Op-Ed: Working Moms Like Me Are at the Coronavirus Breaking Point

"It helped me to hear from others going through it, so maybe it will help someone else to hear from me," says Cheddar's Jill Wagner.

By Jill Wagner

ljubaphoto | Getty Images

This story originally appeared on Cheddar

Four weeks ago my daughter started in-person nursery school. A week later, she got a stuffy nose — typical toddler stuff — and because of new COVID health guidelines, she had to come home.

I was anchoring Cheddar's Opening Bell when her teacher texted me and my husband to pick her up early. As I read the message, I had to physically hold back tears. (Yes, it came as a surprise to me, too!) But it was at that point when I realized how much I needed a break; just a few hours of help in what's been an exhausting and emotionally draining year.

As a working mom, I am at my breaking point.

We are seven months into this pandemic with no end in sight, no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. If anything, there's a feeling of impending doom; that it's only a matter of time before cases go back up and nursery schools, daycare centers, and anything else that provides a minor reprieve will shut down again.

There are simply not enough hours in the day to be a full-time worker, parent, and teacher.

On a recent Need2Know podcast, my co-host Carlo Versano asked me how I'm doing — we always check in with each other before getting to the news — and instead of sugar coating it, I told him, and our listeners, the truth. This pandemic has been debilitating for me, and I would guess, plenty of other working parents, especially women.

I was raw and vulnerable and a bit nervous that I'd get backlash for venting when so many people have it worse than I do: I have a supportive husband, who stopped working altogether to take care of our daughter in the morning when I'm on-air (although I'm not sure how much longer we can afford to do this), just one child, and a job that lets me work from home when needed.

Instead, the support has been overwhelming. I've received emails from Alaska, Idaho, and Canada, from women and men, telling me about how they've lost their job, or quit their job, or simply can't do their job and also watch their kids who are now remote learning. One woman sent me an inspirational quote. Another, a motivational TikTok video.

One man told me that for the first time in his life he is suffering from severe anxiety and had to take a leave of absence from work. Another woman said she's had to turn down incredible professional opportunities — that she's worked so hard for — and fears that they'll never come back around.

These are the stories behind the statistics. And unfortunately, they're all too common.

After years of professional gains, working women are being forced to leave the labor force in droves, mostly because of a lack of childcare during the pandemic and because most of the child-related responsibilities still fall on them. An analysis from the National Women's Law Center found that 860,000 women — the population of Indianapolis — have left the workforce, just in the month of September.

According to a different study from McKinsey and Sheryl Sandberg's LeanIn.org, a quarter of working women are now considering scaling back their career ambitions or leaving the workforce entirely because of stresses related to the pandemic. It also found Black women are having a worse experience and receiving less support.

Another key takeaway: The COVID-19 crisis could erase all the gains women have made in management and senior leadership since McKinsey and LeanIn.org began their study together in 2015.

Lauren Brody, founder of The Fifth Trimester, which helps companies and organizations do a better job of supporting parents, said the exhaustion is universal. "But more than exhausting, it's scary, because we fear the progress that we've made, personally and as a larger culture, could slip away if we don't actively push back to protect our income and our status."

I feel this sentiment myself. I've always been career-driven. I've worked overnight shifts, late nights, weekends, and early mornings (still do). I've moved from New York City to a small town in Michigan for my first on-air job, and eventually worked my way up to the network level at CBS News, which meant a 2 am in-time at the New York Stock Exchange. During all that, I had a side-hustle: I co-founded, wrote — and eventually sold — a successful daily email newsletter, Need2Know. And, oh yeah, I got married and had a daughter.

But I was never truly exhausted and overwhelmed — at least not in this long-term sense — until now. We're in the middle of a public health crisis and the most exciting and important election I can remember. During any other point in my professional life, I'd be volunteering for extra assignments and late-night debate coverage, posting additional reports on social media and online. Instead, it's taking all the energy I can muster to simply do my baseline job.

So how will this affect my career in the long term? I'm not really sure, but I can't imagine it will help.

I mentioned this to Brody. She says it's important to remember that right now doing the baseline IS extra: "All of our work has value, whether it's paid work or unpaid housework/childcare. If you get to the end of the day having done even *most* of those two jobs, you're already overachieving. Try to remember that many of us over-deliver and this may be time for a reset in order to prioritize long-term goals (and mental health) over short-term perfection."

It is a 24-hour, 7-days a week slugfest. Work. Parent. Repeat. Work. Parent. Repeat. Any extra minutes that would formerly be spent networking or thinking about career advancement have been replaced by sleep. Or worry. Or maybe Netflix and wine, if we're lucky.

I've hesitated to say this out loud because I worry it sounds like a whiny trail of complaints. And from the looks of my Instagram feed, filled with photos of shiny, happy people pumpkin-picking and enjoying life, it's felt like perhaps I'm the only one struggling. But the reaction I've gotten from just admitting that this is hard and that I worry about my own career trajectory and that of so many other women who've busted their butts to get where they are, shows that I'm not alone here. It helped me to hear from others going through it, so maybe it will help someone else to hear from me.

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