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Stuck in the Penalty Box: the Impossibility of Motherhood, Working, and Quarantine

By Monica Hershberger (the new mom) and Megan Nestor (a fierce supporter of all moms)

17 weeks. That’s how long I (Monica) have been working from home, from our guest bedroom turned office. The backdrop of my zoom calls is a deep turquoise wall covered with band posters of some of my favorite concerts over the years. (Ahh, concerts. Remember those?) Beneath those remnants of my former life lies a pile of board books, a pack and play, and a breast pump that I now realize has probably made more appearances on video calls than I ever intended. I’ve been taking care of my now 7 month old baby while simultaneously working full time.

I’ll pause for applause.

On March 16, I had only been back to work from my (partially paid!) parental leave for about three weeks. I sent my baby to a daycare just down the road from the hospital where my husband was a therapist. For those few weeks, we were figuring out logistics on how to be working parents: transportation, daycare drop off, feeding, napping, bed time - the works. Then the world fell apart, and we’ve been holed up at home for longer than I ever thought possible.

At first I thought, “Oh, she’s an infant! She naps so much! I’ll have plenty of time in-between her awake times to get things done.” Go ahead, laugh at me, parents of the world. It’s an adorable thought, isn’t it? I thought I was lucky because I had an immobile infant who was easy enough to occupy with a ball on a string that I tied to her bouncer (which I’m sure is not recommended by the manufacturers) until it was nap time once again. I truly thought, “I can do it all! I can have it all!” But how long could that really last?

Working Women Were the Majority of Jobholders

In December 2019, women in the US hit a milestone, becoming the majority of jobholders for only the second time in history. While this trend persisted through January and February, the promising gains were reversed as COVID-19 hit the nation. Why? For starters, COVID-19 impacted jobs and industries that were already heavily concentrated among women in the labor force—industries like education and health services, and leisure and hospitality.

But a second, quieter wave of women exiting the workforce may be schools and child care centers start to release their plans for reopening—or not—this coming fall, many families are being forced to make tough decisions. Employers may have proven flexible and understanding in March, but will they maintain the same levels of understanding and acceptance come September? What about next February? For women, who already bear the brunt of the domestic and emotional work in a family—disparities that have only been heightened by COVID—and typically make less than their male partners—82 cents on the dollar—it too often falls on them to choose: career or family?

So many (incredibly privileged) parents are in my exact position: my job is more flexible than my partner’s, so I have been doing about 90% of the parenting through the day and he has swooped in to do what he can when he can. All the while, our daycare has been dangling the carrot in front of us teasing about when they might be able to open again. It’s currently mid-July, and still no exact plan is in place. Only a vague, “end of July for most families.”

The Motherhood Penalty

Many mothers are shouting out to bring this unfair, disproportionate burden to the forefront of family and policy conversations. The harsh reality is that there are plenty of off-ramps for women in the workforce, but not many on-ramps, with even fewer for women of color. Despite gains in family leave policies and flexible work environments over the past decade, women—and especially women with children—still suffer a “motherhood penalty.”

That motherhood penalty directly informed our family’s decision for my husband to quit his job instead of me. We knew that it would be more detrimental to my career than his to quietly exit the workforce and jump back without any repercussions.

The long-term impacts of a generation of women leaving the workforce may not be fully apparent for some time yet. But the repercussions of this loss will be felt not only among working mothers and their families alone—studies show that increasing gender diversity in the workforce has positive implications for productivity and GDP as well.

As employers grapple with changing norms in the workplace due to COVID-19, they should challenge themselves to think even more broadly about how they can maintain a flexible and inclusive workforce, even after the COVID crisis ends. As an employer, ask yourself: what can you offer to support your entire staff, equitably? Flexible hours? Remote-friendly positions? Paid or emergency child care options for those who need it? Paid family leave? An increased sense of empathy and understanding?

Policies and practices that empower working women will allow mothers to leave the penalty box for good, to score major points for themselves, their families, and our economy.


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