The “Future Of Work” Still Sucks. Just Ask Working Parents.
Millions of women left the workforce during the pandemic. Many of them are back and confront the same problems that drove them out in the first place.
Carrie Borda, a project manager with two young children in Washington, said she was “wrecked” when her employer suddenly laid off her boss in 2021 despite her view that their team was excelling. Within hours of his departure, managers were on the phone with Borda offering a promotion, which she saw as a sugar-coated request to take on additional workload. “In my mind, after that happened, I was like, ‘I don’t have a future here,’” she said. “Why am I putting everything into this, to know that the work really isn’t valued?”
Borda considered all the times she felt the stress of deadlines while her 5- and 3-year-old kids demanded attention and snacks, the many hours of sleep she had missed because her workdays were being stretched out, the pounds she had lost because she was forgetting to eat in the chaos of daily life. “I was in a bad place, and something had to change,” she said. A few weeks later, she resigned after six years with the company. She decided not to jump into another job right away, and take “a pause in life,” as she described it.
It was March and Borda was among 13 women I had spoken to over the previous two weeks who left the workforce during the pandemic, among the millions of women who had done so. We were witnessing a shift in American workplace equality, and I wanted to know how they were experiencing this transition. I asked how the pandemic had changed the culture of work: It hadn’t, they concluded — that’s why they needed to step away from it. I didn’t foresee how personal these choices would soon become for me.
Not 24 hours after Borda and I spoke, BuzzFeed, my employer for the last seven years, announced that it would downsize its news operation and offer voluntary buyouts to the dozens of journalists across a handful of teams — including me. “This is not your fault,” our editor-in-chief, who resigned amid these changes, wrote in an email that day. BuzzFeed, which had just gone public in December and made $25.9 million in annual profit, said the decision was aimed at reducing costs. I was caught off guard: My annual review had just gone well, and I felt good about the work I was doing. I had managed to dodge previous rounds of cuts and stay employed through the first, and hopefully worst, years of the pandemic. I saw two options: take the voluntary buyout and jump off the cliff into a volatile economy, or try to stick around and see if I’d eventually be pushed off.
My heart sank into my stomach. I crawled into bed, closed my eyes to block out the sun, and lay there for a good, long while as my husband watched over our 5-year-old and 2-year-old. I thought about the challenges I had in common with the women I had spoken with over the last few days — intimate conversations had while pumping breast milk, during kids’ nap times, around pickups and drop-offs, or for as long as the television would keep the children busy. We were in a similar life stage: mid-career, treading the busy, overwhelming, and often expensive lives of working parents with young children. The pandemic disrupted the delicate balance that just barely allowed us to do our jobs and care for our families and ourselves, and we had all been reeling in some way.
For me, the last 25 months have often felt unmanageable, like years of writhing in quicksand, despite having supportive managers and workplace policies, and an engaged husband and parents nearby, who share generously in raising my two young children. I know in context, I have a good version of how things can be, yet the competing demands on my attention and time mean I am always falling short on something. Nothing has been predictable or consistent. Childcare disruptions, a widely discussed problem in the first year of the pandemic, remain common for a multitude of reasons: the virus, the expense, and the shrinking childcare workforce. Last month, 20% of households with children younger than 5 said they were unable to attend daycare due to closures, affordability, or safety concerns, according to census data. A lot of times, kids are just home sick; parents get sick too. Even when school and childcare are stable, I always feel like I should still do more at work and also do more for my family. Now BuzzFeed had inadvertently opened the door for me to take my pause, like millions of women had before me.
While most women who took a break during the pandemic are employed now, the numbers haven’t totally recovered, due to a loss of 1.49 million women in part-time jobs, while the number of employed men has increased slightly. Among women who are still employed, burnout has worsened, and by 2021 1 in 3 said they had considered reducing work hours, moving to a less demanding job, or even leaving the workforce, according to research by McKinsey & Company and Lean In, a workplace equality organization started by Meta’s Chief Operations Officer Sheryl Sandberg. The sense that women are recovering from the impact of the pandemic more slowly across the whole workforce “is very true, and deeply concerning,” said Lean In cofounder Rachel Thomas.
There is no problem with your work or productivity, but, he warned my husband, it gives the impression that you’re scheduling work around everything else.
Such statistics reflected the stories I had been hearing from my sources, colleagues, and friends for the last two years. An old friend — an ambitious and hardworking woman with impressive degrees and two kids — recently took a one-year leave from her impressive job due to daily migraines, insomnia, and teeth grinding that she felt were exacerbated by stress at work. While she envies the professional success some of her colleagues are enjoying, “I'm actively taking myself out of the running for ever achieving anything close to that,” she said. She needs space to address her chronic health issues and spend some time with her children before they go off to kindergarten. “No one has it all.”
