Something every working mother hears these days: “Aren’t you glad you can now spend more time with your kids?!”
No, I’m not. And if that strikes you as cold, then you have never breastfed three children while launching a business. You have probably never sent out invoices with one hand while cradling your newborn with the other.
Since the pandemic hit several months ago, there has been no shortage of rose-colored articles about the popularity of remote work, whether it’s an employer’s reduced overhead or the expanded employee flexibility.
As a working mother, I’m here to disagree.
I am not a superwoman, and I don’t want to be one. I am admired for what I have “achieved”--but I don’t want to be. I have only done what was necessary to survive and optimized my infinite task list along the way so that everything doesn’t fall apart.
So you can imagine my disillusionment at the overwhelming sentiment that all-remote work is the future. Cue an endless list of articles about how to make this situation work to your advantage.
I know I’m not alone; I know there have been missives circulating about the mental and emotional toll working parents face on a daily basis--constant distractions from professional demands and guilt about the neglect that comes with this impossible balancing act.
I understand why those of us without kids have this idea that all-remote work is the setup mothers always wanted; the majority of articles around remote work paint a romantic picture. One piece, especially, stuck with me, haunting me for days with this line:
“My daughter comes home starving. Taking 10 minutes to make her a snack makes both of our days.” (Zimdars, Signal vs. Noise)
It sounded like an ideal set up, but something was just not right.
And then it hit me as I looked back at all the articles that had left a bad taste in my mouth.
They had all been written by men. Not one of these positive-spin articles was written by a woman
Here I am thinking, why isn’t my 10-minute snack time such an enlightening event? Or even, why isn’t snack time at my house only 10 minutes? (For starters, my daughter doesn’t just appear at our house--she needs to be picked up, brought home, and organized. She needs a lot of attention and mental support.)
I think about everything it takes to keep a home up and running when we’re not in a pandemic. The amount of effort it takes to wash our five-headed family is amazing. The amount of cleaning the house always seems to need is an unsolvable enigma.
Under normal circumstances, I bring my children to school, pick them up, bring them to extra-curricular activities, do laundry, clean, cook, bake, launch birthday parties, organize play dates, pencil in soccer games.
I don’t even bother ironing.
Under normal circumstances, I get up at 5 a.m. Monday to Friday and 6 a.m. on the weekends. I don’t watch TV, and no, I haven’t also binged on any of the Netflix shows you insist I watch. I can’t sit down and read a good book peacefully (though Audible is my friend while I juggle domestic to-dos.)
Before the pandemic, we working mothers kept relatively quiet on this--at least at work. We’d commiserate with each other online or at birthday parties, but never in the office, where that conversation might have more of an impact. We do this because of an underlying and learned fear, placed there by decades of unrealistic expectations, that we must never project incompetence or distraction. The general rule of thumb is that we are responsible for separating work and home, even when we literally can no longer separate work and home.
Before the pandemic, every working mother had those thoughts: can I do both? Am I a bad person for having moments where all I want is to walk away from my kids and dive into my work? If I want a successful career as much as I want a happy family, is something wrong with me?
Best-selling books by corporate millionaire mothers who employ a small city of caretakers telling us to “lean in” doesn’t help us find our truth. It supposes we need to summon the grit we’ve had all along. Grit, my friend, is finite.
When the world shut down to stem the spread of the virus, I did not experience daily enlightenment from 10-minute snack time with my three children. I experienced the loss of the very thing that was keeping me sane: getting away.
I think a lot of women are afraid to talk about this honestly. Despite the gains women have made in the professional world, there is still a taboo about acknowledging that we can’t--or don’t want--to do it all and be everything.
I need a clear and physical separation between my domestic life and my professional life. It is torturous to do all the things I need to do at work while I’m surrounded by piles of dirty laundry, or while my desk is covered in children’s drawings. Leaving the house allows me to leave the constant pull of family to-dos and focus on what my business needs. During the lockdown, the choice became a daily one: either I focus on my business and all the household needs fall behind, or I focus on the household needs and my business falls behind.
Yes, women are still faced with this choice-particularly because we continue to shoulder the lion’s share of domestic labor. Without a pandemic, this choice rears its head now and then (who will cancel their meeting to pick up the sick child?). But in a pandemic, this is a choice we make every day.
I’d like to see the collective conversation shift. Instead of drawing this line in the sand between all-remote work and in-office work, why aren’t we talking more about the future of hybrid work? For me, a mix of remote work and office work seems to be the perfect arrangement--why should I have to choose between one or the other? A few days at home paired with a few days at work provides more of a balance to working mothers than the current all-or-nothing scenarios dominating the dialogue. The pandemic will be here for a while yet, and we human beings need a change in order to thrive. Or could it be, we female human beings?
So here is my advice to you, fellow working mom who can’t wait to get back to the office:
Be vocal that this doesn’t work for you. Just because your company is pushing messaging that virtual teams are the way to go post-pandemic doesn’t mean you have to agree. I’m saying it: I miss leaving my home to go to work. I love doing my work at work. An all-virtual situation does not work for me, and it doesn’t work for many others. I am happy at home, but I am also happy when I am not at home--and it is OK to feel that way! We have to say these things--and say them loudly--because as long as we maintain this cheery veneer of “somehow I’m holding it together!” people will continue to believe that we are, indeed, holding it together. We will continue to contribute to this mythical creature that is the working mom who loves telling her kids to get off the light fixture right before a Zoom call with an investor. Unless us working mothers insert ourselves into the conversation aggressively, we will never be a part of its outcome when this is all over.
If you fear this will hurt your professional future, find employers who get it and take your talent elsewhere. I did.
There are other ways to make this clear without saying a word. At the start of this pandemic, I found myself moving piles of dirty clothes out of view so my co-workers wouldn’t see it on a video call. We need to leave those piles of dirty clothes. Leave them there! When your child interrupts you during a meeting, don’t hit the mute button. Let the ripples be felt at home, too--when dinner time rolls around and you’re asked what’s on the menu, say “I have no idea.” A night of cheese and crackers has killed no one. If you require understanding from an employer, you must first award it to yourself.
Stop reading articles offering tips to make the most of working from home while caring for kids--there is no guidebook in the world that will make it feasible for as long as this crisis will continue. Stop accepting “quick meetings right now” when your child is having a meltdown, compromising by handing them a sweet so you can appear composed for your colleague.
Embrace what does work for you--and fight for it. Don’t feel guilty about doing what you need to find a saner balance. If you’re in an area that is slowly opening up (as I am in Spain), get out of the house and choose a co-working space or a coffee shop. If you’re still locked down, find a lone spot under a tree in the park and open your laptop. Enjoy not being surrounded by kids and remove the grocery list from your head. Prioritize your work and de-prioritize your family, even if it’s just for a few hours. This does not make you a bad person, it makes you a better person.
And forget about the dirty dishes and the piles of laundry. The new normal isn’t finding a way to do it all, the new normal is accepting that you can’t do it all--and being open about it. Here’s to never finding balance (until we do).