The data has caught up to something many of us working moms already know: There are days when we feel like we just can’t function and, as it turns out, neither can our economy. It’s no wonder, when nearly one-third of working Americans have school-age children.
Many of us, including me, a mother of two children younger than 4, are desperate for schools to reopen. I long for my children to learn from a professional, in person, in a world where I can make it through eight uninterrupted hours of work instead of making snacks.
Burned-out working moms and the businesses they lead and work for have been pinning their hopes on fall school reopenings — and that’s a dangerous mistake. We are entering a period of high burnout risk masquerading as a reprieve.
School reopenings will help in fits and starts, but they’re not the silver bullet on which many are banking. We need to start planning now, or find ourselves in the midst of a working-mom burnout crisis that will ricochet through our entire economy.
Pre-pandemic, the Pew Research Center reported that 56% of working parents already were struggling to make it all work. That’s more than 26 million members of our workforce, ages 25 to 54, who described juggling work and caregiving responsibilities as “difficult” or “tricky” in a world where schools and day care facilities were open daily.
Then, just weeks into widespread, pandemic-related school closures, Fortune reported in mid-April that an estimated 14% of U.S. working women had quit or considered quitting their jobs since the pandemic began. We’re at risk of losing some of our best talent to burnout, and losing ground on a half-century of progress for women’s professional achievement, leadership and earnings in the process. Working moms in the U.S. already make as little as 69 cents for each dollar earned by working dads. We simply cannot afford a backslide.
Preparing for the new crush
If the monotony of being a working parent, a stay-at-home parent and a teacher at the same time felt crushing, the pinballing of school constantly opening and shutting will bring new challenges — especially when you add into the mix siblings in different grades and schools, or teachers with their own kids at different schools. It only takes one sick parent, teacher or kid to reasonably close schools with minimal warning for weeks.
This is just as businesses are looking to school reopenings as a green light to resume “business as usual,” reopening offices and reducing flex arrangements. Such misaligned expectations are a recipe for disaster for working moms.
Will moms give up?
I hope not, but as schools continue to open and close, life is going to become even more inconsistent and unpredictable. Working moms already are breaking under the pressure of caring for kids, doing their jobs, then having to prove they’re pulling their weight at work.
According to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, known mothers and visibly pregnant women consistently are “judged as being less committed to their jobs, less dependable, less authoritative, more emotional and more irrational than otherwise equal, nonpregnant female managers” and their male counterparts. It’s a phenomenon called “the maternity penalty.” While it’s nothing new, it has intensified in a COVID19-world — and could get even worse in the fall.
What organizations can do today
Instead of planning for a return to normal with school reopenings, organizations must make new plans today, so they’re not caught flat-footed with working-mom-attrition tomorrow. Businesses must extend, reinstate or reimagine policies around telecommuting and remote work, paid time off, flex schedules, liberal leave and, importantly, performance evaluations. They must be prepared for more sudden changes, and for all their parent employees to have kids at home and at school at different times.
The businesses playing the long game with their people will benefit from short-term wins along the way: increased productivity and performance, decreased burnout-related attrition, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build trust and loyalty.