Wait, Is Quitting The Secret To Better Work/Life Balance?

Working moms can’t afford to wait for employers to treat them fairly. So they’re figuring it out on their own terms.

by Mandi Woodruff-Santos
A collage representing a working mom, her child and changes taking place because of pandemic
It's Me, Mom

It’s been well over a year since Sarah Lee decided to leave her long-time role as a radiology technologist, and she still remembers the exact moment she hit her breaking point.

She was part of a skeleton radiology crew working to keep pace with the flow of patients from her hospital’s level one trauma E.R. Staff shortages during the pandemic meant she and her colleagues regularly worked mandatory overtime shifts.

“[Management] would make it out to be that you're in a good place for working moms and they understand, but that's really not the case,” says Lee.

It was Mother’s Day weekend and a toddler and his baby sister were admitted to Lee’s department for scans, both reportedly victims of child abuse. Thinking of her two children at home, who were almost exactly the same ages, she excused herself from the lab for the first time in her career so she could cry.

“That weekend I was like ‘I have to get out. I am done,’” she says. “It absolutely broke me.”

Through a colleague at the hospital, she learned about a new role that would take her out of the daily grind of radiology and put her in charge of training staff instead. She immediately applied. It was a lateral move that came with a negligible pay increase, but she needed better flexibility to help care for her children at home. Had it not been for her husband, who was able to step in as primary caregiver while Lee worked, she couldn’t have fathomed maintaining any work schedule at all.

Working Moms Play Catch-Up

Many women left the workforce altogether during the first two years of the pandemic and we have yet to make up those losses, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While men have entirely recouped their job losses since February 2020, there are still 1.1 million fewer women in the labor force.

For moms like Lee who continued to work, their focus shifted toward finding jobs with flexible hours and even turning down opportunities for new, higher paying roles.

“[Before getting this new role] I initially applied for a manager position that we had open because I knew I could do it,” says Lee. “But I took my application out. I was like ‘I can't, my kids are too little.’ I can't take those phone calls in the middle of the night.”

She’s hardly alone. Since the onset of the pandemic, one in three working moms said they considered downshifting their careers or leaving their jobs altogether, according to a 2021 survey by McKinsey.

Will Work For Flexibility

Like Lee, Jasmine Baker worked in a field that made remote work impossible during the early days of the pandemic.

As a bioinformatics scientist at a university in Texas, Baker, 34, needed to be onsite regularly to run lab experiments. Her son, 16 months, was enrolled in daycare but regularly needed to stay home due to strict COVID-19 policies. She found herself volunteering to take time off work on those days, rather than her husband.

“The default is the mom because society expects us to be the default,” says Baker. “Even at the daycare, they call me first and they want me to relay the message [to my husband if I can’t come].”

Sharing childcare duties with her husband didn’t come entirely naturally to either of them, she admits. Eventually, rather than volunteering to stay home, she began asking her husband to take time off instead. “I learned to prepare myself for the awkward silence,” she jokes. “The expectation is for us [as moms] to handle it.”

Even with a spouse at home to share childcare duties, Baker still craved a job that would give her the flexibility of remote work. She earned $53,000 in her role at the time and began researching jobs that involved more data analysis — which could be done remotely — rather than in-person lab work.

She met with a career coach and began applying for new roles. Within a few months, she received offers from three different employers. She ultimately chose a role that more than doubled her salary and allowed her to work from her home 100% of the time.

She starts the new role in early March. She’s looking forward to being able to afford a few creature comforts that will free up even more time for her son.

“I’m gonna have a consistent housekeeping schedule,” she says. “And I'll be able to have takeout more than once a week, which will be a big deal.”

Working Motherhood In A Post-Pandemic World

There’s no question the pandemic devastated working mothers, but the reality is that we were already struggling to find support in the workplace long before COVID-19.

A stubborn gender wage gap and lack of mandatory paid parental leave have long hindered women’s lifetime earning potential. And the societal reality that domestic duties often fall on women’s shoulders more than men adds to the pressure working mothers face.

The controversial Build Back Better Plan championed by President Biden failed to garner Congressional approval last year, and hopes for universal benefits like paid parental leave and preschool for 3 and 4 year olds died along with it. Whether or not employers will step in and create environments more hospitable to working moms and parents in general is left to be seen.

Like Lee and Baker, many working moms are finding they simply can’t afford to wait.

Mandi Woodruff-Santos is a wealth-building and career expert and co-host of the popular podcast Brown Ambition. Follow her on Instagram and TikTok.