I remember it being a crisp, beautiful Friday in early spring – my husband and I had both taken a half-day to meet up at a local brewery with some friends. When we got to the door, we both looked at each other with panic and disbelief in our eyes. We didn’t say a word to each other as we sat down at our table. The entire restaurant had an eerie calm over it – as though we were all waiting for a hurricane to hit. Our good friends soon joined us and sat down. They too had the look of panic and disbelief in their eyes, and again, no words were spoken. We all got our drinks, cheersed for one last time, and said “to the pandemic!”
The date was March 16th 2020, and just before getting to lunch, we had all received the email that schools would be shut down for at least four weeks. Both my husband and I and our friends have school aged kids, and we all work full time. It felt like we had all been sacked in the gut with a ton of bricks – the wind had been knocked out of us. This is undoubtedly how the 26 million working parents of school aged kids felt across the country on that same day. I have the added pressure of being the CEO of a company called Flexable, which ironically partners with employers to provide backup childcare services to working parent employees when childcare falls through. Schools closing for four weeks (which turned into months) would prove to be one of the biggest childcare breakdowns our generation has ever experienced, and Flexable would go on to rise to the challenge of supporting working parents nationwide.
In a “normal” situation, being a CEO of a company means creating and growing a “business baby” and dealing with the challenges and successes along the way. But compounding that with funding challenges, liability and safety challenges and governmental restrictions, and it becomes a near impossible feat. And being a parent of school aged kids in a “normal” world has its challenges as well, but the reliability of a supportive education and childcare system helped keep my kids properly cared for and educated. When both those jobs were suddenly compounded with a pandemic, it removed most of those safety nets and added additional challenges – and it was rippling. The only way I can describe what the last six months have felt like to me is trying to balance two squirming porcupines in each arm, trying hard not to get pricked. I almost threw in the towel on my company multiple times, and have daydreamed for months of running away from everything and living among the trees in Alaska. The overwhelming feeling I’ve had for the past six months is one of failure, and I know I’m not alone.
As a mom, it’s very easy to be hard on ourselves. We are fixers and doers – if someone in our family needs something, we’re always the ones to raise our hands to say “I’ll do it,’ even if we don’t have an ounce of bandwidth or strength to do so. And this is especially true when it comes to childcare – when childcare falls through, and every backup option is exhausted, moms are the first ones to take a breath, raise their hand and say “I’ll do it.” This is why 865,000 women left the workforce in September 2020 and why burnout, exhaustion and overall mental health are the biggest concerns for US employers today. I personally find it very hard NOT to say “I’ll do it” and instead say “can someone else do it?” especially since we don’t have access to our support systems in a meaningful way anymore. But I’ve been trying very hard to practice not raising my hand. I’ve asked my husband to help, I’ve used services like online camps and virtual care, and I’ve created circles of friends that can hang out with my kids either at our house or their house so I can just send my kids out if need be. By no means is this a perfect system, and I largely designed the system myself (insert eye roll) but for now it’s working. But to all the working moms reading this, I ask that you give yourself the grace and permission to keep your hand down, and not default to doing everything. Ask your employer for help, lean on your partner if you can, take advantage of online classes and care for your kids, and above all, try and put yourself first if you are able to. Because you can’t take care of anyone else unless you take care of yourself first.