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Solutions for Working Moms During the Pandemic: One Size Does Not Fit All

According to a recent analysis from the National Women’s Law Center, women accounted for 100% of net jobs lost in December 2020. Millions more left the workforce earlier in the fall, driven largely by closures of schools and day-care centers due to the ongoing pandemic.

PresenceLearning is deeply committed to supporting women in the workplace. About 77% of PresenceLearning’s employees are women, and many are working mothers. Since the start of the pandemic, the company has grown its corporate team by 69%, and 90% of those hires were women. The clinical network, comprised of 75% women, has grown by 63%, with many providers embracing the opportunity for flexible schedules in a remote setting.

Kate Eberle Walker, CEO of PresenceLearning, has not only experienced the balance of parenting and work herself, but has also led with it in mind. Recently several working mothers at the company shared their stories with Kate about working during the pandemic, and about how they made changes to make extraordinary challenges manageable for them. From their experiences, companies can learn how to better to support working mothers through, and back from, the COVID-19 crisis. Read on for insights. This is the first installment in a forthcoming series to help working women thrive.

Headshot of Kate Walker, CEO of Presence

In March 2017, a political expert named Robert Kelly was interrupted by his kids while being interviewed live on air on BBC, and the video went viral. Viewers were amused and delighted by the flustered dad, and the panicked mom who ran in after the children to retrieve them. The video was viewed over 40 million times, the family was invited to appear on The Ellen Show, and paparazzi surrounded their house. “For two weeks we were the most famous family on earth,” Kelly later recalled with bemusement.

Little did Robert Kelly’s children know that they were pioneers: the “videobombing” of their parent’s live work interaction would be replicated time and time again in 2020, when parents all over the world were forced to work from home without childcare, due to COVID-19. These poorly timed meeting interruptions would become not only commonplace, but problematic, during the pandemic. According to an October 2020 survey by OnePoll/Sittercity, on average parents were interrupted 25 times per week by their children while working from home and attempting to participate in live meetings. (And a note for all you nosy parents out there: parents do it to their kids, too! The same poll found that parents are interrupting their children’s online classes an average of six times per week. I’ve done this to my own daughters more times than I care to admit, and I’m going to start paying attention to my own intrusive behavior.)

On average parents were interrupted 25 times per week by their children while working from home and attempting to participate in live meetings.

This time around, it’s more often than not the mothers who are getting interrupted. And there is no father, or nanny, running in behind the children apologetically to retrieve them. A study by Cleo of “The State of Working Parents,” found that 61% of women, vs 26% of men, currently feel responsible for the majority of caregiving and education responsibilities in their partnership.

At my company PresenceLearning, 77% of our employees are women, and many are working mothers. For this article, four of them agreed to share the details of their experiences managing work and childcare throughout the pandemic. (Some names have been changed to protect privacy.) When asked to recall particular moments of stress, each immediately referenced a time when they were participating in a meeting and their child came running onscreen. One of them involved me.

She recalled, “I vividly remember my most traumatizing moment. I was leading our weekly customer success meeting, and you had popped in that week to check in with the team. As I was talking, my daughter came running in with a foam pool noodle and started beating me on the head with it nonstop. I just kept talking. I’m sure I looked absolutely insane to you.”

“I don’t know if this helps, but truthfully I don’t remember it at all,” I replied, realizing that she had been hanging on for months to the trauma of this moment when she thought she was humiliated in front of her CEO, when it actually had zero impact on my perception of her and her work. As parents, we all train ourselves to some degree to tune out our kids, to subconsciously make a determination as to whether the commotion is part of a sideshow that can be ignored, or a situation where a child truly needs our help. When it’s someone else’s kid yelling, through a screen, it’s so far from being my problem to deal with it that I barely notice it’s happening, if at all. This is parenting in 2021.

