Celebrating mothers with flowers and chocolates on one day of the year is lovely. But the most significant celebration may be to honor and acknowledge the challenges working mothers face and contribute to the conditions for success in their work and life. The pandemic has been especially hard on women and their careers, especially women with children. But there are ways to respond and have positive impact toward mothers’ success, happiness and fulfillment.
Ironically, Mother’s Day has its roots during a time of devastating health crisis. The day to honor moms began in the early 1900s and was originally considered to be more of a collective celebration for communities of women, rather than a celebration of individual mothers within families. Large numbers of children were regularly dying because of epidemics, so the original idea was to get mothers together and educate them about hygiene and proactive health measures—on a day for mothers. Today, the health crisis has also had huge effects on communities and moms.
Women Take a Hit
In fact, many women are stepping back or losing employment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports women’s participation in the labor market is the lowest it has been in 30 years, and women’s unemployment has increased by 2.9% more than men’s. According to a study by Indeed, 29% of women have reduced their working hours during the pandemic, and 9% have left the labor market entirely. A study by Visier found 42% of women with children considered leaving the workforce and 52% have contemplated dropping out.
LaFawn Davis, Indeed group vice president of environmental, social and governance, shared her experience as a woman in leadership and as a mom. “We’ve had to make choices between our families, our caretaking responsibilities and our work,” she says. The most pessimistic predictions suggest this may be the end of the working mom—and it will be impossible for mothers to return to the work status they enjoyed previously until schools and child care are returned to full strength.
Importantly, one of the most significant benefits of work is the social support and networks we create. Unfortunately, Indeed also found those who no longer work full time report worsening relationships—in their personal lives and their community: 55% of women report a weaker support system compared with 35% who still work full time.
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Not surprisingly, women who leave the workforce are 26% more likely to have children and 67% more likely to be primary caregivers. In addition, a study at Washington University in St. Louis showed mothers’ work hours fell four to five times as much as fathers’.
But when moms do work, the challenges are significant. And while there are plenty of benefits that come with working—financial rewards, meaning, community and the sense of contribution—it is not for the faint of heart. These are some of the challenges that define conditions for working moms:
Moms Work—A Lot
Classic sociological literature describes the “second shift” in which women finish their full-time paid day of work and then work on family and home responsibilities after that. Recent research at the University of Pennsylvania found mothers take on a greater share of tasks at home, and a McKinsey study found mothers are more than three times as likely to meet the majority of demands for housework and caregiving during the pandemic. A study by Visier found 70% of full time working women do all or most of the caregiving in their home.
When we picture a working mom, we may be most likely to imagine small children and diapers, but for most women, caregiving covers all ages and stages. Davis says, “Mothing doesn’t stop when they become adults and there are caretaking responsibilities women have not just for their children but also for aging parents or a sick spouse. Caretaking has risen to the top among women, not just women of small children.”
Moms Face Burnout and Professional Impact
Working moms also face challenges in terms of their mental health and careers. According to the McKinsey study, more women than men report exhaustion, burnout and pressure to work more. In addition, a study by My Perfect Resume found 75% of women—compared with 59% of men—felt their employer expected them to be always on. A study by FlexJobs found 40% were unable to unplug or were working more than they thought they should.
The study from Indeed also reports 70% of women said they didn’t receive the necessary support from management. Those who were still working were more likely to say they experienced patience, understanding and support from their companies and their leaders.
In terms of their professional contribution and success, the My Perfect Resume study reported 43% of women—compared with 30% of men—said they couldn’t give their all at work because they were struggling to balance work and parenting. And the research by Indeed found 76% of women who are working less hours said their professional performance is suffering.
Working mothers also face “the maternal bias”—the conscious or unconscious belief that a working mom can’t be effective both in work and motherhood. A University of Michigan study found it’s a bias shared by and regarding all genders (called “the ideal worker norm” for parents generally) and tends to be widespread. When a mom succeeds brilliantly at work, people wonder how she’s able to perform so well and also be effective at home. Or when a mom is a great parent, people may assume she doesn’t excel at work. This bias can be undermining and disempowering.
How Moms Can Respond
Moms can respond effectively to these challenges by practicing self-care, setting boundaries and communicating their needs to their employers, partners or support network. They can also be open with their children about their struggles. Davis says, “If we are more honest with our children, it helps them understand how to be empowered and how to cope as well.” Davis says it’s also smart to delegate and empower others. When team members are empowered at work, it reduces everyone’s burden and when children help themselves at home, it also lessens otherwise-overwhelming demands.
Moms can also respond by reevaluating the expectations they place on themselves. Children aren’t looking for perfect mothers, only mothers who love them deeply. I’m an advocate of identifying your “mom language.” Reflect on what’s most important to you as a mother and how you (uniquely) do your best mothering. Baking cookies or preparing great meals may be important to some moms, but that doesn’t have to be the definition of good motherhood for all. For example, your mom language may be having breakfast with your children and talking with them about the expectations for their day. Or your mom language may be driving your children back and forth to school when you’re able to connect and check in on their experiences. The key idea is to prioritize activities, doing those which are most important to you, your children and your family—and not try to do it all.
How Companies and Leaders Can Respond
Companies also have a responsibility to their employees who are parents. First, they should measure, track and develop knowledge of their workforce, so they can contribute to successful conditions for mothers. This means knowing the demographics of the workforce, understanding hiring and promotion stats and using data to make informed decisions. Davis believes these metrics are key, “In order to really attract [and support mothers, companies] must have an understanding of the unique needs of their workforce.”
Informed by data, companies should ensure their policies and their cultures support working moms. Says Davis, “Companies should take a step back and create policies and ensure there is a company culture that works for working mothers and caretakers. Really take a look at what…employees need, since their employees are their greatest assets.” Davis advocates for companies to create solutions that are both innovative and transformative to attract and retain working mothers.
Leaders should also seek to be attentive and empathetic. Davis says, “An empathetic manager and an empathetic culture…are actually what help create the space for women to make the choices they need so they can succeed in every aspect of their lives.“ This impacts the whole culture and all employees, not just mothers. “[This sets a tone] for the culture and the environment for your entire workforce. Everyone will feel it whether they’re a parent or not, [making for] a better workforce where people feel like they can belong.”
Motherhood is sacred and the saying is apt, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” It’s critical we support mothers because they make such a huge contribution through their work and to children, families and communities. Women and mothers have been hurt by the pandemic, but we can find our way back. By prioritizing mothers and putting conscious effort into creating better conditions for their success, we pave the way for the whole of our communities to succeed.