Beth LaMontagne Hall, who has two children, quit her job at a marketing agency in New Hampshire after the hair on her head and her arms started falling out in 2020. When she mentioned this, I smoothed the wisps of fine hair regrowing on my scalp after my own period of hair loss. “There’s no cohesive strategy for making work more reasonable for women who care for others,” she said. “A lot of men are self-conscious about sticking their neck out about childcare, because it’s such a gendered issue.”
I understood the sentiment. My husband handles plenty of household responsibilities, something I both appreciate and expect of him. Recently, on a day our childcare had fallen through, he answered an unscheduled work call at the park with our son; he later received a call from his (male) manager saying this was a bad look, especially since they had caught him exercising at the park during another unscheduled call. There is no problem with your work or productivity, but, he warned my husband, it gives the impression that you’re scheduling work around everything else. I couldn’t help but suspect that my husband’s employer — a company that does not offer parental leave (he was back at work days after our son was born), that does not subsidize healthcare premiums for employees’ spouses or dependents — sees his family fully as someone else’s responsibility: mine. I resented their expectations; then I began encouraging him to pass along more household duties to me as my employment became tenuous, so as not to jeopardize our one secure income.
Even for remote workers, like my husband, “the expectation is you’re working during the day, and you’re putting in a set number of hours, and going to all the meetings that we say you need to go to. And you need to figure out how to fit your personal life into our system,” said LaMontagne Hall, who now works 20 to 30 hours per week as an independent contractor.
While there was some leniency at the beginning of the pandemic, “I get the sense that it’s just going back to normal.”
Such pressures are felt widely. The pandemic started shortly after Amy Steinmann returned from parental leave. Performing her role remotely as a government contractor in Virginia, she still needed to log in her 40 weekly hours. COVID regularly disrupted daycare service, but work still poured in, forcing her to juggle caring for her baby and her job. The very sight of her home office began to trigger a lot of stress. “I just felt very out of control,” she said. “No matter whether I was working or I wasn't working, I just always felt the stress and anxiety of like, What am I supposed to be doing?” Eventually, feeling depressed and overwhelmed, Steinmann resigned for her mental health, without another job lined up. “I didn’t want to live like that anymore,” she said.
“There’s still this expectation that you get your work done regardless of your circumstance, or your childcare situation,” Steinmann said. While there was some leniency at the beginning of the pandemic, “I get the sense that it’s just going back to normal.” After several months, Steinmann started her own company, working part time. “I felt I was disappointing my parents and myself,” she worried, but “they were totally supportive of me resigning and wanted me to do what was best for me.”
What these women are observing — the stubborn tendency of American work culture to consume a person’s life — makes me dubious of claims that work has changed forever, that employees have leveraged the labor shortage or the Great Reshuffle to demand a better work–life balance. If we’re honest about whether the American workplace has evolved to meaningfully improve the lives of most employees, especially those who are parents, the answer is still no. The future of work still sucks, and we’re all trapped in it in some way.
As much as employers have responded to demands for flexibility with the option to work from home, it would be an error to mistake the ability to dial into virtual meetings wearing pajama pants or to run the dishwasher or laundry during the day as radical systemic change that really improves the lives of most working parents. Remote employees just end up putting in more hours, research shows. And overall, remote work is still an anomaly: By March, just 10% of employees were performing their roles remotely due to the pandemic, and almost all of them were college graduates and worked in business, finance, or information jobs.
The future of work still sucks, and we’re all trapped in it in some way.
There are things that would make parents’ lives better, and for many it would simply take the form of more money, more job security, and less work — which shouldn’t sound all that absurd. Meaningful change can take the form of paid sick days for workers to care for themselves or their dependents, affordable healthcare, universal childcare so that parents would get to keep more of their income at the end of the month, and equal parental benefits for mothers and fathers. Not one of these is a novel idea — we’ve been talking about this for decades now. Maybe we could even pay parents who stay home to take care of their children. Life would still have its challenges with these changes; it’ll just be less crushing. These are expensive programs for the government, although as we’ve witnessed during the pandemic, lawmakers can turn on the money spigot when it determines a crisis is urgent enough. Unfortunately, major economic indicators can track crises in employment and output, but don’t directly measure well-being, a word so overused it is easy to gloss over. For big companies, these solutions are harder than allowing employees to work from home as late or as early as their exhausted hearts desire.
Ultimately, “workplaces are really not willing to be flexible with anyone who has caregiving or other needs,” London School of Economics professor Aliya Hamid Rao said.
Oh, please, doubters will say. So much has changed! Employers finally understand workers’ need for flexibility. You really can have it all; just wake up at 5 a.m. to work for a couple of hours until the kids are awake and need to be dressed, fed, and out the door; then come back home to work until pick up at 2:30 p.m. because after school programs were canceled due to staffing issues (plenty of teachers are over it); help them with homework, cook, feed them dinner, put them to bed, clean up; then open your laptop at 8 p.m. and squeeze in a couple of more hours of work before you pass out and start the whole routine over again every workday until you retire, or die. Women have so much grit; they are superheroes and can do anything they put their minds to.
