When quarantine began, the good news was I could keep working as long as I had a computer and internet connection. The bad news was, I was expected to keep working as long as I had a computer and internet connection. Entire industries like hospitality, entertainment, and travel all closed their doors and sent home millions of people to do nothing but keep their families safe. But while much of society completely shut down, expectations in the corporate world didn’t budge.
Like all other working parents, for me this meant managing a nine-year-old who needed constant help with his math problems, a seven-year-old who refused to get off the iPad, and a four-year-old who spilled cranberry juice all over the couch while watching Frozen II for the millionth time, all while I replied to a coworker’s “urgent” question, tried to finish an email I’d been drafting for over an hour, and scrambled to join another Zoom meeting from my kitchen table since my husband was still in our office on his work meeting that was running over.
We were “making it work” but the new normal was wearing on our family. Our kids weren’t getting the full parental support they needed during an unprecedented time. When they asked for another snack or help with their school work, I snapped at them out of frustration since I felt pressure to be working instead. Our marriage was tested as my husband and I were nothing more than stressed-out ships passing in the unrelenting night. We had lost our exercise routines and had come to rely on fast food since no one could manage to cook a healthy meal amidst all this.
I tried to adopt an attitude of gratitude. I was grateful we both still had our jobs and grateful for these three healthy children who were driving us nuts. But gratitude can only get you so far.
For the foreseeable future, we thought we had to just keep “making it work.” After all, as working parents we’re used to wearing multiple hats so we should be able to handle this, too, right? At least that’s the reasoning that keeps expecting us to work from home amidst a global pandemic… Yes, we’re used to walking a fine line by removing our PARENT hat as we drop the kids off at school, then putting on our EMPLOYEE hat as we finish commuting to work. We put in a solid day of productivity then put our PARENT hat back on for dinner, homework, and bedtime routines, often throwing the EMPLOYEE hat back on for another hour or two late at night. The difference now is, we’re no longer managing this balance in big chunks. Instead of 14 hours as PARENT, 10 hours as EMPLOYEE, it’s now 5 minutes as one, 5 minutes as the other, over and over and over again. Usually it’s actually both hats at the very same time, making it physically impossible to be effective in either role.
In addition to the challenging logistics, we’re expected to uphold the traditional working parent ruse that nothing is more important than our job. We’re expected to continue prioritizing anything work related at any instant, hiding the fact that our PARENT hat is now on permanently. Ignore the child climbing your leg and screaming for your attention as you sit on mute, fake-smiling into the camera for your Zoom meeting. And while the company memos with “helpful tips for working at home” are well-intended, they are completely tone deaf. We don’t need tips. We need a reduction in what’s expected of us. In my case, I wasn’t just physically tired from the overlapping demands on my time. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted from upholding a facade that I was still a fully functioning employee while I secretly tried to manage my three young children.
In the corporate world, you don’t have the option to say “no, sorry, I can’t do that.” And as a mom, you can’t just tell your family you’re too busy and close the non-existent office door. Moms are used to simply doing what is asked of us, no matter what it takes. If more is asked of us, we just step up further, often at the cost of our mental or physical health. But what happens when what’s asked of us is literally impossible? When do we draw the line?
When I saw Working Mother’s article about the parental leave Microsoft was offering its employees, it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t have to simply accept the situation for what it was. I decided to speak up and was honest with my employer about the fact that I could no longer do my job. I got approval for a one month unpaid leave of absence and I immediately felt the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. Now one week into my leave, I still have to handle school work resistance, preschooler tantrums, spousal arguments and the like, but at least I’m able to give them my full, undivided and unapologetic attention.
Of course, I’m fortunate to be in a position that I can take a leave of absence. I was between projects at work, I have very supportive leadership, and since I quit climbing the corporate ladder years ago, I have no people management responsibilities requiring my presence through these trying times. Plus, even as the primary breadwinner, my family is in a financial position to go without my salary for one month, mostly because we moved out of Silicon Valley two years ago.
Not all working parents are able to take a leave of absence. But this doesn’t mean we have to automatically accept what is being asked of us, either. That might’ve been our only option back in March when we thought we’d be dealing with this for just a few weeks. But now that we’re looking at the summer and possibly beyond, “making it work” is no longer an option. So what are our options?
Working parents are starting to speak up about the very obvious reality of how impossible this situation is. But with the exception of a few companies like Microsoft, employers are not proactively telling employees to work less. The common response is the tone deaf “tips and tricks” or guidance to speak with one’s manager if additional support is needed, putting the burden on individual managers to make difficult decisions on an exception basis. Ultimately, it’s up to us as individuals to ask for what we need. Maybe you would benefit from one day of vacation each week. Or maybe you can go on a part-time schedule and still keep your benefits. The bottom line is, you don’t have to accept the situation for what it is. Get creative about your alternatives and don’t feel guilty or ashamed for being honest about your priorities.
If you’re in a position to take a leave of absence or cut back at work, don’t feel like you have to somehow “tough it out.” Now more than ever, it’s okay to be honest about your desire to put your family first. In fact, the more of us start doing so, the less stigmatized it will become. Our generation of women has been so heavily urged to Lean Into our careers that we’re afraid if we show our priorities to be anything other than our job, we will be viewed as a failure. Hence our conditioned response to hide our PARENT hat even when it’s permanently stuck to our head, even when it’s climbing our leg during a Zoom call. But there is nothing wrong with wanting to put your family first, especially in times like this.
There are some who will use this time to actually lean further into their career, stepping up their commitment to their job. That is fine and is their choice. But it doesn’t mean you must (or should be expected to) do the same. Similarly, there are those who don’t have a PARENT hat and have actually found themselves with a lot more time on their hands. They won’t understand why you need to do something “so drastic” as take a leave of absence or cut back your hours. But that’s okay. If they have so much time on their hands, let them pick up your work!
Ideally, this pandemic will shed light on how unrealistic corporate expectations and practices are for people like working parents who have priorities other than their jobs. But that truth will only emerge if we start speaking honestly about our priorities and limitations. Stop suffering in silence and “making it work.” The more of us speak up, the more we enable others to do the same. And until the tide begins to turn, you don’t have to accept the situation as it is – especially not in these extreme times. Do what’s best for you and your family and ask for what you need in order to achieve that. Now more than ever, employers should understand. Now more than ever, it’s okay to Lean Out.
Monica Pierce is an author and speaker who passionately shares alternative perspectives for modern women. Visit www.monicaEpierce.com to learn more and get her new book, Leaning Out.