This essay is part of our original Women at Work series.
By Laura Longhine
By March 2021, a year into the pandemic, more than 1.5 million moms of school-aged children were still missing from the workforce, according to The Wall Street Journal. I was one of them.
When Covid arrived, I had only recently clawed my way back into a career, having landed a job as editor-in-chief of our city’s alt-weekly newspaper. After years of staying at home raising my two young daughters and working the occasional freelance or part-time gig, running a newsroom was exhilarating. But it was also low-paying and stressful, a tale of ever-shrinking budgets and never-ending crises. At night my kindergartener would cling to me, wishing out loud that I could go back to working at the local bookstore.
The pandemic, of course, only turned that struggle to balance parenting and a career from low-key stressful to nearly impossible. So when my publisher called me in June of 2020 and announced that we were both being laid off (along with almost half the staff), what I mostly felt was a whooshing sense of relief. Later that week, as I packed up my desk, an ad rep who was a single mom confided that she wished she’d been laid off too—with schools closed, she was struggling to take care of her young son, but couldn’t afford to quit. For a brief while, with enhanced unemployment benefits, it was as if the government was finally compensating parents for doing the essential work of childcare.
Still, it smarted, to so suddenly lose the place I’d made for myself, the work I’d been proud to be a part of. A week after the layoffs, the paper’s owners named the young male staff writer I’d hired six months earlier, in his first reporting job out of college, as the new editor-in-chief.
When I was 10, my mother saw an ad on TV (probably while watching Days of Our Lives and ironing my father’s shirts) for something called The Chubb Institute. It was a program run by the Chubb insurance company, offering training in computer programming, and the possibility of a job, to anyone who passed their aptitude test. This was in the late 80s, long before most people had ever heard of coding. My mother passed, and after the course was offered a full-time job. She ended up working there for more than 25 years.
By the time my mom went back to work I had already fixed my parents neatly into boxes. My father was the important one, who wore a suit and took the train to the city every morning, leaving before we were even awake. He had a corner office in a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan, and his own secretary. My mother spent her days at home with us in New Jersey, doing laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, and shepherding us from place to place, so essential to our lives I did not even see her. Even after my mother got a job, after she started putting on suits of her own every morning, this impression didn’t much change. I barely knew what my mother did at work—she almost never talked about her job—and it never occurred to me that it might be interesting.
It wasn’t until I had two daughters of my own, until I found myself landed in almost exactly the same place, that I was inspired by a vision of her I had somehow never seen before: a stay-at-home mom launching a new career in her mid-30s, in a male-dominated field, with two kids still at home. Across the span of decades, I felt closer to her than I ever had. There she was, another woman struggling to be both a mother and a person in the world.
Being a stay-at-home mom during the pandemic was easier than being a working-at-home mom during the pandemic, but it was not, by any stretch, easy. The first day both my girls went back to school, I sat down on the couch in my daughter’s empty bedroom, amid the sunlight and the silence, dazed. Now what?
As schools have reopened this fall, and unemployment has run out, many of us are now trying to find a way back to work. And I wonder how many other mothers are feeling the same way I am: afraid to go back to jobs that left little room for anything else, but also afraid that if we don’t get back on track, we’ll never catch up.
A friend of mine, who stayed at home raising her two boys until they were teenagers, has been trying to get back into the workforce for years now, with limited success. She has patched together three part-time jobs and finds herself vying for positions less senior than the ones she held 20 years ago, being interviewed by women half her age. “Do I have to start all over?” she asks me.
Another friend, a mother of two boys 10 and 13, kept her job running a local environmental nonprofit throughout the pandemic. Her husband is a surgeon, so nearly all the childcare—when schools were closed, when the kids were sick, when after school programs and camps were not running—fell to her. She managed by working through weekends and late into the night, night after night. She loves her job but she is, still, always, exhausted.
In a society that places so little value on caregiving, where careers are designed for people who have no other responsibilities or demands, there aren’t a lot of great options. But the disruption of the pandemic has clarified one thing for me—that I don’t want to go back to the life I had before, that my job was not worth what I had been giving up to keep it.
I’m not alone. With so many workers of all stripes clamoring to keep more flexible, remote options and declining to go back to jobs that paid too little or demanded too much, perhaps some things will finally change. I’m hopeful that now is the moment when we start to rethink our notions of work, so that it’s less all-or-nothing, so that it becomes acceptable or even admirable to shape our jobs around our lives and not the other way around.
In the meantime, I find myself back where I started: adrift. I wonder if I can transform a high-powered job into something more manageable or a part-time job into something more meaningful. If I should find a temp job and go back to school, or pull together a patchwork of freelance assignments, or invent a project of my own. I think about my own mother, and every mother, trying to negotiate the conflict between children and work alone, as if no one had ever faced it before. And I know I’ll have to make my own map.
Laura Longhine is a writer, editor, and mother of two based in Charlottesville, Virginia. She’s at work on a book about the radical origins of kindergarten and its transformation in the accountability era. Find her on Twitter @longhine and at longhine.wordpress.com.
Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here.