The whole working moms vs. stay-at-home moms depiction is old. We’re all moms. We’re all struggling in different areas. Most importantly, we all love our children and are trying our best. I hope the effects of the pandemic have at least shown us that we’re on the same team. However, the pandemic has morphed these two identities into a hybrid version of a working mom who not only works from home but also performs stay-at-home duties simultaneously. For the past 18 months or so, I have fallen into that category along with many other working moms across the country. We’ve had to juggle our daily Zoom meetings, our children’s remote learning, and the caretaking of our little ones—all while we maintain our household.
I fall short of the right words to describe what this working-from-home-during-a-pandemic experience has been like for us. Some words that pop into my head are: brutal, exhausting, empowering, frustrating, revelatory, and demanding. I have a strong hunch that I’m not alone in this sentiment. I encourage you to read the New York Times’ series “The Primal Scream,” which features a behind-the-scenes look at the effects of the pandemic on women. Nothing I read in this series is surprising to me because I’m one of the statistics they share. Nonetheless, it’s cathartic to know our realities are now in the spotlight because we are “screaming” that we need help.
Journalist Claire Cain Miller is one of the reporters contributing to this New York Times series, and she eloquently sums up in an interview with National Public Radio’s (NPR) Terry Gross the detrimental effects the pandemic has had on women. She confesses, “As a working parent, I can tell you there are only so many months that you can wake up at dawn or work after bedtime in order to get it all done. It’s just not sustainable.” And if you’re a single parent, all of these challenges are multiplied by a million. It’s no wonder NPR’s Pallavi Gogoi reports that women are desperate, hopeless, and exacerbated with the current state of minimal support for life during a pandemic.
So what have women done to survive, even as in-person work has resumed? Some have advocated for more flexible schedules, others have pulled back from some of their work responsibilities, and others have simply quit the workforce. Gogoi notes, “A growing, prosperous economy depends on a large and committed workforce, with women playing a vital role. If women decide to stay on the sidelines, the very dynamism of the U.S. economy is at risk as many households lose half of their earnings and productive capacity.” I have the privilege to opt for the first option: I’ve advocated for a flexible, hybrid work schedule so that I can be actively present in my children’s lives and perform my best at work. I just couldn’t handle another day of working full time from home. It was no longer sustainable for my mental, physical, and emotional well-being.
As I’ve returned to in-person work after not being in the office for over a year and a half, I’ve reflected on how I’ve changed, how my workplace has adapted to this new “normal,” and how my own expectations as a working mother have evolved. Below are five lessons I’ve learned upon my return to working in person.
1. I am my best self working away from my children
I love my children unconditionally and there were many blessings in these past 18 months that were a result of being so close to them every single day. I feel like we all grew together (and cried together), and it was a life-changing bonding experience to go through this pandemic as a family unit. However, I am my best self when I am working away from home or at least when my boys are in school in person while I work from home. I don’t want to be my children’s teacher or their personal assistant during the week. My career is a priority in my life.
I enjoy the in-person meetings and Zoom is not my favorite. I love having the double screens in my office and my own space away from home dedicated to accomplishing my work responsibilities. Having those in-person informal conversations is refreshing and gives a nice balance to the work day. I look forward to dressing up for work because I am a fashion addict and am obsessed with creating the perfect outfit for any given occasion. Being in sweatpants constantly brings my mood down. I also enjoy the luxury of having some days when I can be home to work if my children are in school in person. Having this flexible schedule allows me to have more of a consistent work/life balance to avoid the extremes of working full time in person or full time remotely. Flexibility matters when you’re a working mother.
2. The commute is meditative
I used to complain about the traffic going to and from school drop-offs and work. The amount of time I would spend in my car was grueling and took its toll on my mental health. But those sentiments were all pre-pandemic. Now, my commute feels like a paradise. You’re telling me I get to be in my car for a certain period of time where I don’t have to serve snacks, answer emails, or neutralize any tantrums? My commute feels like a daily vacation!
I’ve taken this opportunity during my commute to catch up on my favorite podcasts, which include Unruffled, Coffee + Crumbs, Office Ladies, and Modern Love. I also get to jam out to my favorite Spotify playlists before I pick up my kids and put on Baby Shark for the millionth time. Turns out, my commute is a buffer from the stress from work before I deal with the stress of motherhood. It’s my downtime before the second shift, and I welcome it with open arms.
3. I am more protective of my calendar
In my line of work, meetings come with the territory. During the remote work period of the pandemic, having anywhere from four to six Zoom meetings daily was normal. Whether meetings are in person or online, I still feel zapped after them—more so with the Zoom ones, of course. Now that I have a better understanding of what I need to feel for my own well-being and to maximize my work performance, I restrict the number of meetings I have on a daily basis online and in person. I create blocks on my calendar to allow me to take my lunch, catch up on emails (instead of at night), and brainstorm big-picture projects.
I protect my calendar because I no longer feel that constantly giving my time allows me to be at my best. I am more aware of my mental and physical capacities and have adjusted my schedule to accommodate my needs rather than other people’s emergencies and demands. It’s OK to have work boundaries—this is all part of having a healthy work/life balance.
4. Working mothers are superhuman and still need help
Even though we may be physically at work, we’re still the primary caretakers of our children, even if they are in some form of child care. We never forget about our children when we are in meetings because the mental weight of motherhood never goes away. In fact, what adds to the mental load is the guilt of being away from our kids. There’s still that stigma of “Who’s taking care of your kids if you’re working?,” which I find very annoying. I doubt fathers get asked this question. We may be leading a team-building activity while we are checking our phones to see if the pediatrician called back about that strange rash on our child’s leg. We’re constantly juggling it all.
In many ways, this can make us superhuman, but it also means we need more support. We are still struggling and need company and government policies nationwide to more formally support working mothers’ needs. They say it takes a village to raise our kids, but many of us have been operating on fumes without much help. I am lucky I have my parents to help me throughout the week, but when they’re not available, it falls on me. Child care is extremely expensive and none of this is sustainable. The sacrifices mothers have to make should be red flags for employers and the government to make drastic improvements that would benefit working parents.
5. Work isn’t personal for me—my family is #1
I have a fulfilling and full life outside of work, and I feel blessed to say that. I work for many reasons, and one of the primary ones is to provide them with the luxuries my family deserves. I am dedicated to my family, not my employer. This does not mean I do not work my butt off daily to accomplish my work responsibilities. On the contrary, I have been successful in my career largely because of my strong work ethic. However, I do not put my work above my family. I have firm boundaries, and no work emergency is going to sacrifice my commitment to my family.
I cringe when I hear employers say, “We are one happy family.” Say what? To me, that’s code for a toxic work environment. In my perspective, work does not equate to a family. We are colleagues and some of us are friends, but we are not a family. I have a family already and my work does not resemble in the least my relationship with my family.
Work is not personal to me—it’s something I enjoy doing and am good at, but it doesn’t define my existence. I can step away at any time and take care of my family because they are my priority. Being with my family in close quarters for this pandemic has taught me that I value them above all else. I am now prepared to defend my needs as a working mother to be the mother they want.
Every mother may not have a choice about whether or not to be a working parent or a stay-at-home mom. There are many personal circumstances that determine what our paths will be. Nonetheless, no matter what label we put on each other, we are all trying our best to do what we can. Sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed, but we always learn from our experiences, which make us all stronger mothers. This has been one of the positive consequences of living through a pandemic. We’re all survivors.