Each of the women who shared her experiences with me recognized that she needed to make changes to rebalance her work to address the realities of living during the pandemic. The solution that each turned to was different, highlighting important things for employers to remember:

  1. Take the guilt and shame out of the equation when women need to rebalance their lives. Women often recognize the need for change long before they do it, but they hesitate, because they feel embarrassed. “What will people think of me if I stop working?” is a common refrain. “I feel like a failure.” It’s not a failure to be so important and so needed in two places, work and home, that you have to stand up and say that the math doesn’t work- there aren’t enough hours in the day for you to maintain your responsibilities to both.
  2. Respect the decisions women make about work, rather than talking them out of a decision or imposing your worldview on them. Many women report “trying” to quit or reduce hours, only to be talked out of it by a well-meaning manager who convinces them to stick it out. Sometimes you have to call it, acknowledge that a situation is unsustainable, and focus your efforts on convincing her to stay in touch and consider coming back in the future.
  3. Solutions to complicated problems are never one-size-fits-all. Working moms are problem solvers. Given the flexibility, they will find the path that optimizes for the needs of their job and their children.

Following are some of the stories from PresenceLearning, and the solutions women found to strike a balance for themselves.

Many women report “trying” to quit or reduce hours, only to be talked out of it by a well-meaning manager who convinces them to stick it out.

Yasmin: Temporary Reduction to Part-Time Hours

Yasmin is the Senior Director of Legal & Compliance at PresenceLearning. When COVID began, she was the only lawyer on our team. As the need for teletherapy support expanded rapidly during school closures, the pace of our sales and contracting accelerated. Every new client contract ran through Yasmin. Needless to say, her already demanding job grew even more so.

Yasmin is also mom to her son Noah, who was four at the start of the pandemic. “Daycare stopped in April,” Yasmin recalled, “and it was extremely hard for him and me. We couldn’t go outside; we were confined and inactive. As a single parent there was no one else to help shoulder the time. I tried to marshal as many resources as I could to give myself chunks of time to work: snack time, screen time. I needed to keep him engaged so that I could continue working.”

By the summertime, she knew that something needed to change. She didn’t feel comfortable bringing a babysitter into their home, but they could go outside more. She made the decision to reduce her work schedule to part-time. She worked from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, and then spent the afternoons outside with Noah.

“I gave him Outschool classes for four hours in the morning, with live online instructors keeping him engaged. I’d say ‘You’re going to school, and Mommy’s going to work.’” Because there was a limit to the day, Noah was better able to handle the working time when he didn’t have Yasmin’s undivided attention.

Like many women find when trying to create a part-time schedule to accommodate both work and parenting, Yasmin never quite stuck to the goal of 30 hours, more often than not billing more than that per week. “Because of the nature of the work, I didn’t actually do part-time. But what it did give me was the notion of ‘I’m supposed to stop work at 2 p.m.’ so I didn’t feel the same pressure after 2 p.m. I could stop working at 2, pay attention to Noah, and finish working after his bedtime. It gave me more control.”

By fall, Noah was ready for Kindergarten, and enrolled in a school that was bringing children onsite full time. Once school began, Yasmin was able to go back to a full time work schedule. She had also decided to hire a part time babysitter to cover the gaps in the hours. Doing so opened up her home and herself to more risk than she would have chosen, if not for the competing needs of work and getting Noah what he needed. This is another unseen stress of the pandemic: when women feel pressure to work but also bear responsibility for caring for their children, they are forced in many cases to make choices that invite more health risk into their lives than they otherwise would.

If I’m going to get sick, if something happens, I have the fear as the only parent that it’s me or nothing. I would not have chosen in-person school if I had another parent who could shoulder the responsibility, but I needed to be able to work. These circumstances give women no other choice but to quit or take the health risk.

I would not have chosen in-person school if I had another parent who could shoulder responsibility, but I needed to be able to work.

Hoa: Short-Term Leave

Hoa, who manages the Provider Onboarding team at PresenceLearning, has two boys at home: a 3 year old and a 7 year old. Her husband is a school principal. “He can’t move his meetings, so if we are both in meetings, it falls on me. One time I was running a meeting in Zoom, and my boys came crashing in: my 7 year old had taken the little one’s bunny hostage, and it was absolutely mayhem. I was so embarrassed; I had to interrupt the meeting and go on mute to try to sort it out. It wasn’t how I wanted to be working.”

