Breaking Point: How America's System is Failing Working Mothers

Working mothers are facing unprecedented stress and burnout as they struggle to balance the demands of their jobs and family. This article explores the ways in which America's lack of support for working mothers is pushing them to the brink.

It’s been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and I need to get something off my chest. I think I speak for all working moms when I say this crisis has exposed just how poorly this country treats us, but I want to show you just how much that unfairness affects not just us as individuals, but our children, our families, our coworkers, and our whole damn society.

Before I do that though, I want to make this clear: I love my job, and I love my kids. It’s just that it’s all a lot. The whole working 9–5, parenting two young boys, cleaning the house we all live in 24/7 now, teaching kids who haven’t been to school in a year, finding ways to play in a pandemic that’s kept us all from friends, cooking for a whole family, and paying bills to have a roof over our heads, electricity to keep us warm in the winter, air conditioning to keep us from overheating in the summer (oh, and don’t forget paying for internet and Disney Plus to keep those kiddos entertained long enough for me to work) — all the things that every working mother has had to do in the past year just to survive. Honestly, it’s enough to make any woman break.

I’ve hit that breaking point many times over the past year, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. It’s gut-churning to think that no matter how hard you try, you just can’t quite stay on top of everything between your family and your job, and it’s easy to feel like you just aren’t good enough. But if there’s anything I’ve learned during this extraordinarily difficult time, it’s that I am good enough. It’s the rest of society that needs to catch up and support working moms like me.

Barbara Alçada via Unsplash

I always wanted to have children, and becoming a mother was a dream come true. When I was younger, I told anyone who asked that I wanted six children just like my grandmother. Thank God for blocking some blessings, though, because the two I have are more than enough right now.

Still, creating and sustaining life with my breast and body is a wonder unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and becoming a mother is likely my greatest accomplishment and impact. I look at my kids and I see nothing but pure love, their little hands and feet getting bigger by the day as they (too quickly!) grow into the incredible people I know they’ll become. Parenting is joy, heartbreak, laughter, grief, wonder, stress, and the deepest love I could ever imagine all wrapped up into one, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

So why does balancing motherhood and working, even at a job that I love, still feel like society is punishing me? Did I mention we’re still in the middle of trying to survive a pandemic?

According to the National Women’s Law Center, more than two million women have left the workforce since the start of the pandemic, and in the corporate world, 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting or leaving the workforce altogether. American women are leaving the workforce at the highest rate in more than thirty years, and it’s clear that the COVID crisis has played a massive factor in that as women struggle to be full-time parents, teachers, cleaners, cooks, and employees.

However, I have reasonable cause to believe these working women felt the mounting pressures of finding work-life balance before the pandemic. I believe that because I felt it too.

Last year, before COVID had even reached our shores, I was on the cusp of a promising promotion. The week before an unexpected state-mandated lockdown, I had approached my boss to share my concerns of balancing parenthood and my job, and told him I was considering leaving the firm. My boss was totally taken aback.

For months, I had concealed the strain on my marriage and family as I struggled to adjust my own expectations of what an ambitious working mother looked like. Like so many millennial women, I’d been told that I could have it all — the job, the partner, the family, the house, the perfect life. I wanted to “lean in’’ and over-perform to prove to myself and my brilliant (but single) colleagues that I was worthy of upward mobility within a lean startup firm.

I worked late and kept my laptop handy to always appear online and accessible even when it wasn’t always requested of me. I wanted to be the first responder to rapid response requests even if that meant stepping away from my babies during park time to answer my cell or send a “quick” email. I’d downplay my efforts with automated responses, “Oh, it’s no problem.” “Let me know if you need anything else.” “I’m on standby.” and “It’s all good.” Everything that corporate culture has taught women like me to say to portray ourselves as hyper-productive, easy-breezy, super-motivated workers. I didn’t want to be perceived as lazy or unmotivated, and in my heart, I truly wanted to believe that I could balance it all.

But when I said “all good,” the reality was that I was constantly far from good. I was silently suffocating myself under the guise of ambition. More often than not, I felt overwhelmed from balancing home and workplace demands, and I had no boundaries to manage the competing responsibilities.

The demands of our two very active sons under the age of five felt never-ending. Between parenting them and performing my job to the best of my abilities, there just wasn’t much time left for my marriage and personal needs. My partner and I hit our breaking point when we became homeowners and lost the daily calming and helpful presence of our aunt who we had lived with while we saved for a down payment. Suddenly, trying to balance it all became completely untenable.

