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The Reason 1 in 4 Women Might Quit Her Job

With no child care or flexible hours available, too many working mothers feel like they have no choice but to put their careers on the backburner.

By Caitlin Abber

One of the hardest days during the pandemic was when Alexis*, a 34-year-old social worker from New York City, had to tell her boss that her mother was dead. Alexis’s mother didn’t die of Covid-19—she had died a few years earlier—but Alexis’s boss was suggesting that, because there was no school or child care available, Alexis (who is a single mother) should ask her mother to watch her two daughters so she could be more available for Zoom calls.

“I was just like, ‘My mom is dead.’” says Alexis. “Even having to say that out loud to somebody else just made me feel the reality of what I was going through. And it was real. I was like, ‘Alexis, this is the reality. You’re alone in a pandemic.’” 

For months, Alexis had been trying everything to balance the demands of her full-time job with the demands of being a full-time, single mother. At the beginning of the pandemic, when schools closed in New York City, she packed up her two daughters, then 4 and 6 (now 5 and 7), and drove them down to Alabama, where they could be closer to family. Within days of arriving, Alexis contracted Covid-19 and had to quarantine in an isolated location on the family’s property. Because layoffs were looming at her company, she continued to work through her illness, lest she look weak or expendable. Then, as New York began the first phase of re-openings, Alexis’ CEO required that all employees return to the office on a rotating schedule. Every few weeks, Alexis made the 15-hour drive up to New York City, spent five days at home without her children, and then drove back to Alabama on the weekends. Occasionally, she would have to be at her office more frequently, which meant fewer trips to see her kids. At one point, she was separated from her daughters for about six weeks. “I made that 15-hour trip back and forth,” says Alexis. “I drove straight each time, and in my head, it was just because I knew my girls were on the other side.”’ 

“If my kids are calling from the bathroom that they need help, but I'm on camera...that’s hard.”

There were times that Alexis thought about quitting her job, but as a single mother, it just wasn’t possible. That, and she loves her career as a social worker. “I want to keep on growing. I know how much impact I can have as a leader, encouraging both my clients and my staff to want to do better.” So, she kept driving back and forth, and now that her kids are back in school, albeit remotely, she is somehow making this new normal work, too. “I need this job. I can’t afford not to have an income,” she says. “It was heartbreaking at times, but I had to choose, and I chose for them.” However, she says, “I’ll be honest: If I could leave my job, I would.”

Alexis isn’t an outlier. There are millions of mothers in the United States who are, at this very moment, making calculations about their value at home versus their value at work, and wondering if it’s worth it to keep doing both. According to McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report, which surveyed over 400,000 people and 317 companies, more than one in four women are thinking of “downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely.” The survey’s writers say that working an unending “double shift” at home while trying to maintain a full-time job is proving untenable, especially with no relief in sight. “In the United States, women do twice as much unpaid care work as men,” says Kweilin Ellingrud, Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company (and previous Woman of the Week). “Originally, pre-Covid-19, 80% of that was shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Only about 15% of that was time taking care of kids, and now that piece has dramatically increased.”

 

Pretending that piece—taking care of kids at home while trying to work—doesn’t exist is a big part of the problem. For example, Alexis’s CEO required employees to have their cameras on for all Zoom meetings, which were sometimes back-to-back the entire day. “I don’t think people realize, I still have to get breakfast in between and lunch in between. And I still have to wipe butts in between. It’s that real. If my kids are calling from the bathroom that they need help, but I’m on camera…that’s hard.”

According to the National Women’s Law Center, in September, over 865,000 women decided that the cost was just too high, and for a myriad of reasons, they left their jobs. Contrast that with the 216,000 men who left the workforce over the same period of time, and there’s a striking (and infuriating) imbalance that The 19th is calling “America’s first female recession.”

But for women like Alexis, the option to quit their jobs isn’t an option at all—even if continuing to work full-time is unsustainable. As a single mother, there is no Plan B, so she must maintain this impossible balance for however long the pandemic—and the subsequent lack of child care—lasts. 

“The kids go to mom when they’re crying, yelling, asking for food. They go to mom for school stuff. So it was all on me.”

Britney*, 37, an executive in the financial industry, is in a similar situation, even though she has a partner at home to help. She’s the mother of three children, including an infant born in July. She and her husband work for the same company in Massachusetts, but she’s above him on the org chart, and therefore has a higher salary. That said, when the pandemic hit, he set up a desk downstairs (away from the children), and she found herself in her third trimester, managing six people at work, and homeschooling their two older kids, including a son whose special needs require additional therapies. “He’s a very supportive husband—I’m not putting him down at all,” says Britney. “But in some ways, it just feels like this was the expectation, because I’m the mother.”