Living in California, they were stuck entirely indoors for a long stretch of time. Not only were pandemic shutdown rules in effect, but the wildfires and air pollution made it impossible to go outside anyway. Each of the four family members had their own room to be in during the day, so that each parent could work and the older son could attend online school, leaving the younger son to entertain himself for too many hours. “There were days that he was on Netflix for hours. We would have our doors closed during the day, and I would come out and see his toys placed at every door, things he had brought each of us throughout the day.”

It wasn’t sustainable for Hoa. “Being a mom is my #1 identity.” But she was equally committed to work. “By now it was the Fall, our busiest season at PresenceLearning as we work to get our schools and students set up for therapy services for the new school year. I had never wanted to take leave. I had even timed my pregnancies to ensure that I could take leave during quieter times in the year! I had always believed that taking leave was career suicide, but I also knew that in my role I couldn’t truly be part time. Part time was offered, but it didn’t feel realistic for me. I had a friend go part time, and find that even if you’re half time, you’re working 70% of the time. You can’t shut it off and that’s what I needed to do to set my household up for success.”

So Hoa worked with her manager to arrange for a short-term leave. She took 7 weeks, and when she returned, she felt she had rebalanced her household and was in a better position to come back. Shortly after returning she was promoted to a management role, happily proving herself wrong that taking leave would harm her career long-term.

Kelly: Divide and Conquer

When schools closed in mid-March, Kelly, a Customer Success Manager at PresenceLearning, was getting hit from all angles. (Literally…she’s the one whose daughter pummeled her with a pool noodle!). Her two young daughters were home and needed her attention. Her work took on new urgency as well: as the primary account contact for her school clients, Kelly is the person who makes sure that her schools are getting therapy services for their special education programs arranged and delivered to students online.

“Every moment felt critical at work because of what we do,” recalled Kelly. “Schools were delayed, and kids weren’t getting services. I was feeling the weight of all the kids with special needs. Running through my mind constantly was ‘They need services, I have to do it quickly.’”

Kelly’s husband works with manufacturers, so suddenly everything was high priority for his work as well: working to keep plants open, make PPE and pivot to stocking hospitals. “It was always work time, all the time, in our house.”

Prior to the pandemic, both Kelly and her spouse had busy schedules that included travel, and client meetings that couldn’t be changed or interrupted. They had developed a joint calendaring system that allowed them to mark days and times as high priority, signaling that the other would need to be home to cover that time. During the pandemic, they translated this system from the outside world to their new, smaller world inside their house. Because they both had jobs that could be done from home, they were able to split household duties in a way that wasn’t stress-free, but ensured that everything got done. And they each had the ability to “protect” the non-negotiable parts of the day when no interruptions were allowed, calling in reinforcements when something came up at the last minute and couldn’t be compromised.

“There were panicked moments where I was texting my mother and my mother-in-law saying ‘somebody has to facetime Abby now!’ so that a meeting could continue. And other times meetings just had to be rescheduled. It wasn’t perfect,” recalls Kelly, “but there were silver linings. Kid chaos came in on both ends, with clients too, and it was humanizing. It helped to build a connection with people that I didn’t know as well before all of this, seeing their tiny humans on the screen and knowing we’re all in this together. Having that compassion to forgive last minute changes and cancellations, saying ‘It’s fine, take care of your family.’”

Tania: Exit the Workforce

Tania, a Clinical Operations Manager, changed roles at PresenceLearning shortly after the pandemic began to impact schools and childcare. Until then, her 3 year old son went to daycare every day. She worked remotely, and started keeping Brady at home with her. “At first having him home was so nice,” Tania recalled. “We could take quick walks and have snuggles together. But in an interview for an internal promotion, her son came into the room and started pounding thumbtacks into the wall behind her. She tried to ignore it and forge ahead until reality broke through and her colleague interjected, “Do you know what he’s doing back there?”

