Working Moms are at their Breaking Point: Strategies for Survival in the Pandemic

By Susan Melendez Doak, LPC

I looked back at my client through the screen on my computer and told her this: “I don’t know any working moms who are not breaking right now. It’s not you. We’re all struggling.” I fought back the tears, but she knew my statement was as true for me as her therapist as it was for her, my client. The working moms are not okay.

When the pandemic started last year, most of us thought the changes would be for a few months and then we’d get back to normal. People can do just about anything for ninety days. Now that we are nine months into the U.S. pandemic, it’s time to reflect on the impact of our situation on working moms. As a psychotherapist, I am hearing accounts first-hand about the mounting pressures that are pushing working moms to their breaking point. Moms are describing an overload of household duties, childcare, and schooling responsibilities, forcing them to reduce hours or pushing them out of work all together. They are worried about how the pandemic will affect their ability to make ends meet now, and later, and concerned about their ability to return to work. They come to me when they are at their breaking point and on the edge of a mental health crisis. Here is what I am learning.

Household Duties

Household duties continue on schedule, but now are increased with everyone at home. At my house, before the pandemic, no one was eating lunch at home. Now that we are all working and schooling from home, the sink is full by noon and the dishwasher and laundry machine are getting a major workout. Prior to the pandemic, working mothers were already doing the majority of the housework. True, men are increasingly sharing more household chores each year, but the amount of time they spent on these tasks as of January of 2020 was still considerably less than women. These problems have gotten more complex throughout the year, and newer studies are revealing a situation where women continue to take on a huge burden at home. Even so, 2020 has brought the entire family increased chores and a growing sense of fatigue.

School and Childcare

School and daycare are foundational structures for working families. With schools switching to fully online or hybrid models, educational duties are more often going to moms. Work hours are taking a hit, with many women scaling back or even leaving their jobs to take care of their children. In September 2020, women were four times more likely to lose their job or to leave the workforce. It’s no coincidence that this number soared in the same month that children “returned” to school. Moms are shouldering the majority of online education duties and increased childcare responsibilities due to school closures. Numbers from the United States Census from August 2020 tell us that “of those not working, women ages 25-44 are almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to childcare demands. About one in three (32.1%) of these women are not working because of childcare, compared to 12.1% of men in the same age group.” The basic foundations of daycare and school are no longer consistently available to families, and many moms no longer feel comfortable tapping older grandparents to help (because they are more at risk to the virus and often dealing with their own struggles). Families are left with few choices.

Job and Career Pressures

I’ve talked to many women who fear that their careers are on the line. If they take a break, will they be able to return? I see their work self-esteem slipping as they (along with many dads) have had to juggle their children and work simultaneously—and the feel they are failing at both. Moms tell me that the boundary between work and home no longer exists. They are squeezing work into every minute they can spare. One mother told me she was considering “pulling all-nighters again” like she did in college just to get in her normal work hours while also homeschooling her children. Another told me she feels she is “failing at work and failing at home” and daily faces “mom guilt” about not being enough for her family.

In the corporate world, there is pressure to appear always competent, pulled together and unphased. Having a shirtless child interrupt your Zoom call because they can’t find their iPad charger is not a recipe for projecting confidence during that important meeting. For women who can’t work from home, having to call into work again because your childcare fell through further pushes moms toward the ledge of unemployment as employers become exasperated. Women of color have been most affected by the job loss in the US with more than 11% unemployment for Black and Latina women compared to the overall rate of unemployment at 7.4% in September 2020. Jessica Calarco, sociologist and assistant professor at Indiana University puts it this way: “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.”

Lost Income Over a Lifetime

The scaling back of hours and lowered confidence at work are not just about losing some desired swagger in the workplace. These issues translate into lost money over time for women—lost career advancements, lost income, and lost retirement savings. Sally Krawcheck, CEO of Ellevest, an investing firm designed for women, outlines some of the risks for women during the pandemic. “Women who are privileged enough to work from home have lost productivity by double-digit percent, while men have gained productivity, like gains of 50%. The promotions that have occurred during the pandemic had gone something like 3-to-1 to men,” she says. Krawcheck goes on to say that women are living an average of 6 or 7 years longer than men, but with less time in the work force, this becomes a problem that is exacerbated by the pandemic. The pressures on women during the pandemic will result in compounded financial losses over time that will have impacts at the end of their lifespans. We would spend some time considering and lamenting these losses, but we can’t because the holidays are here…

The Holidays

The holidays have arrived, and women are typically the ones that bear the load of coordinating with family, choosing and purchasing gifts, planning, and preparing holiday meals and activities for others to enjoy. Women create the sensory experiences that most of us associate with the holidays—the smells, sights and sounds, by decorating, baking, and gift buying. The pressure to make the holidays special seems particularly high this year because the disappointments and losses of this year have left us feeling desperate for something good. Somehow, the moms will pull it off, but at what expense will maxed-out moms now make the holidays happen for their expectant families who just want things to “feel normal”?

