculating. She needed a reboot. A chance to close completely.
Wouldn’t it be professional, I wondered, to tell him that by sharing his story, I was actually telling mine?
It had been a joke of mine for a long time in the cocktail age that my job as the editor of Working Mother was essentially a life hack. If I felt bad about my toddler’s morning meltdown, I would write an article about the benefits of high quality child care. If my husband and I were arguing about buying milk, I would write an article on the best apps to help you share the mental load with your spouse.
I was well aware that the tips and tricks I dispensed were just band-aids on a gaping wound in a country without paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, or affordable childcare. But barring the revolution that has yet to materialize, something must be enough for working moms.
Most of the time, plugging the dam worked, until it didn’t. Even before the pandemic – maybe when my son entered public school, or we had our second child, or my husband and I simultaneously slipped into the most demanding time of our careers – I could feel that my juggling number was coming to an end. Either the plates would crash or I would.
How do you get out of a choice between deep exhaustion or financial loss? For most working mothers without lively grandparents and game nearby, or an extremely accommodating manager, or the income of an army of helpers, these are the options. Those I know who “have it all” can claim most or all of these privileges (plus, if married, a partner who is not a deadweight at home).
For the rest of us, we sacrifice our time, health, and mental energy to tackle an endless list of work and family chores, telling ourselves that the half hour we spend scrolling Instagram before we drop. in a dreamless stupor is “self-care”. “Or, we pour all of our paychecks to daycares and summer camps and house cleaners and take out.
For years, I have written and edited articles on how mothers should keep working, even when child care costs more than their wages. Financially, that’s good advice, especially 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 as she not only loses her current salary but also her retirement savings, promotions, opportunities, and raises.
It turns out that it is not so easy to approach the question like a lucid economist.
When my son’s school turned hybrid in fall 2020 and we contributed to share a nanny with friends for his days away and after-school care, 80% of my take-home pay went to his babysitter. and at our daughter’s daycare. The articles I had written before did not reassure me. They made me angry. I was just as likely to receive a thank you from my toddler as I was from my boss, so why couldn’t I just take our family off the hook without ruining my career?
“When my son’s school became hybrid in the fall of 2020 and we contributed to share a nanny with friends for his days away and after-school care, 80% of my take-home pay went to his. babysitter and daycare for our daughter. The articles I had written before did not reassure me. They made me angry.
I knew Congress had given me a solution, of sorts. I gently wondered if I could take a few days off with pay per week under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, legislation I had covered for the site. I did not receive any response from our HRD.
We have all heard the horror stories of working mothers who were forced to breast pump in full view of colleagues, or say point blank the the boss doesn’t like pregnant employees. But what doesn’t make the headlines are the subtle presses so superfluous that they rarely rate the mention over compassionate cocktails with girlfriends. Projects have sprouted on your stack when another coworker is fired, and your boss’s tight, toothy smile when she asks, “Do you have this?” Winding, agenda-less meetings scheduled 30 minutes before pickup from daycare. The company president’s puzzled frown when you ask to take FFCRA leave two days a week, to reduce the costs of childcare who consume your paycheck: “But will you be able to finish your job in three? days a week?
The intelligent manager understands that there is no need for old-fashioned, brutal discrimination when veiled threats are so effective.
And it’s less effort to take on more work than it is to rigorously set limits, especially when the world is so eager to shoot down women who dare to seek self-preservation.
This is also true at home, of course.
When my husband and I went to my parents for help with the children in the early months of the pandemic, he called for 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 meticulous development of a fair partnership have come to an end, without conversation, in a few days. He is the breadwinner of our family. His professional rise is clear. In survival mode, did I really want to add to our collective stress by redividing parental duties? Again, it was easier to take on the job.
Soon after, I started skipping workouts and dentist visits and all I convinced myself was foreign, focusing on staying on the wheel as I was pedaling like a hamster on meth. . Job. Kids. Job. Kids. Job. Kids.
I was a working mother in the truest sense of the word, because I was nothing else.
And if I had cracked under that pressure, it would have been attributed to the pandemic instead of the people and systems that took my work for granted. Who have always taken the work of mothers for granted. (Example: A coalition of mostly moms fought tooth and nail to get four meager weeks of paid family leave added to the Build Back Better Act.)
My son’s school, my husband and my employer just expected me to continue.
So quitting smoking suddenly became liberating.
That doesn’t mean the decision was easy. I knew very well how difficult it could be for me to find a full-time job again (although my friends reassured me that the pandemic would equate to a card with no CV interruptions). And I also knew that while I might make a “choice” that best suited my family, I would add to a sea of setbacks for women, collectively, as I got off the ship.
I might be a dot on a labor economist’s chart, but those dots, taken together, equate to a much less bright future for our daughters. Overall, achieve gender parity will take a generation longer to reach. In the United States, the female activity rate is at its lowest since the 1980s. If companies are not proactive, fewer women in the workforce will mean fewer women middle managers and fewer women managers. The the pay gap will widen.
I also felt guilty for being able to retire, when I knew so many mothers, especially single mothers, couldn’t. And that so many moms had already been kicked out of their jobs without even a pipe dream of a choice.
My husband and I are back to an even split now, but it still doesn’t seem possible for both of us to work full time. There is simply too much to do. If two parents work and commute more than 40 hours a week, good luck keeping a reasonably clean home, eating home cooked meals, staying fit, spending time as a couple, and seeing friends and family without an important. – and expensive – amount of outsourcing.
A few days after leaving my notice at work, my son ended up in the emergency room after suffering an asthma attack. He had never had one before, but his allergies were particularly severe last spring. The day before, my husband and I had had a tense conversation about who forgot to take their medicine at the pharmacy. Watching my son suck on a nebulizer was clarifying: it didn’t matter who dropped the bullet, but someone had to pick up and carry this damn thing. And that someone would be me.
A friend of mine texted me after I confessed that I quit smoking: “Yes Working mother is not at the forefront of these issues, there is probably no hope for the rest of us.
I wish I had a solution, but I’m running out of hacks.
Until child care is more affordable, managers are more reasonable, and fathers do their fair share, full-time motherhood is a raw matter for everyone except the wealthy.
Audrey Goodson Kingo is a freelance journalist and former editor-in-chief of workingmother.com. While at Working Mother, she interviewed everyone from Representative Pramila Jayapal to Ayesha Curry to White House Director of Communications Kate Bedingfield. Audrey has appeared on television, radio and in numerous podcasts to discuss women’s health, parenting and work.
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