Animation by Fanny Luor

Virtual First

How can we make WFH less chaotic for working moms?

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Published on October 18, 2021

Animation by Fanny Luor

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When the pandemic pushed workers out of offices and into their homes, the shift affected workers in every industry across the globe. But the disruption didn’t impact everyone equally. 

A recent survey revealed that 65% of working women say the pandemic made work worse for them. Many worry that asking for flexibility in their schedules to handle family duties will come at a professional cost. The study also showed that the concerns were felt more acutely by women of color—54% of Black women and 49% of Latinas, compared to 33% of white women.

A separate study by Pew Research Center found that as the pandemic wears on, handling child care while WFH is becoming increasingly difficult for working moms (57%) compared to working dads (47%).

Statistics can tell you about trends, but they can’t tell you how it feels to be part of one. So today, we’ll hear from working mothers who’ve been on the frontlines of this cultural evolution to learn how they’re adapting and what they’d recommend to companies who want to establish policies that help support them in the era of remote work. 

What would true flexibility look like?

After proving they can be productive from home for 19 months in a row, working moms still feel like requesting flexibility is a risk. So what can companies do to fix this?

“The pandemic has forced us to realize things happen out of our control,” says Tessa Jenkins, a talent acquisition manager who works for an EdTech company. “With working moms, things happen with us a lot more because when something breaks in the house, the first thing the kid says is, ‘Mom…’  There may be times where the kid gets sick in the middle of the day, and I have to run to school, take him to a doctor so he can get COVID tested to make sure he's good to go back the next day, or bring him home and make some soup, make sure he's okay.”

Tessa says it would help if there were official company policies created with the understanding that employees with kids are pulled in many directions at once. “Yes, I'm a talent acquisition HR manager. I'm big on policy and all these other things. But I'm also still a mom. I definitely would like to take away the sting and guilt that working moms and even working dads feel whenever we take a day off.”

“I will still check work emails because I feel so guilty that I'm taking this time off,” says Tessa. “I remember telling my manager, ‘I feel so bad.’ He's like, ‘It's an unlimited PTO policy for a reason. Don't feel bad for taking a day or two to rest and recharge, because I would be more upset if you haven't taken any time off.’ 

After proving they can be productive from home, working moms still feel like requesting flexibility is a risk.

Photo of Tessa Jenkins in her home office
Tessa Jenkins in her home office

That guilt Tessa describes is actually quite common for moms in the workforce. 

 “It’s this pressure many mothers feel, a near-constant sense that they're not doing enough,” says Tomi Akitunde, a Dropbox employee and the founder of mater mea, a community where Black moms and gender nonconforming parents can find support online. “It becomes another voice in their head telling them that they aren't showing up the way they would like to show up as an employee and also as a mother.”

Tomi says that although some workplace policies sound good on paper, they sometimes aren’t truly helpful if a company undermines their stated policies with a culture that’s dismissive of the concerns that come up while parenting during a pandemic.

“It's one thing to know that you have unlimited paid time off or unlimited sick days—it's another thing to feel safe in using them,” she says. “This is especially true for Black and Latina women. Studies have found that managers are less supportive of Black and Latina employees compared to their white counterparts. There’s unconscious bias and double standards at play in some offices—a dad can leave early to pick up his child and he’s being a ‘great dad’ while a mom doing that may be seen as not a team player. 

“So when you are aware of these factors,” she continues, “when you feel like ‘I have to prove myself,’ it makes it difficult to take advantage of some of those workplace flexibility policies.”

When asked what would need to change so flexible work policies actually support working moms, Tessa says, “Making things more equitable, where parents and caregivers don't feel as though like they're choosing between taking care of responsibilities or their career.”

“Four hats at the same time”

One way the inequity reveals itself most clearly is in the schedules of working mothers.

“The challenge for me as a working parent was there were no concrete lines to nine to five,” says Shemeka Brathwaite, a university program director, and peak performance strategist who leads workshops, seminars, and executive coaching sessions. 

“I was juggling many hats,” she recalls. “I was working full time, doing after-work panels, speaking engagements on the weekends and days off. My son was in school full time, so I had to do home schooling from 9:00 to 2:30. In between, I'm submitting reports and holding Zoom meetings. I remember my husband and I had to record a keynote speech for a conference at 3:00 in the morning”

“It's one thing to know that you have unlimited paid time off or unlimited sick days—it's another thing to feel safe in using them,” says Tomi.

Photo of Shemeka Brathwaite recording keynote and training videos from home
Shemeka recording keynote and training videos from home with her husband.

While many of her conferences were canceled, others went virtual. “As a professional speaker who thrives off of live audience participation, I had to shift the way I did business,” Shemeka says. “So I started doing virtual keynotes and trainings.”

Schedules that once felt predictable started to feel like grey areas that had to be managed.

“I knew if my kids were doing homework at a certain time, I had to build my schedule around that,” she says. “I also had to coordinate with my husband. The timelines were blurred. There was no way I could simultaneously wear four hats at the same time. I'm an entrepreneur. I'm a wife. I still had to cook and clean the house.”

Shemeka says working from home has helped her save at least 25 hours a week in commuting, and reminded her what she values most.

