Moms Forced to Opt Out

by Julie Graber | on 26 May 2020

It’s supposed to be a story about women leaving the workforce to care for kids because they have no other options. It is a story in desperate need of attention. Even more critical: the stories of the the moms who have no choice but to work.

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be that story. It starts out that way. This woman shut down a business and laid off 13 people so she could stay home and care for her son. Desperate times - desperate measures. 

Before the first paragraph is finished, however, we learn that the woman has a husband. A husband who was between jobs to begin with. A husband who lasted three days taking care of the 3-year old before reaching the end of his limit. 

The story went viral. The reaction has been intense. The article no longer includes the last name of this particular couple - there have been threats against the family. 

Yet I suspect there are a fair number of women breathing a quiet sigh of relief that the story isn’t about them. Women who can imagine a similar scenario playing out in their own home. Women who have already been pushed to the breaking point with the lockdown, women who don’t know what they are going to do long-term to manage the crisis it has created in their own families. Women who can imagine having to make the same decision under a similar set of circumstances. 

As the articles notes, every woman stepping out of the workforce is convinced it will be temporary - that they will rejoin the workforce as soon as things go back to normal. As if there will be such a thing. As if finding the next opportunity will be easy. It won’t - the penalty for moms who take time out of the labor force to care for children is significant. Their careers may never recover. Their pay will never catch up. As the article notes and one woman describes, “the assumption is that motherhood would make her weaker, less capable.” Someone less than who she used to be.

Probably the most striking thing about the article is the guilt these women feel - about leaving their careers, about not spending enough time with their kids, about asking too much from their families, about letting the children go back to school or daycare in the middle of a pandemic, about wanting more than ringtones that remind them that they’re in the middle of potty training at home.

It’s all an untenable situation and while some believe that one of the lasting changes that will come from the pandemic - that men will step up, that companies will become more understanding, that work-life will become easier. 

But I don’t see it happening. My guess is that most companies who have allowed even some leeway over the past couple of months will begin reeling it back in. As Claire Cain Miller noted in her New York Times article last year, work has gotten greedy and parenting has become more demanding. Women are finding that their educational gains have been canceled out and their ambitions have been thwarted. And that was before anyone had heard of COVID-19. 

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