I’m the Executive Editor of a parenting site, and I still can’t find work/life balance
A new study published in the academic journal Gender, Work & Organization shows that in households where both parents work, the pandemic has exacerbated the gender gap in work hours by 20 to 50 percent — meaning that a working mom’s schedule is being upended while dad’s work schedule stays pretty much the same. I doubt there is a working mom out there who is surprised by this. Many working moms are being forced to cut hours they work from home to maintain the household — and care for kids who are now home full time.
I’m sitting at my dining room table — my makeshift office. It’s in the center of my house, but we live in an old Hudson Valley home, and there’s not exactly an “office” proper. I’m the Executive Editor of Scary Mommy — the largest parenting brand in the country. Currently, I’m overseeing our Deputy News Editor, who is assigning a team of writers articles that we’ll push out to our four million fans on Facebook in real time. She works from her dining room table too, as her husband “needs the office for his work.” I’m also overseeing our Snapchat channel, which will push out stories to our over three million fans on that platform. In between that, I’m attempting to launch a book club for our site — an endeavor we’ve never taken on before — but the importance of new revenue streams is not lost on anyone trying to maintain some sort of job security in this economy. And my nine-year-old son is sitting next to me playing Mario Kart on his Nintendo Switch, complete with all the sound effects you’d expect to come from a child his age.
Now a Facebook message from a parent at school who needs help with the PTO. Now a meeting rescheduled at the last minute. Now the sales team needs a pitch approved for Snapchat. Now my kids are hungry. I’ll put everything on hold to make them lunch, rushing through it like I usually do. I’ll exist on a cup of coffee until about 4pm — when I have time to grab a snack. I’ll feel like a live wire the entire time. I might raise my voice when my kids get too loud. I might respond to a Slack message in a short fashion. I’ll certainly feel like I’m failing someone at different points throughout the day.
“Among telecommuting-capable parents with children aged 1 through 5, we find that the reduction in hours worked per week between February and April is nearly 4.5 times larger for mothers than fathers,” the study, called COVID 19 and the Gender Gap In Work Hours, reads. “This indicates that even when both parents are able to work from home and may be more directly exposed to childcare and housework demands, mothers are scaling back to meet these responsibilities to a greater extent than fathers. Ultimately, our analyses reveal that gender inequality in parents’ work hours has worsened during the pandemic amongst mothers and fathers with young children, even among those who were able to telecommute.”
And this just speaks to households where mothers can scale back. There are plenty of households where that is not an option — and what do you think the result is there? I’d guess that mothers are working more than ever, based not on any scientific study — just my own life. My partner is a working musician, and you can imagine what the pandemic has done to his income stream. The weekly trips to the city have dried up — as have the paying gigs. This has made our once, two-income household a one-income household. And it’s given him a lot more time — and he is a partner who cooks, cleans, and maintains the home. But the kids still want their mom. They always want their mom. “We know that young children are more likely to disrupt mothers’ sleep and leisure than fathers’,” study author, Caitlyn Collins explains. “Even in U.S. households where parents aim for equal parenting, it’s typical that for children, ‘If something needs to get fixed, mom is the name they know.'” And working moms trying to manage working at home during a pandemic know this all too well. But let’s get back to those households where both parents are still able to telecommute.
“This study provides early evidence that the pandemic has increased gender inequality in the labor force with troubling consequences for mothers,” the study reports. “Despite the increased necessity and visibility of domestic labor brought about by school and work closures in the face of COVID-19, fathers appear to not have reduced their employment contributions as much as mothers. Instead, mothers have scaled back their hours to meet new caregiving demands.” I don’t have to look far to see that this is what’s happening daily — my company employs dozens of mothers who are now working from home. And in so many cases, I’m hearing the same refrain: “My husband closes the door and tends to his Zoom calls while I’m left wrangling children while I tend to mine.” “My husband never blocks out time on his calendar to handle lunchtime for the kids, so I’m left scrambling my schedule — or worse, making lunch while on conference calls.”
And then there’s the interaction kids need; They need to go outside. They need to not be on their screens all day. They need to maintain some sort of schedule for their own well-being, as their lives have already been turned upside down so much in the face of COVID. And that’s where the overwhelming mom-guilt comes in. Speaking of that — have you ever heard the phrase “dad guilt?” You haven’t. It doesn’t exist.
“The future is unknown, but our results indicate mothers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic and may face long-term employment penalties as a consequence,” the study reminds us. “For this reason, it is critical for employers, managers, and other leaders to recognize the gendered implications of the pandemic on workers to avoid this consequential mistake: the loss of women workers.”
I work for a website whose sole focus is moms, and I still haven’t been able to find that work-life balance. I’m not even sure what that would look like, to be honest. I ascended the ranks from a news writer to Executive Editor in three years because I’m what my male bosses have described as on several occasions, “a beast.” This is something I’ve always taken pride in — I know I have the grit and work ethic to build and accomplish pretty much anything professionally. But the chronic anxiety and feeling like I am always stretched thin is making me wonder if this is the reward for being an amazing employee when you’re a mom; utter exhaustion and the feeling that you’re failing at pretty much everything.
The study did find that there are those who work from home whose days haven’t been completely upended during COVID: Dads. “In contrast to mothers’ work-hour reductions, we observed very little change in fathers’ weekly work hours…These trends indicate that the pandemic is exacerbating gender inequality. Mothers appear to be taking on a larger burden of childcare and homeschooling at expense of paid work time, as evidenced by their larger reduction in work hours compared with fathers.”
Whenever someone writes about the unfair balance of the domestic workload in the home, there are always those who demand that this is an easy fix: tell your partner to do his share! I’m not sure if that’s intentionally obtuse, or just naive. Often, women don’t talk about the mental load of being a mother, because we don’t want to sound like we’re feeding into the stereotype of the incompetent father who doesn’t help around the house. Our partners do help. They get up, they feed the kids, they participate in household chores… but it’s just not the same as the burden most women carry every day. The mental load.
Think about your own household. Think of the last time your kid had a fever. Who stayed up with that kid all night? Now think of the last time your fridge was filled. Insurance papers were filled out. Old clothes were rotated out of their drawers and donated. Who makes the mental note that you’re about to run out of milk? Who communicates with teachers? The answer, overwhelmingly, is moms — and we all know that. This isn’t something that can change overnight, and implying that it is displays a true misunderstanding of what the mental load actually is.
It’s going to take a lot of work on the part of employers and partners to change this dynamic. But if we don’t want women to drown, we have to start somewhere.
“To avoid long-term losses in women’s labor force participation, employers should offer flexibility to keep mothers attached to employment, including allowing employees to work shorter hours,” the study authors recommend. “Further, fathers should be encouraged to provide more hours of care for their children, which may mean sacrificing paid work hours to do so.”
Great suggestions. But is anyone listening?