“What the pandemic has showed me is that I love freedom,” she says. “I love being able to set my own schedule. I live in Southeast Queens. My son attends school in Manhattan. I work in Brooklyn, and I'm also doctoral student in the Community-Based Leadership program at the College of Staten Island. I’m four boroughs, and it's a lot.”

To gain some freedom from commuting, many have been relying on Zoom and other remote work tools to work asynchronously.

“I like to create systems,” says Shemeka. “Dropbox is where I house all my processes and reports. As a student, I'm working on my literature review. It's a great place for me to store all the articles I've collected over time.”

“I know you used to teach this”

Being expected to add teacher to your list of jobs has been one of the top frustrations for all parents, no matter how familiar they are with the role. 

“Previous to getting into talent acquisition and HR, I was a first grade and kindergarten teacher with an emphasis on special education,” says Tessa. “Coincidentally, I now am the mom of a first grader. He's like, ‘I know you used to teach this.’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, but it's different.’”

It’s not just the layers of responsibilities that can be draining. It’s being expected to wear more than one hat at a time and having to adapt to ever-changing plans.

“After we moved from the city limits to the suburbs, his school district made the decision to be 100% remote for the first half of the school year,” recalls Tessa. “That was a complete 180 from the initial plan. Everything was going to be in person. They were just going to be masked. I was thrown for a loop. I was nervous because this is his first real year in school and he has to do it all from an iPad screen.”

Tessa felt pressure to make sure he was prepared for first grade even though classes weren’t in person. “I went from being just mom to being mom, the cook, the teacher, resource coordinator, gym teacher, and everything else that teachers do on a daily basis,” she says. 

As a former teacher herself, Tessa knew it was a tough job. So she tried to help her fellow working parents adjust as well. But there was only so much they could get done during the daytime. 

“I would read to him at night, or get a math workbook from one of the learning stores and we’d work our way through that to take like a more aggressive approach with his education.”

“This works better for parents and caregivers”

For a lot of families, the past year required some… creative redecorating. Bedrooms became offices. Kitchens became classrooms. For some, every square foot of space in a home had to be repurposed as a workplace. 

Schedules that once felt predictable started to feel like grey areas that had to be managed.

Stepha has been in medical pharmaceutical sales for the last 17 years. Although a lot of her time is spent traveling, her company also gave her the flexibility to work from home at least once a week. But when the pandemic closed schools, working from home was no longer a quiet refuge.

“When we shifted to learning from home, me and my husband suddenly went to panic mode. Like, ‘Okay, we have to figure out their schedules.’ Now we have to get an extra chalkboard and whiteboard just so they can have space to do work. We had to move furniture around. We had to make cozy spaces for them.” 

A few months ago, Stepha decided to leave her old job and find a new one that shared her perspective on flexible work.  

“I needed to make my own decisions regarding how I was going to move about in a pandemic,” she recalls. “In a startup, I totally understood that they had numbers they had to meet. But some of the policies I felt were unrealistic, especially being in New York.”

Stepha went from having a flexible job that gave her autonomy in how she navigated her day to having a rigid checklist of mostly unnecessary busywork, some of it, ironically, that was intended to be for her benefit.

“It suddenly felt like we had to prove that we were worthy of being employed,” she says. “The bottom of the checklist had a ‘self-care’ section with columns for daily water intake and movement—things that were nearly impossible to keep up with working from home and [handling] remote school. It felt like gaslighting. I would black out the section before submitting it.”

That’s when Stepha knew she needed to be somewhere with a more supportive company policy. One of the policies Stepha appreciates most at her new company is backup care. 

“If your childcare plans fall through, or you get called in last minute and you don't have a childcare plan, they completely cover it,” she explains. “They link you up with a company that arranges that or if you have a friend or family [member] that's able to cover it, they are willing to pay a certain amount for that care. That’s a way to support families.”

For some, these changes are working well enough that they believe their companies should institute them as permanent policy. 

“If we've been doing it this long from the comfort of our homes, then why change that now?” asks Tessa. “We saw an increase in productivity among our engineering and product teams, as well as our HR team. We realized, it's the fact that folks are able to do their job in the comfort of their homes. They don't feel rushed. This works better for those of us who are parents and caregivers.” 

“I think the most rewarding and most fulfilling part of it is, I'm able to be there when my son leaves for school and when he comes home for school he doesn't have to worry,” Tessa adds. “He knows I'm going to be the one that picks him up from the bus stop if the bus is running late. That's helped his confidence. It's been reassuring for me because I know for a fact that he's safe and sound. I can actually start dinner at a decent time. We have enough time in the evening to enjoy each other, maybe play a game or read a book. If I was to ever leave my organization, it would definitely have to be for another company that's 100% remote and gives me the amount of autonomy I have now.”

Shemeka says the pandemic has shown people can be productive and effective while working from home. “I felt like I've produced more work now than I did was when I was in the office. As a mother, sometimes you make the sacrifice in your career in order to balance work and life.”

She believes if companies adopt more flexible remote work policies, they’ll attract better candidates and retain a more loyal workforce.

“People do care about their work—they want to excel,” say Shemeka. “But you don't want to feel like you have to make a choice: should I be a working mom or should I just stay at home? As companies learn how to incorporate that—especially around times when there's school pickup, maybe it could be a flex time where there's a small window in the day, then they continue working afterwards—if they could be creative, anything is possible.”