The impact of COVID-19 on a working mother

Betsy Hilton, corporate communications and client strategy lead with Enterprise Canada, says she was one of the lucky ones in the pandemic. She continued to work full-time from home while her husband took leave to home-school and manage their young kids.

I am living the best-case scenario for a working mother in this pandemic. I have not had to remove myself from the workforce, or transition to part-time work. Yet.

To date, I am the embodiment of exactly what the Prosperity Project – a new, not-for-profit organization aiming to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on women – advocates for: I have a supportive spouse who is a highly-engaged father, a flexible career that transitions well to a work-from-home model and an accommodating workplace helmed by understanding, family-first leaders.

A few weeks into the pandemic, my husband and I discussed our options for childcare. He proposed what we both knew was the only option — he would take leave to home-school and manage our young kids and I would continue to work full-time out of our house until reasonable childcare options were back on the table.

It wasn’t an easy decision. It meant foregoing half our household income and making some big sacrifices. Not the least of which was the security of his employment, longer-term. I know of only one other father who has done the same. Across Canada, we’ve heard anecdotes and seen data that indicates our family’s resolution is rare. It is far more common for mothers to drop out of the workforce when childcare is unavailable — and during COVID-19, women’s participation in the workforce has plummeted to its lowest in three decades.

So, here we are. A few weeks from the start of school and it remains unclear what that will look like – certainly in the TDSB, but truly, for everyone. After six months on leave, my husband will go back to work and the kids back to school. It was a practical decision, returning our household to the two-income model it was designed around. I am deeply aware of the privilege that made this a tough decision to consider, rather than a reality to contend with.

We have no official word on after-school care. We are on a waitlist and have arrangements for more costly in-home after-school care in the meantime.

But we have no plan for the inevitable disruptions that student, teacher or administrator illness will bring. We have no plan for the oft-mentioned second wave that looms like a dark cloud.

While we are fortunate to have all our kids’ grandparents nearby, they are in high-risk demographics and we cannot ask for their help like we would have before.

So what happens to my work schedule when my son wakes up with a cough during cold and flu season? When school closes for another two weeks, two months, the rest of term, how do I fulfill my professional obligations? My family is my priority. But keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads is a key part of that calculus.

I am scared. I am uncertain. I am spending these last few weeks of summer trying not to be paralyzed by worry. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

What if you can only work onsite or cannot afford additional childcare costs? What happens to single parents or those supporting elderly parents? What about mothers whose spouses aren’t willing to make their own sacrifices? What if workplaces don’t trust that you can get the job done from home with kids in tow?

Think of mothers who work in health and long-term care, essential workers, and now teachers, whose jobs expose them to hundreds of others. They’ll be expected to coordinate their families around the consequences.

The stress is cumulative. We are tapped and exhausted. We are shouting, “This is unsustainable,” to anyone who will listen.

The uncertainty will continue, every day, not knowing if tomorrow we’ll be working while home-schooling and entertaining and feeding and nursing our kids from early morning to late at night, fitting bits of each role into every hour.

We need spouses to carry their fair share of the load for childcare. We need employers to stop asking fathers “isn’t your wife with the kids?” We need corporate leaders who champion new and creative approaches to people-management, client-management and mental health. We need women in leadership roles making change that reflects the realities of working women, and working moms, across the country. We need change-makers who value the contributions women make and who prioritize maintaining strong, diverse workplaces. We need recognition that women are pivotal to our economies, and thus, critical to economic recovery.

Mothers have always had to be flexible. We will stretch and twist and bend to make it all happen. But we need fathers, managers, CEOs, politicians and everyone else to stretch and twist and bend with us. Our recovery – the recovery of women in the workplace, and of the economy more broadly – relies on it.