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Sharp Health News

The pandemic’s toll on working mothers

May 10, 2021

Ariel view of a woman using a laptop whilst her daughter is sleeping next to her, cuddling their pet dog.
In 2018, nearly one-third of American women who worked outside of the home were also mothers to children under age 18. Fast forward 3 years: Due to the pandemic, about 3.5 million of those moms have left or lost their job, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

What’s more, of the women who return to the workplace once the pandemic has ended, many will experience decreased lifetime earnings due to the loss of their position or the pause in their employment. And as for those who have continued to work throughout the pandemic, the challenges have, at times, been overwhelming.

Like a one-two punch, career and financial blows have been compounded by additional pandemic-related challenges for working moms. From increased child care responsibilities and the sudden need to manage children’s virtual education as day care centers and schools closed, to concerns about health and other household and familial responsibilities, the effects of the pandemic have wreaked havoc on the lives of women with children. For non-white single women with children, COVID-19 has been especially devastating.

“Mothers have been affected by increased demands at home, increased caretaking responsibilities, financial and logistical complications of trying to work and care for children, and really not having any sort of escapes for mental health and self-care,” says Kim Eisenberg, a licensed clinical social worker with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “Everybody is feeling it, but mothers, whether they work outside the home or not, bear an additional brunt because of the dramatic inequity in the distribution of housework and child care in heterosexual — or two-gender — households, even before the pandemic.”

Understanding the effect of long-standing inequities
Eisenberg points out theses gender inequities don’t just exist in homes across the U.S., but they also continue into the workplace. According to a survey from PayScale, a compensation platform, women make just 82 cents for every dollar men make.

“We know that men tend to earn more than women, even when they’re in the same types of professions,” Eisenberg says. “So a lot of us in dual-income, heterosexual households have wound up making these sort of ‘cold hard cash’ calculations, in which the person who has the lower income — usually the woman — is the one to stay home with children and the one to exit the labor force.”

Additionally, Black and Hispanic women are losing jobs at a greater rate than white women. They are also more likely to hold lower-paying jobs in industries that have seen increased layoffs during the pandemic — such as food service, retail and hospitality — or work in front-line essential jobs, which meant many of them have had to choose between risking their health and the health of their loved ones or getting a paycheck.

What is not clear is how these repercussions of the pandemic will affect women and their careers long term. Eisenberg believes that as a society, we’re just starting to see the beginning of long-term mental health consequences flare up in ways that are new and ever-evolving.

“When we look at a lot of these psychosocial factors — employment, income scarcity, the stresses and burdens of caring for family members and households, the loss of identity associated with professional career displacement — honestly, I don’t think we even know what’s coming,” she says. “I think we’re going to be seeing the consequences of this for years to come.”

Additional factors to consider
Eisenberg points out that these problems only increase when a mother is caring for a child — or children — with special needs. The resources they rely on to provide in-home care, mental and physical therapies, and respite care are no longer as available because of the pandemic. In turn, these mothers, like so many others, are unable to access the mental and physical health care they need.

“We’re seeing a mental health crisis, and the stressors that parents — both of children with special needs and without — are experiencing are very different than those that their children are experiencing,” she says. “Imagine that you’re a mom with all the responsibilities within your household and having to try to arrange appointments not just for yourself, but also for your kids who are in a mental health crisis. It’s just a really difficult bind to be in.”

What’s more, according to Eisenberg, accessing mental health care is difficult for those without insurance and who cannot afford high cash-pay rates, and added pandemic-related restrictions haven’t helped. However, she hopes that as more of the population is vaccinated, mental health resources will become more accessible to women and their families.

Ways to cope with the challenges
It is in these times, Eisenberg says, that we must turn to others for help. It is crucial to look to available social supports and tap into various networks, such as family, friends, neighbors, faith-based communities and workplace communities. “Do anything and everything that you can to make sure that you feel like you have a lifeline and are connected to others.”

Additionally, Eisenberg says that it is important to:
  • Carve out time for self-care — figure out the small things that you can do on a daily basis to try to refill your cup.
  • Take care of yourself in basic, fundamental ways — get enough sleep, drink enough water and eat nutritious food.
  • Get outside into fresh air and sunshine, and move your body every day.
  • Figure out the things you can do that are meaningful and keep you tethered to a sense of purpose.
  • Adjust your expectations of yourself to be more realistic — give yourself a break, be gentle and practice self-compassion.
“One of the things that seems to exacerbate stress the most is having what we would call ‘unrelenting standards’ for yourself,” Eisenberg says. “Having this idea that you have to be a rock star at work and mother of the year at home really sets you up for impossible standards, and just leads to guilt, shame and self-blame, which can drive depression and anxiety.”

If you are unable to give yourself some grace, Eisenberg recommends considering working with an individual therapist to turn those types of thought patterns around into something more healthy and balanced. A mental health professional can help you get out of the cycle of thinking about yourself through any distorted or judgmental lenses.

Cultivating systemic changes
In the meantime, Eisenberg says that it is up to us all to cultivate change, both within ourselves and our homes, communities and workplaces, to ensure working mothers have access to the opportunities, care and support they need and deserve. Whether it’s adding more resources or adjusting job expectations, employers are in an especially unique position to prop up their workforce and make it sustainable for women to keep coming to work.

“For those of us who work outside the home, it is vital to truly be advocates for change within our companies,” she says. “To the extent that we have the power and agency to drive the kind of cultures that we want to see, we must make sure the organization is providing as much support as possible to working mothers — and all employees — from a place of compassion and understanding.”

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