Musings on [Working] Motherhood in the time of Covid
Many of you know that I was based in London when I was pregnant with and gave birth to Olivia. Despite some of the hardships that came with that, in many ways it was fortuitous because of both the free quality healthcare, as well as the one year maternity leave, half of which was at my full salary.
When Olivia was 12 weeks old, she was still waking up at night, only breastfeeding, refusing to take a bottle, and perhaps it goes without saying, completely dependent on me. I thought to myself, many women in the United States at this point in time would be back at work.
That seemed like an impossible circumstance to fathom. Olivia and I weren’t ready for that in any way, shape, or form and I was so thankful for my prolonged maternity leave.
Fast forward to Olivia at nine months. We were back in Virginia and I was fortunate enough to find a role at a company that is known for being a great place for working families. Indeed, the support I’ve felt in my current role cannot be overstated, but even in such a supportive environment, the challenge of meeting high performance standards in my career, while raising a small child as a single mother, has been substantial. And honestly, quite isolating.
There were mornings when getting Olivia dressed for daycare felt akin to wrestling an alligator and we would barely make it to the car in time for our commute before I had to jump onto a hands-free Zoom call and provide an update, all with Olivia screaming from the backseat.
The end of the day wasn’t much easier as I struggled to peel away from the office to pick her up in time so that we could have a couple of hours together to play, eat dinner, and do bath and bedtime.
I juggled all of the things you can imagine and like many parents, I employed the so-called working mother “swing shift,” although, most of the time it resulted in me falling asleep sitting up in bed with my laptop open.
And these were just the days I was home — so many times I needed to patchwork together overnight care so that I could travel for meetings, even if just to “show up.”
Fast forward again to Olivia turning two, in all her toddler glory, when the pandemic hit and quarantine took effect. I felt pure dread thinking about how I was going to at once be a full-time employee and a full-time stay-at-home mother. I remember the first disclaimer I made to my boss, the only thing that was on my mind, and it went something like,
There may be a lot of people who are about to get a lot more productive without their commutes or other commitments, that will not be the case for me.
As I mentioned before, I work for an excellent company and from day one, management made it clear that first and foremost, we were to take care of ourselves and our families. I took that to heart and was unapologetic about my situation at home with Olivia. She joined Zoom meetings, tested out her flourishing vocabulary on my colleagues, and even once, during a presentation to senior management that happened to coincide with her first pee in the “big girl potty,” she brought me a potty full of pee while exclaiming, “I did it!” Embarrassed, I interrupted my presentation to explain the situation to my colleagues and to my pleasant surprise, everyone erupted in applause for Olivia; she was as proud of herself as ever.
I was proud too, but also exhausted. I had gone from doing some of the things all of the time, to ALL of the things, ALL of the time.
My situation is not necessarily unique and over the last many months of quarantine and work from home, there has been a lot of conversation about how parents like myself are both delivering at certain levels in our career, as well as managing homes and raising, even schooling, children. The truth is, while this moment is unprecedented, parents have always been juggling it all to some extent.
The difference is, now it’s in everyone’s Zoom screen. Previously, we intellectualized what it meant to balance work and childcare; now we’ve had to internalize that dichotomy because it’s ever-present.
So while not to minimize in any way the tragic loss of life that has occurred these last many months, my hope is that this Covid-era will usher in a positive paradigm shift for working parents. My hope is that our colleagues cannot un-see what they have seen and that the empathy, compassion, and support that parents have been extended during Covid will remain long after this virus fades away.
My hope is that work and parenting will no longer be perceived as opposing commitments and that companies will use what they’ve learned from this experience to focus on ways to integrate and complement these two major facets of our lives, meeting parents where they are, wherever that may be, in a truly inclusive fashion.
From greater paid parental leave and benefits, to flexible schedules and work locations, to including our children in the workplace — all ideas should be on the table. And companies shouldn’t have to do this alone; the public sector should support the private in proposing institutional changes that support working families.
These are discussions we’ve needed to prioritize for some time, but have probably put off or de-prioritized in favor of tackling our mountain of work. But now, in this moment of heightened empathy and compassion, with a literal [Zoom] window into our lives, it’s time to have these discussions and design the “return the work” that we all want, one that works for everyone.