A surprising number of women are responding to lockdowns in an unanticipated way: trading their jobs for more time at home. In September 2020 alone, more than 800,000 women left the workforce. Their numbers swell to 2 million now.
There is little indication most of these women are leaving or downsizing their work under duress, or at the expense of keeping food on the table. Rather, many of these women are responding to something they feel in their bones: the need for stability in the face of crisis, especially for their children. Women are responding to the pandemic by reordering their lives to a saner pace, one more centered on home.
This trend is widely bemoaned as a loss of talent in the public square, and a setback in gender equality. A woman should be at her place on the job just like a man, shoulder to the wheel, a good worker bee, or she’s let everyone down. For several generations, we have seen job and career depicted as central to a woman’s significance.
But reality is far more complex. A woman doesn’t naturally leave her home in the morning and zero in on the demands of a job. She carries it all inside her, a swirling mix of children’s needs and stuff-that-must-get-done.
A Long Time Coming for Working Moms
Recent findings from an Institute for Family Studies study underscore that what’s happening at home never quite leaves a woman’s psyche: even for women who kept working post-pandemic, more than half (53 percent) of those surveyed would prefer to work from home most or at least half of the time. The aftermath of 2020 has only added urgency to this pull toward home.
Forgive me if, as a therapist, I let out a little cheer. Perhaps a legion of women will be able to catch their collective breaths. Nearly 10 million working mothers in the U.S. suffer from burnout.
How many children will also benefit from having a parent more accessible, more present? The aftereffects of 2020 may well be the existential moment we admit we’ve let an out-of-control culture place insane expectations on our lives as women.
The tribe of women one might call “overwhelmed mothers with demanding jobs” has grown significantly over the past ten years. Therapists will attest to that. September is euphemistically known in medical circles as mothers-with-chest-pain month, as the school year launches once again.
It’s not a tragedy that so many women have decided to take a pause from their jobs, or even to bring their jobs home. The better question to ask is, how did we get to this place?
The Body Does Indeed Keep Score
Here is a common conversation heard in the intimacy of a therapist’s office, one that’s grown in frequency. The patient is anxious and depressed, often in her mid-to-late 30s. She’s juggled home and work and children for quite some time.
Maybe there’s a toddler who refuses to sleep. Or a teenager who struggles mightily. Day after day, the demands pile up. Her work is never done. She craves more relaxed time with her kids, but how can that happen?
And she is convinced the malaise is her fault, a sign of her failure. Please help me juggle the demands more efficiently, or find the right anti-depressant. Then all can proceed as planned.
With no way to get off this treadmill, who would not be depressed? A therapist sifts through her words to gently explain, “Your body is trying to tell you something.”
Depression or lack of motivation come because, physically, a woman can’t replenish the dopamine (drive) and serotonin (feeling good) that her body used to produce more easily. If she burns the candle at both ends with 12-hour days and lost sleep, it will show up as anxiety. Those are the physical realities of life in the estrogen-rich, female body.
Harvard University trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk coined the phrase, “Your body keeps the score.” He means that even if we are objectively unaware, our body knows when we are stressed and over-extended. It will stop us in our tracks. Is it any wonder, then, that when the stress of a pandemic is added to women’s already too-full lives, many are grabbing the chance to step off the merry-go-round?
Women Have Not Lived This Way Before
In conversations with burned-out mothers, I often find myself trying to explain that, historically, women have not lived like this, going full throttle in two directions at once. My grandmother had 13 children and owned the general store that served a whole mining community in the mountains of Virginia, but she always had live-in help. Hers was a slower time.
Through the ages, a woman’s life has been more like an accordion that expanded or contracted based largely on what she could physically handle with the needs of her children. This is the important part: women claimed the permission to step back as they needed to, without shame.
So it’s not like worn-out, working mothers of this generation have failed. There are limitations to what can be pulled off in life. Or, as New York psychoanalyst Erica Komisar explains in her book on mothering, “Being There,” “The truth is, we can do everything in life, but not at the same time.” This pandemic could help women embrace that reality once again.
Women Are Not Men
Our modern myth sees the body as a thing to master, something to overcome by willpower. We persist in the fantasy that men and women are interchangeable and what one sex can do, the other can do just as well.
But heaping doses of testosterone enable a man push through 60-hour weeks, focused on the next goal, content to do that year after year. A woman with estrogen coursing through her veins is going to have her stomach in knots over the toddler she dropped off at day care not feeling well. It will matter to her. She is literally wired to care.
When a woman gives birth, she experiences a physical attachment to her baby beyond any attachment she has ever known. First-year bonding is a holy thing, a season neither baby nor mother can ever get back. This is the attachment on which all other loves are built, providing our deepest sense of trust. It’s something of a triumph to suppress this instinctive, primordial rush of attachment and head back to work.
Yet I have watched a growing number of young mothers who seem either lost in the spell of career, or largely oblivious to what they are giving up as they leave their babies to trudge off to a job that will matter far less to them than this relationship. Neither women, nor small children, are happy in this arrangement.
Children Will Also Benefit
Oddly, none of the spate of articles bemoaning women leaving the workplace mention how this departure might benefit children. These smaller creatures hidden behind masks, learning to read or do algebra from a computer screen, must somehow magically weather the pandemic on their own. Their needs get pushed to the back of the line.
But many children and teenagers have not fared well in this pandemic, as the increased rates of suicide and depression reveal. Now, more than ever, kids need a sense of belonging to a family and someone who has time for them.
A working mother who has chosen to come home has a more relaxed parenting style. She has the bandwidth to tune into what’s actually happening with a child. Surely this is a big win for thousands of children.
In “Primal Scream,” Mary Eberstadt says the clamor for identity seen on America’s streets as violent protest is an “authentic scream.” This generation is asking “for answers to questions about where they belong in the world.”
Families are the primary people who provide a sense of belonging. We get our sense of self first from the faces of those who gave us life, who know us in all our peculiarities.
This pandemic has increased the numbers of mothers with more time to create these deep psychological threads of safety, trust, and support for their children. It has jarred us into reassessing what matters to us most. Perhaps in this hard time, these are a few good reasons to be grateful.