Before she went on maternity leave in July, Britney felt herself slipping at work. There were meetings she was silent at, because she had to mute her microphone so her colleagues couldn’t hear her children in the background. There were projects that were given to other members of her team. There was the feeling that she was failing the people she managed, and more than anything, that she was failing herself. And then, the CEO sent an email to the entire company, praising her husband for his great work. 

“He got called out by the head of our company, just saying what a great job he’s doing working from home,” says Britney, “and how he’s exceeding expectations and doing everything he should be doing, given the difficult situation. I was proud of him, but at the same time, I wanted to write back to that email that went out to our whole company, being like—‘I’m the one upstairs trying to work, doing my child’s therapy, pregnant, and so uncomfortable half the time.’”

Britney describes that email as a slap in the face. “That was really hard for me, because I wasn’t mad at him, but it was a situation where it almost feels expected of the mother in a way. The kids go to mom when they’re crying, yelling, asking for food. They go to mom for school stuff. So it was all on me.”

When she gave birth in July, Britney finally felt a sense of relief. Even though she still had two other kids at home—not to mention a newborn to care for—it was the first time in months that she was able to catch her breath. But her maternity leave ends later this month, and Britney is dreading going back to work. That dread is causing her to reevaluate her entire sense of self. “I always knew I wanted kids, but I always knew I wanted to be a working mom, as well,” she says. “I just know my personality, and I wasn’t one to be a stay-at-home-mom. And now it’s changed 100% because I can’t figure out how to do both and still come out successful in both.” That said, Britney and her husband need her salary, so she has to keep working for as long as she can. 

While they talk about their desire to leave their jobs—or at least get a break—neither Britney or Alexis want to put their careers on pause. After all, it doesn’t seem right that everyone else gets to return to offices and receive accolades and promotions while moms are logging off to make lunches and wipe butts and being penalized for it. “I feel like we fought to be able to be leaders and to be respected in the workplace—especially women of color,” says Alexis. “I just feel like as a woman of color, I have to work ten times harder in my job, but now [my career] is being taken away during the pandemic because I’m expected to stay home with my kids.” Instead, Alexis and Britney—and working moms everywhere—are asking for a lot more support, wiggle room, and relief from the anxiety that they’re going to miss out on work opportunities—or worse, get fired—because they have to take care of their kids. 

“I would love to ask my boss right now for some more time off—even if it was unpaid, even for a month...But I feel like if I did that, I'd be done.”

“Women are twice as likely to be concerned that their performance is going to be negatively reviewed or affected because of this additional childcare,” says Ellingrud. “I think what companies can do and managers specifically can do is give women and men the comfort that they’re not going to be laid off, that their performance is not going to be negatively viewed.”

For both Alexis and Britney, being able to reconfigure their schedules would have made a world of difference, as would a slight shift in expectations for parents and an acknowledgment that their sacrifices were appreciated—which unfortunately for Alexis, wasn’t the case. “It was reiterated to me that things have to be equal amongst all employees, and we can’t favor the parents,” she says. Britney, on the other hand, has a manager who understands her situation, but she feels like she’s already asked for too much. “I would love to ask my boss right now for some more time off—even if it was unpaid, even for a month,” she says. “But I feel like if I did that, I’d be done.”

As the McKinsey survey points out, more than 75% of CEOs say gender parity is one of their top ten business concerns, but that is not exactly obvious in 2020. In order to really keep women in the workforce—especially Black women like Alexis, who are more often than not the primary breadwinner in their households—Ellingrud says that companies are going to need to adapt to a new normal as well—one that takes into consideration the entire woman and all the directions she’s pulled in over the span of a day. “Give them the comfort [of knowing they’re not going to be fired], but also give them the flexibility to work when it’s more convenient for them, because there’s just a lot more that employees are taking on.”

In the meantime, both Alexis and Britney are just living one day at a time and trying not to get discouraged by what lies ahead. “I think I will almost have to start over in the sense of proving my ability to be promoted,” says Britney. “I think I could’ve been on that path if this hadn’t happened.”

*Names have been changed at the request of the subjects.

Caitlin Abber

Written By

Caitlin Abber

Caitlin Abber is the Brand Editor at M.M. LaFleur, and an award-winning writer and content creator. Over the last decade she has held senior editorial positions at MTV, Women's Health, Public Radio International, and Bustle, and has bylines at InStyle and OprahMag.com.

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