An Organizational Opportunity: Supporting Working Parents During the Pandemic
In early 2020, I was a mother to a toddler, a PhD student, and full-time employee. On March 11, 2020, everything changed. The pandemic sent us all home, and suddenly, my three roles—which had been conveniently compartmentalized over the previous two years—all existed within the confines of my house.
For the first several weeks, it was mostly chaos. My husband and I passed a needy two-year-old back and forth all day, depending on who had a meeting or a deadline. We upgraded our internet to support Zoom calls by day, three-hour online classes by night, and way too much Sesame Street streaming in between. Getting out for 20 minutes to walk the dog became a respite!
Amidst the chaos, I found an opportunity to better understand what I was experiencing. Taking three research courses during this time gave me the chance to design various studies about the impact of the pandemic on working parents. Clearly, the topic was top-of-mind for me; how were others experiencing it?
Fast forward several months, and I was able to bring one of my qualitative designs to life. In February 2021, I gathered six working mother leaders to learn about their experiences navigating the pandemic. I started each focus group interview by playing a clip from The Primal Scream, a New York Times series that has examined the pandemic’s effect on working mothers in America. Listening to the mothers’ recordings, my participants had a range of reactions: brimming tears, wry smiles, and knowing nods.
In my time with these remarkable women, I learned many important things that all leaders and organizations must know if they want to support and retain working mothers as the pandemic continues. The three most critical are:
- The burnout is unlike anything they’ve experienced before, and it has taken a toll. The mothers shared physical symptoms of exhaustion, mental health challenges, and a near-constant state of overwhelm. Half of the moms in my study took a leave of absence from their jobs at some point during the pandemic, and others were considering it. Organizations have to find ways to support these moms—via mental health days, leaves of absences, or short-term sabbaticals—or risk losing them altogether when they decide to quit.
- Leaders, in particular, are being asked to provide increased personal and professional support to those they supervise. Because my study focused on working mothers who hold leadership roles, it often came up that they felt the need to care for their direct reports during this challenging time. This type of emotional labor falls outside traditional work responsibilities yet represents a critical part of managing real people. Organizations must recognize these efforts, and ideally, compensate women accordingly.
- They are doing the best they can. Every mother in my study reported some level of self-sacrifice as a means for meeting the demands of their jobs. One woman reported waking up at 4 AM just so she could work for a few hours before her child awoke. Another admitted to having to work through lunch due to rescheduled client meetings, only to have two hungry toddlers crying in the background. One mom shared that she put her child to bed in the early evening and often dozed off herself, waking later to work for several more hours. I could share countless other examples that all demonstrate the same point: many working moms have pushed on, giving their best in an unprecedented situation. Acknowledging this stamina and endurance is a small thing an employer can do to provide support and boost the morale of these working parents.
For all the struggles working parents are facing during the pandemic, the moms in my study shared some positive moments, too: time for breakfast as a family, being able to put their little ones down for naps in the middle of the day, and impromptu walks in the late afternoon. “How were we away from our families for so long before?” one mother mused during this part of our discussion. Indeed, there was a resounding sense that the post-pandemic world of work will have to be different than the way it had been in the past. Won’t it?
Herein lies the opportunity for organizations to support working parents during this time. Mine was just one study, but the body of research on this topic continues to grow. As leaders of organizations consider how to navigate the so-called Great Resignation, this one study illuminates the struggles of working parents—and a few strategies organizations can utilize to attract and retain them.