Obed Esquivel via Unsplash

Moving into our home felt like the beginning of a dream come true and a nightmare all at once. Our aunt was the support we needed as young parents striving to achieve professional success. We didn’t have to worry about acquiring late pick-up fees when our work days ran late or if we wanted to unwind and debrief at happy hour with our childless colleagues. We never needed to find a sitter when an impromptu date night was imminent. Her presence and support alleviated our concerns for childcare costs temporarily but eventually it would feel like we’re on our own.

The idea of returning to my status as a stay-at-home mother became more appealing each day. I kept imagining starting a creative and flexible side-hustle that might eventually grow into more as my children got older. I wanted to work and enjoy motherhood on my own terms — even if that meant leaving a firm I truly believed in.

As supportive as my husband is, as a man, his work-life balance is different than mine because our culture imposes completely different expectations and responsibilities on fathers. He received a cheer and pat on the back if the boys needed to tag along to the office with him. Society celebrates him for being a good provider and happily pays men more than women, even for doing the same job. On the other hand, even after decades of feminist movement work to try and change it, on average, women are still paid 82 cents to every dollar paid to men.

But even among women, the disparities for working women with children and those without are glaringly obvious. According to a study by Boston College — Center for Retirement Research, women with one child earn 28 percent less than women without children do, and each additional child lowers lifetime earnings by another 3 percent. Basically, no matter how hard you work, you pay an invisible tax just for choosing to bring life into this world.

Despite women now making up half the percentage of the workforce, the way society views women’s dual role of earners and caretakers, is antiquated. @Kashia from Instagram said it best, “Women and underrepresented groups aren’t suffering from imposter syndrome; they’re suffering in systems that [weren’t] designed with their success in mind.”

via @ Kashia on Instagram

I’m lucky enough to work for a firm like Think Rubix that strives for equitable outcomes and transformational practices in everything we do — including employment. My attempted resignation — or in this case, cry for help — was ultimately met with compassion and solidarity, and my boss gave me space to rest and reflect during the first months of the pandemic lockdown. I used that time to prioritize and reimagine work life balance as a working mom.

During lockdown, I remembered the joys of making a meal without rushing to the next task or errand. My husband and I slowed down enough to actually see each other outside of our roles as mom and dad, and revisit the things that made us fall in love with each other as people outside of that. We took time, we breathed, we had hard conversations and easy ones too. I came back feeling refreshed and like that balance I was seeking for so long was far more attainable than before.

However, one compassionate boss isn’t going to fix the plight of working mothers everywhere, and as I read more and more data and anecdotes about the strain on women through this pandemic, I’m reminded of what a deep crisis we’re imposing on ourselves as a country. I, along with millions of other young women, was lied to for years about the possibility of “having it all,” because finding balance is impossible without policy changes that support gender wage equity, livable wage job creation, and childcare credit that relieves the financial burden of working parents.

Elena Mozhvilo via Unsplash

The current workforce system isn’t sustainable for women who bear the burden of caretaking, domestic responsibilities and economic growth for their families. But this isn’t just a women’s issue, because it’s a catastrophe that affects us all. And it’s time to start treating it like one.

When women leave the workforce in the numbers they are right now — the biggest numbers since 1988 — we are losing all the intellectual capacity, ideas, creativity, skills, relationships, knowledge, and management expertise that they bring. We lose the value that women add on every single front, and we reinforce gender norms that hold women back from achieving their full potential as workers and as mothers. We lose the voices of women who want to make a better life and work environment for themselves and all other women, and if there’s one thing that I know, it’s that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

We’ve made so much progress in the past few decades of bringing more women into the workforce and we can’t afford to backtrack now. Unlocking the potential of half the population should be a no-brainer for governments and corporations alike, but if we continue to ignore the specific needs that women, and especially working moms, require to be able to unlock that potential, then we’re just going to keep sliding backwards. It’s impossible to quantify what we lose in the process, but if you can’t see it, then chances are you aren’t talking to and seeing enough women in your everyday life.

The solutions to reimagine our workforce systems have to be prioritized by company leadership and governments. There is life outside of work, and it has changed dramatically since the Industrial Revolution and Henry Ford’s 1920s labor advocacy for working men or 1970s feminist advocacy for equal pay. We need to get outside the mindset of productivity above all, and recognize that actual productivity can only be achieved by aggressively maintaining work-life balance for all genders, but especially women with children who are feeling the disproportionate impact of hustle culture. We need policy changes like gender pay equity and childcare for all, but we also need managers that understand the particular problems working moms face and flexible office environments that can meet those needs. Because frankly, working moms are tired of trying to do it all ourselves.

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