After that famed moment when Robert Kelly’s children invaded his TV interview, he recalled with dismay “usually I lock the door when I’m doing an important interview. I forgot to lock the door this time.” But moms don’t think that way; the idea of locking your child out of the space where you are feels viscerally uncomfortable. “I thought about locking my door when I had an important meeting, but I just couldn’t do it,” shared Tania. The idea that he might need me, or even just want to be with me, and I would physically block him from coming in just felt too awful.”

I thought about locking my door when I had an important meeting, but I just couldn’t do it.

Tania got the promotion and chalked up her interview experience to the comedy of living and working remotely in these times. But in her new role, the work was picking up intensity. “One of the first times I was like ‘Oh, this might be a problem’ was when I had to break quarantine. I needed my husband’s mom to watch Brady so I could complete billing. It was the first time I realized that the demands of work were compromising the decisions I would otherwise make about the health and safety of our family.”

The breaking point came later. It was Brady’s nap time, and Tania had put in headphones to try to tune out Slack and email notifications and focus on churning through some work. A while later, she took the headphones out and realized Brady had been crying for a while. He needed her, and she hadn’t even realized. “We both cried.”

“I continually felt torn between being a good mom or a good employee. Most days felt like I was failing at both. I put off the decision for a while. I thought to myself, ‘Why am I struggling? Other people with more kids are doing this.” Plus, “I worked hard to get here. Who does that? Who just ups and leaves their career?”

“Everyone was encouraging me to hang in there. I started the process to take a short term leave. To complete the form, I needed to have my day care provider verify that they were closed to all but children of essential workers. I called them, and they said ‘Oh, actually, we can make a spot for you if you want to bring him back.”

Faced with the decision, Tania realized, “I didn’t want to put him back. It still felt risky; to bring him outside the home every day. I thought, ‘Is this going to fix the problem? I don’t think it will. I knew the answer.”

It was a major decision, and Tania knew it wouldn’t be for forever. “I was the insurance carrier. My husband owns a small business in rural America. We’ll need my income again.” But she also knew she needed full relief, to be able to focus fully and entirely on her household needs. And she was willing to take the leap of faith that when she’s ready, she’ll come back to the workforce better for the time she took.

Four women, facing similar challenges, found four different paths to find their own balance. Everyone’s situation is different. Here’s what’s important as an employer:

  1. Give options. For those who want to keep going, give them support, including schedule flexibility and understanding. For those who want a more fundamental change, give them the option of short term or permanent leave. The extraordinary complexities of our time, with families living and working in close quarters, shouldn’t mean that women have to give up or find their own solutions.
  2. Respect her choices. Make sure they know that all of the options can be viable solutions, and don’t make them feel badly about which they choose and what they need. Many women describe deciding on their own, or with their partners, that the right thing to do is to leave. But they second guess themselves, because they feel embarrassed to admit that they’ve “failed”, or because colleagues, mostly well-intentioned, put pressure on them to stay and give it another try. If someone has decided to leave, don’t try to talk her out of it; ask if there is anything that would allow her to stay, and if she says no, accept it.
  3. Provide support for re-entry. Many women fear that if they leave the workforce, they won’t be able to return, and with good reason: for years women have reported challenges getting hired after taking a “career break”. Don’t make your own assumptions about the ambition of a woman who has taken a career break; assume that when she says she’s ready to come back, she’s ready. And it’s not just about giving the opportunities, it’s about providing the flexibility that working moms need. In a pre-COVID survey, 31 percent of working mothers said they wanted to return to work, but couldn’t because their job was too inflexible to fit into their lives as parents.

Remote work and flexible hours are key to making work work for women.

With the increase in workforce exits by working moms during COVID, it’s incumbent upon employers to make extra effort to rehire women when they are ready to return, and to create working environments that support them.

Kate Eberle Walker is the CEO of PresenceLearning. She has more than 20 years of experience leading, advising, acquiring, and investing in education companies. Her forthcoming book The Good Boss: Nine Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work will be released on March 9, 2021. She lives in New York with her husband and two daughters.

Citation: National Woman’s Law Center analysis, with reporting from CNBC

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