Mental Health Challenges

In the mental health world, counselors, social workers, and psychologists have seen a correlation between increased stress and the presence of mental health symptoms. That means that people with higher stressors, especially moms, are more likely to experience conditions such as anxiety, depression, OCD, eating disorders, and relational issues. The pandemic is reaching into every community and most of us now know someone who has died from COVID-19 or who has experienced long lasting negative effects from infection. This season has been filled with so much grief. Grief from the loss of loved ones, from lost jobs, lost income, lost holiday gatherings, lost vacations, lost time with our loved ones, and so much more.

What Can Women do with the Things They Still Control?

If any of these struggles resonate with you, you are not alone. If you are feeling yourself start to break under the pressure of this pandemic and are losing your confidence at work and home, or feeling overwhelmed emotionally, stop blaming yourself. All of us have limits and most of us are hitting a wall. This pandemic has shown us that we are at the mercy of many factors that are beyond our control. That said, you still have some level of control and influence in many areas of your life. You still have strength and resources within you that can help you weather this. Now let’s talk strategy:

(1) Let it go. Lighten your holiday burden by letting go of some of your expectations for the holidays. It may be a good year to re-evaluate tasks and holiday spending and by prioritizing only the most important activities that maintain connection to those you love and care about. Perhaps this is a good year to opt out of the neighborhood cookie exchange.

(2) Reconfigure expectations. Expect more from family members for household duties. If you find that your household has slipped into the pattern of “mom will do it,” then call a family meeting, re-distribute tasks, and share the load.

(3) Set the narrative. Change the internal narrative that says, “you are failing.” Replace thoughts about failure and guilt with a more self-compassionate statement, such as “This is an unusual circumstance; I am doing the best with the resources have.” Keep breathing.  

(4) Find community. Check in with other working moms and moms who would like to be working. Community is vital for emotional health and perspective, especially for moms.  Find people you can laugh with and enjoy yourself.

(5) Take back your time. Make the most of your time off by reserving some of it only for your own enjoyment (not housework or meeting the needs of others). If work has crept into your free time, set some new boundaries about where and when you will work and stick to it.

(6) Be decisive. Make decisions about work with your eyes fully open to the impact of your decisions, and then move forward with confidence. You don’t have to “do it all.” Many of our decisions are just different paths, not opposing ones. If you have to scale back work temporarily to be with your kids, then embrace it knowing that you can shift again in the future.

(7) Men are in this, too. Know that many men are feeling this pressure as well in their own ways and we are all on the same team. If you have a partner, communicate about your feelings, ideas and show appreciation to one another. If you think your partner needs to do more at home, set a time to meet and talk about it. The two of you may need to re-negotiate your set up, which is totally understandable.

(8) Re-evaluation work and childcare. Pause to re-evaluate your current setup for work and childcare and bring any tools available back to the table for discussion. Build the most sustainable plan you can and don’t expect yourself to pull it off perfectly. This may be another point of re-negotiating. Our options are fewer, but they can sometimes be reconfigured.

(9) Self-care is back. If you have put your self-care on the back burner, then rewrite it back into your routine. Self-care is not a “luxury,” it is a necessity to give you the strength and stamina to keep going. Exercise, read a book, join an online yoga or meditation class, go outside, laugh with a friend, write in a journal, or brew a cup of tea.

(10) Get help. If you are struggling with your mental health, and self-care is just not enough, reach out to a professional. Join a support group or therapy group. Start online therapy with a licensed therapist in your local area. Check in with your doctor, your pastor or minister, or a counselor. You don’t have to suffer alone.

There are no easy solutions right now to fix these problems, but support makes a difference. As 2021 approaches, I hope that or local, state and federal government will find ways to ease the burden on working moms. For right now, it is up to us to make the small changes in our own lives that can give us the strength to keep going every day. You are worth it. You are amazing. And I can’t believe we’ve made it this far.

Cover Photo credit: Kat Jayne

Susan Melendez Doak is a Licensed Professional Counselor and the owner of Newberg Counseling & Wellness, LLC. A mom of two, and an entrepreneur, Susan helps mothers to navigate the challenges of work and home.

3 thoughts on “Working Moms are at their Breaking Point: Strategies for Survival in the Pandemic

  1. RHONDA L PHILLIPS December 7, 2020 — 2:01 pm

    This a wonderful piece! You are amazing

    1. Susan Melendez Doak, LPC December 14, 2020 — 12:07 pm

      Thank you, Rhonda!

  2. Thank you for sharing the heavy truth.

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