I have been working since I was 16 years old.
My first job was as a grocery store clerk, but it quickly morphed into cleaning computers for my local school system, a strange job for a teenage girl, but I loved it. After college, I was employed immediately and because I was living and working in New York City, away from my parents, I was acutely aware of how work equaled rent and food money.
Later, even when I wasn’t “traditionally” employed, I was actively building my own business. The entrepreneur hustle of meeting with potential investors, gaining buy-in, plus constantly looking for new clients was more work than I have had while being employed by someone else.
“Entrepreneurs are the only people who will work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.” Lori Greiner
After selling my company I returned to more conventional work, part-time at first to support my son starting Kindergarten and beyond, ramping up work time as he grew in school. Then I got the most “prestigious” position of my career, finally making a salary on par with my peers — male and female. My son went into full-time aftercare for the first time while in second grade. I was fully in the mom + full-time female employee mode.
Then COVID-19 hit.
March of 2020 left us here in the Northeast scrambling with 2–3 days to really get everyone home and hunkered down. I knew colleagues and friends in neighboring New York City and Boston who were some of the first cases of the disease in the US.
Working for a global Fortune 500 company, I had been on late-night calls with our offices in Asian countries and heard how it was going there. My Paris colleagues gave me a grim perspective of working from lockdown in their city apartments as we did small talk over video calls. During those same calls, my son would interrupt for school, or just for comfort, or the dog would be losing his mind over a squirrel.
All the fail-safes I had built in to be able to do both work and home were gone.
And, because I had been an entrepreneur during his babyhood, I had done both the work from home + mom mode before, I thought I’d be fine. But then it was under my own rules and umbrella. It felt like I succeeded there because I didn’t have to worry about being “on” from 9 AM-5 PM, but could make my own time, my own way to work. I could nap when he did as a baby, and conquer my to-do list at 2 AM, when anxiety and insomnia hit. I found I couldn’t do that here, as an employee, when other people in a chain of command were relying on my participation and ability to show up.
Getting Laid Off was a Relief
When it was clear that I couldn’t do both, having the hard convo with my supervisor that because I was one of the last in, I would be one of the first out was really a relief. Mixed with terror. What was I going to do next? How does one find a job in these times?
And how does one communicate with other loved ones about my personal situation — my work/life balance?
For the truth was, being unemployed let me be the kind of mom my son needed at that moment. And collecting unemployment for the first time allowed me to keep some sort of income stream coming in. But there was so much guilt in all of that.
My friends and family who were working and juggling families were drowning. In the way I just was. I understood and didn’t want to minimize their experience. But, also, the well-meaning comments of “You are doing the best thing for your child” were grating as well. Was I going to lose my career because of this period of work inactivity? Would this cause the dreaded gap in employment that signifies “time out for children” ( especially if you are a woman of a certain age)? I had seen first hand how that affected getting rehired, and my first gap was from entrepreneurship. I had just happened to have a baby a year after I left to start my own business that first time. But a resume or LinkedIn profile doesn’t tell these stories.
Recently, six months into COVID, a doctor on telehealth referred to me as a stay-at-home mom, and I thought, “Am I?” I’m still looking for work and picking up wonderful freelance clients here and there, but yes, my day-to-day is very much surrounded by the demands of an e-learning third grader.
In addition, my unemployment benefits are about to run out, and then even the passive searching I have been doing won’t have the impetus to be documented. Will I just fade from the work scene? Have I already? And why is this all so tied up with who I am, as a woman, as a person? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines unemployment as separate from being jobless:
“The BLS doesn’t count everyone who is jobless as unemployed. It excludes those who haven’t looked for work within the past four weeks. … The BLS doesn’t count people who would like to work but aren’t actively looking for work.”
I acknowledge I am writing this with some level of privilege. I am white and college-educated. I have a partner who works, and has always only focused on work, being the person who had consistently made the most salary, and been with the same industry, changing companies only once in a 25-year work career. We own our home, and had the opportunity to refinance, reducing our monthly payments when I got unemployed. Does all of this privilege allow me the luxury to even be able to have this internal dialogue? I know it does, but this sense of who I am is one that has driven me for so long.
It has allowed my female classmates and me to graduate thinking, knowing, believing we are as smart and deserving as our male colleagues. Sure, we had collectively experienced some unfair practices since being out in the workforce for almost two decades, but we (most of us) felt there was hope, still room to change. The younger generations were coming up in paths we had deepened, the snow broken by our mothers first.
The truth is that COVID is affecting women disproportionality. Articles such as Here’s How the Pandemic Is Affecting Women’s Careers (Wall Street Journal) and Pandemic Will ‘Take Our Women 10 Years Back’ in the Workplace (New York Times) are already bringing attention to this issue.
“As if working mothers did not have enough to worry about, experts are now sounding the alarm that progress toward gender equality may be the latest in a long list of casualties of the coronavirus pandemic.” Amanda Taub
So now, in this moment of survival, is hope for change still there?
Are we allowed to be more than mothers, knowing many would want to be “just” mothers and not have to work? Is there a way to living without judging the actions and decisions of others, especially because we can never truly know the whole story?
Maybe that’s the only thing that needs to change in this — how we see and view and treat each other. Starting with our own internal dialogue.
Relearning how to have a little (or a lot) of compassion for everyone, even to the ones who won’t (choose to not) give compassion back, instead choosing to do it because it is the right thing to do. It is the thing to do for yourself, regardless of anyone else’s opinion. Empathy for humanity is the thing — the biggest thing — I am trying to reach my son. And how can I teach him unless I model it? Unless I embody and live that compassion in myself first and always.
So when I am asked, even when I ask myself: “Are you an unemployed woman, an entrepreneur, a freelance contractor, or a stay-at-home mom?” I’m going to say, “Yes.”
Because I am all of those things. It is not, and never has been an OR, but instead is an AND. I am a person surviving, trying to be true to myself, and raise another human in a really unsettled world. And I am at peace with that.