Last week was my son’s first day of in-person school after spending his Kindergarten year on Zoom. I wanted his first day to be the fantasy we’ve all been craving – new backpack, smiles, excitement, and relief. Instead, COVID cases are surging, and this time, kids are getting sick from the Delta variant in large numbers. And we’re all careening into school en masse with only masks and hardworking teachers and administrators to protect our most treasured children.
My mind swirled with a familiar barrage of questions – “Is he going to be safe?” and “Will we be sent back home for virtual school?” And inevitably, “How can I continue to work if this all falls apart again?” In that moment, I found myself sinking back into the toxic mixture of emotions I often experience as a working mother: profound worry and disappointment.
Before I became a mother, I believed in the social contract – that if I contributed to society through working and paying taxes and following the rules, that I would receive value in return. I understood that if I chose to have children, I could take maternity leave, secure child care, and eventually send my kids to quality public school, and that I could have a career simultaneously.
I was told since I was a little girl that I could be anything I wanted. I could work a high-powered job and have kids. Women of my generation are the babies of mothers who fought for equal rights in the Women’s Liberation movement, who resisted the patriarchal limitations that constrained their career choices. We were supposed to break free and rise up the corporate ladder – but we were also expected to be moms and live up to those familial ideals. I got degrees from top colleges and entered the workforce expecting I could have both – a career and a family. It didn’t take long for me to start seeing cracks emerge in these ideals.
In my early 30s I was working long hours in a demanding government job, and I started seeing working mothers struggling – dark circles under their eyes, rushed lunches, deep sighs in stalls in the women’s bathroom. I wondered, “Is that really how it is?” and “Is that what I want?” A few years later when I got pregnant and was working a demanding job, I remained cautiously optimistic that things would work out. But once the reality of my maternity leave options became clear and I came to understand the expectations placed on my return to work, my optimism faded.
My first intense disappointment as a working mother began when I got a letter from the state telling me that my short-term disability benefits for maternity leave would not be paid out because of a technicality in my paperwork. Because my son was born four weeks early, my income eligibility was pegged to my time in the federal government, which did not qualify. If he had been born on time, there would not have been an issue. As I read the letter, my heart began to pound. We needed that money to make it possible for me to stay home for 12 weeks.
I filed an appeal and had to go to court to testify. As I cried in front of the male judge in an ill-fitting suit that clung to my milk-dampened chest, five weeks postpartum, my insides still cramping from giving birth, the disbelief that this is how things work in our country arrived. That judge ruled that in the interest of justice my benefits should be paid. To me, justice would have been never standing in front of him in the first place.
Over the nearly seven years since my first son was born, I have encountered seemingly endless challenges as a working mom, from struggling to scrape by to pay a nanny share and the required employer taxes, to long daycare waiting lists, to the daily charade of pretending to be completely focused on both work and parenting at all times.
Was it me who had it wrong? Was there really no way to be a good mom and a professional woman at the same time and my expectations were just misguided? Or had our society already decided that it was acceptable to sacrifice the physical and mental health of working mothers because we were the ones who wanted kids in the first place? Shouldn’t we have known better?
Even if I wanted to quit working (which I did not), the cost of living in most cities requires both parents to work, and most kids are growing up in families with dual earners. At the same time, our society still clings to the belief that there is a full-time caregiver in the home. It stands to reason that if mothers are to be contributing to the economy as wage earners, their caregiving role must be assumed by others during the work day – day care providers in the case of small children and schools for school-aged children. As such, employers should have policies in place to support families, including flexible schedules and family leave and child care benefits.
When COVID-19 took over, working mothers were plunged into a situation that laid bare the impossible reality of our dual roles of wage earner and caregiver that we have been struggling to navigate for years. Once the delicate web of child care and school that we rely on so desperately to make this symbiosis possible was removed, it all fell apart.
We naively thought that public schools should be able to adapt – expand physical space to allow social distancing, put protocols in place to protect both children and teachers. We watched on TV as other countries found solutions. But our public schools are underfunded, and while our state and local governments focused on the raging pandemic, our children were sent home. Society collectively threw up their hands and fell back on the caregiving role of working mothers.
We struggled for months to educate and entertain our kids while our employers increased their expectations. In desperation, women left the workforce in droves, unsupported and forgotten. And many still haven’t returned because among other reasons, once you step away, it is extremely difficult to go back.
And here we are again. Cases are skyrocketing in schools and we are still without increased support for parents. And children under 12 are still ineligible for vaccines, but school doors are open. It is as though we have all collectively closed our eyes because we can’t bear to watch the inevitable unfold. Working mothers are still showing up for work or sitting on conference calls, waiting for the other shoe to drop and school to pull the plug and go virtual. As a society, we have learned little about the support parents have needed over the last 18 months.
So there I stood, clutching my first grader’s small hand on the first day of school, terrified, surrounded by other working mothers who share my reality. We know our kids need to go to school, and we know we need to work. And we know the risks are great. But we don’t really have a choice. The show must go on as it always has.