I quit my job due to the pandemic and feel like a failure as a working mom

July 1, 2020

As a working mom, the COVID-19 pandemic hit my life like a nuclear bomb. Overnight, I went from being an ambitious writing and marketing professional with two kids in school to being an overworked, chaotic mess and a poor excuse for a virtual learning teacher. For months, I struggled to make it all work, but ultimately, I felt forced to make a hard choice that’s become a fear as well as reality for a lot of other working women: I quit my job to get my family through the pandemic.

Like a lot of parents, I’ve had my kids home with me while I worked since mid-March. My husband works an essential job, so he’s been at the office every day, rather than working remotely with our kindergartener and second grader climbing all over him like I have been. At the start of the pandemic, I was working full time in a marketing role, as well as maintaining several freelance writing jobs as a side hustle. Both of our kids also had virtual learning assignments to complete until “summer break” started in May, so I was juggling that too.

We don’t live in an episode of “Leave It To Beaver,” so my husband recognized the inherent unfairness of heading off to work every day and leaving me at home to manage everything else. He started going in late, leaving early and taking as many days off as he could. Eventually, we devised our own version of a split schedule. Two days a week, he stayed home with the kids during the day and went to the office overnight, giving me more solo time to focus on my job.

On the days when he wasn’t at home, I worked odd hours trying to fill the roles of superstar employee and No. 1 mom. I’d sign on for work at 5 a.m. and work a three-hour block, take a mid-morning break to chaperone the kids’ virtual learning time and Zoom classes, work another chunk in the afternoon while my kids remained glued to Netflix, stop for dinner and then work on my freelance assignments all night while my husband handled baths and bedtime.

We survived that way for more than three months, but as we got into summer break, the more unsustainable it felt. My kids’ virtual learning time was replaced by virtual summer camps that were even more difficult to coordinate. My husband’s work schedule got too busy to allow him to take daytime hours off anymore, and I was on the verge of burning out. It seemed like I was on the clock from sunrise to midnight every single day, and I felt guilty for all of the ways I couldn’t be there for my kids. 

My youngest has a speech delay and struggles with reading. The pandemic means he hasn’t been getting the usual help from his school speech teacher, and I’ve been far too occupied with everything else to work with him on a regular schedule. My oldest has been desperately lonely without her school friends and teachers. On weekdays, she’d sit beside me at my desk and ask endless questions about what I was doing and when I’d be done so we could spend time together. “You’re always busy,” she told me one day. “You never have time to be with us.”

It’s something I’m sure every pandemic parent has heard a thousand times, but it stung because I knew she wasn’t exaggerating. It was true. I had already started to resent the hours I was spending on menial tasks at work, and I was asking myself serious questions about whether or not the benefits of my work were actually worth it to our family. My marketing job was a contract position, and while I was making good money from all of my jobs combined, I was being underpaid for the work I was doing there. The company also had no plans to bring me on as a non-contract employee, so there was no real possibility for advancement or future growth.

I was working at all hours of the day and night to ensure I fulfilled my obligations to work, despite having two young children at home and a pandemic raging outside my front door, but it felt like I was spinning my wheels. If it were a different time, I would have been on the hunt for a new role. But, given the pandemic, my general exhaustion and all of the unknowns about child care and the upcoming school year, I started crunching the numbers to see if I could make enough money to survive on freelancing alone.

It felt absurd to even think about. The unemployment rate is 13.3%, and I was considering leaving a job? What if my freelance assignments dry up? What if the pandemic lasts for a year? The what ifs were staggering, but so was the amount of burnout I felt. At the beginning of June, I decided to take the leap. I let my boss know I needed to make a change, and I agreed to work part time until they found my replacement. I made a new schedule that allowed me to work mornings but still spend the rest of the day with my kids. 

Just like that, my career was on hiatus.

I know that I was only able to make this choice because of an enormous amount of privilege. I have the luxury of multiple work options, a flexible schedule and a partner who has relatively good job security and a stable income. Even with all of those things working in my favor, I still feel guilt and shame about my choices.

I’m certainly not the only mom in this position. In April of this year, a survey found that 14% of moms had considered quitting their jobs because of the demands of home and family life during the pandemic. Still, there’s a part of me that feels like I failed somehow, or like I’m a walking stereotype of anti-feminist ideals. I’m a working mom in 2020. I’m supposed to “have it all.” I’m supposed to shatter the glass ceiling, be the perfect ever-present mother and never let anyone see me break a sweat. Instead, I’m opting out.

Truthfully, the world doesn’t make it easy for women to stay at work. Those of us in heterosexual relationships often find that our jobs are literally worth less to our families than those of our partners. A 2017 report by the U.S. Census Bureau found that full-time, year-round working women earned about 80% of what their male counterparts earned that year. Women also hold fewer leadership positions than men do, and men typically promote other men, so there are fewer opportunities for women to move up the corporate ladder.

Women’s labor is also chronically undervalued, and in times of crisis, our jobs are often seen as expendable. In April 2020, women made up 49% of the overall workforce but accounted for 55% of job losses. Women also disproportionately work in fields like retail, caregiving and hospitality that have been decimated by the pandemic. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that only 22% of women have jobs that can be done from home, versus about 28% of men. 

Because many women — myself included — work in unstable industries with fewer opportunities for advancement, and we are less likely to match our partner’s future earning potential, our options in times of crisis feel limited. Was I supposed to choose my unstable, lackluster job over my children? Was I supposed to keep running on five hours of sleep and being underpaid so I could have a stronger work history at some unknown future date when this whole thing is over and I can go find better work? 

A part of me says yes. I know that career breaks only hurt my lifetime earning potential, and make it even harder for me to excel in the workplace. I know that sexist people already believe working mothers are less committed to their jobs because of family obligations, and by making these kinds of choices, I may be proving them right.

At the same time, I know that the first morning I woke up and didn’t have to spend the next 12 to 14 hours working was the best morning I’ve had all year. I know that my life feels manageable for the first time since March, my kids are happier and I feel less depressed and hopeless about the future. 

Maybe I made the right choice, or maybe I’m the walking poster child for royally screwing up as a working mom. Ultimately, it may be a little of both. There are few good answers right now, and I chose the best option to help my family survive an extraordinary situation. Leaving my job is my own form of crisis management, and it matters right now, even if it’s not a skill I can add to my résumé.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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