First off, I took teachers for granted. I took for granted the reliability of dropping off my children each day; one to public school and the other to unaffordable childcare. That’s what allowed me to work. I’ll admit, I was looking forward to the day when I could cross childcare off of my budget and, hopefully, start saving for the first time in my life. I didn’t know it would come at the expense of lives lost, suffering and the health of my family. Now my days are filled with reading a children’s book while building content for my organization. Breaking up a fight with a teenager and a kindergartener while expertly hitting the mute button to save my co-workers from the trainwreck.
As mothers, we are wading through the agony of building careers, many of us from poverty, while weighing our children’s stability and our own mental health. We’re trying to improve or maintain our wellbeing — the needs and experiences we all require to have health and hope — while being forced to make tradeoffs that we know will leave us behind both personally and financially.
Since schools closed, I’ve been living in a state of exhaustion. Having a kindergartener and a teenager at home — NONSTOP — while barely keeping up at work can only go on so long, right? The pandemic must have an end?
COVID-19 has laid bare the abysmal lack of family policies in our country. It has highlighted the massive deficiencies in our public school funding and made clear who (and where) the haves and have-nots are. In my rural town, among the poorest in the state, my public school system didn’t have the funding to implement the new COVID-19 safety requirements. So even if I had thought it was safe for my kids to return, they couldn’t. Those of us who are hanging on right now at the edge of the cliff don’t have some magical inner strength that makes us more resilient. We started out with more access to wellbeing and so when things like our daily anchors (for example, the seamless co-parenting coordination that made me feel a sense of mastery) started disappearing, we still had the structural access to meet our needs for wellbeing.
But this state, the lack of access to wellbeing for families in the U.S., is chronic. And women are done. We are dropping out. The wellbeing of women has been depleted. The only thing that we can drop from the list is our jobs, and so many of us are.
This can’t be up to every employee to figure out. It also can’t be up to every employer to figure out. This is a societal and structural problem.
We are in the midst of a caregiving crisis, one that is very clearly divided by gender and race. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.1 million workers over the age of 20 dropped out of the workforce between August and September. Among those workers, 865,000 were women, 324,000 Latina, and 58,000 Black women. That means that 79% of those leaving the workforce were women — four times more than the number of men. This isn’t the unemployment rate. This is the disproportionate number of women who have stopped looking for work. And while that disparity is glaring, what’s even more stark are the inequities across racial lines. While white women are more able to retain employment because they could work from home, Latina women were employed in jobs they could not do remotely. So many Latina mothers have lost their jobs because they are overrepresented in domestic work and other areas of the service industry. Amidst a pandemic, racial violence and reckoning, women of color are bearing the brunt.
But it didn’t have to be this way. We’ve seen glimmers of these possibilities in government systems and services, systems that realigned themselves with a wellbeing orientation. We see it in policies that make it possible for people in poverty to maintain and build their assets without making tradeoffs that have cascading effects or huge emotional burdens. We see it in policies that take into account the full frame of the family they are a part of.
Our government could have chosen from the very beginning to front-load this pandemic with structural supports. Instead, so many have fallen off the cliff, far more than just the mothers who dropped out of the workforce. From my standpoint, it’s not that women are falling off that cliff, but that we are being pushed off and out of the workforce by a lack of policies that support the on-the-ground reality of the burden of caring for our children’s wellbeing. We are left weighing the heaviest of tradeoffs: our families’ ability to wade through this time with our mental and physical health intact on the one hand and our careers on the other. And eight months in we have no end in sight. The burden of this pandemic is on the shoulders of women and our shoulders are starting to break while we wait for our government to catch up.
So many have been pushed off a cliff that should never have had tens of millions of families so close to the edge. A lack of public policy forces women out of the workforce after the births of our children or tending to an illness in our family. Wellbeing-oriented policies would make our economy and the wellbeing of families on the edge more secure right now. We need to see meaningful structural change to undo these losses: policies that guarantee paid leave for everyone with protections on job safety; universal childcare and pre-k; targeted training for women in the workforce; direct cash payments to pull us through these dark days while we build the scaffolding to truly support wellbeing for families in the U.S. While COVID-19 is a health and financial crisis, what has truly turned our lives upside down is a lack of policies that support the wellbeing of women in the workplace and their families. It’s time for something different.