Some people don’t mind this pace. Bless them. But if you ask me — a person in good health with normal-to-high tolerance for life’s demands — keeping up this level of energy is harmful to well-being. In the latest Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, nearly 31% of women said they had recently experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression (compared to 23% of men).
“That model of elongating the workday is probably not sustainable. But it is something that we have seen with remote work, and the ways that working mothers and working parents are trying to navigate the ongoing issue with the instability of childcare,” said Tammy Allen, an organizational psychologist and professor at South Florida University. “Maybe we’re all thinking, OK, it’s almost over. OK, I can do this for another month. But it keeps extending.”
I again called Carrie Borda, the former project manager in Washington who later started her own business, sharing my own experience about being offered a buyout at BuzzFeed, which echoed many elements of the story she shared with me. She offered me more reassurance than a reporter deserves from their sources — maybe because we weren’t talking on strictly professional grounds anymore, but acknowledging each other as full humans. “Trust your gut,” she said. “It’s diving in, not knowing where the shore is. But you need to evaluate what’s important.”
South Florida University’s Allen said that sometimes people take one step back to move two steps forward. At such crossroads, “always remember what agency you have, and the contributions that you make, and be willing to negotiate for what you want,” she said.
The problem is, I’ve never been great at knowing what I want.
Female empowerment, and enlightenment, was always presented to me as being synonymous with work: My mother, an immigrant, impossibly industrious, taught me a woman should always have her own money. As a child, I played a board game called Careers rather than with dolls. Early on, I set my mind to a steady march toward professional success and financial stability — a challenge in the industry I chose, which has shrunk significantly since I started. In my heart, I believed being my husband’s equal was conditional on pulling my weight financially and on having my own professional identity. But I had no model for being a professional woman with an intentional approach to work–life balance. The prospect of stepping away from my job — even if temporarily — feels like giving up on both the life I had worked for, and the life I always thought I had wanted for myself and my kids. It’s hard not to view it as an undeserved setback in the upward mobility critical to so many second-generation Americans like myself. Yet at the same time, I now feel disappointed that I’ve correlated so much of my self-worth as a woman with an ability to prove myself to my employers. How could I reshape my purpose?
In my heart, I believed being my husband’s equal was conditional on pulling my weight financially and on having my own professional identity.
I spoke with a business consultant in Oregon who asked only to be identified by her first name, Elizabeth, and was in her final days of parental leave after the birth of her first child, a son. Her identity up to that point had largely rested on her professional ambitions, and before having a child, she never questioned that she would return to work after becoming a mother, among other reasons, to show her son “women can be strong, women can be successful, and their spouse doesn't look down on them or feel threatened by that.” But now, she said, “I am like, What am I doing? He needs to come first.” Soon after her son was born, her manager asked if she could still respond to calls and emails during leave, setting the expectation that she would return early. Elizabeth declined, saying she couldn’t because she had just had a baby, knowing it wasn’t the answer they wanted.
When we spoke again two weeks after Elizabeth returned to work, she told me, “It’s hard not to feel like there’s some amount of punishment for going on leave.” If she blocks off time to pump or to take care of her baby during a closure at daycare, or to simply give herself a break, her boss passes along those responsibilities to a male colleague. Her managers planned business travel for her without first checking about her needs. “You’re suddenly finding that the boundaries that you tried to set up are slipping away,” Elizabeth said. And despite her best efforts, which had previously been more than enough, she feels she is being “left behind.” Every day for the last week, she’s talked to her husband about the possibility of leaving her job.
If “privilege” is taking parental leave just so your boss can call and ask you to work through it, if it is having the flexibility to stay at home when childcare arrangements have fallen through so that you can ignore your kids while they beg you for snacks and wrestle with each other in the background during meetings when you are supposed to be 100% focused on Important Work Things so that you don’t seem uncommitted and miss out on opportunities that will probably just go to a man who is better at pretending his family doesn’t exist — if that constitutes privilege, then workers deserve a refund, because this is not what they signed up for.
Jenna Monroe was a modern dancer in California who lost her jobs during the pandemic and was later hired as a story producer for a television show. She has more control over her hours now and saves on childcare and working from home, but she doesn’t describe it as a privilege. “I think I’m entitled to my time. I think I’m entitled to that happiness and being there for my kids.”
On the days when plans fall apart and I work late to make up lost ground, my toddler, who can’t yet say the many things he feels, desperately scales my body as if it were a climbing wall until he is standing on my legs, inserting himself as a barricade between my eyes and the computer screen. “Don’t work, Mama,” he says, clasping my chin with his tiny hands. “Play.” If that doesn’t work, he’ll try a tantrum. Meanwhile, my kindergartener has developed a hilarious and mildly unsettling obsession with Netflix’s The Boss Baby: Back in Business, a show he picked on his own volition about a fast-talking, capitalist baby who wears a suit and tie and is obsessively focused on becoming the CEO of Baby Corp, a company run by babies that is dedicated to maximizing the share of adult “baby love” against competing interests, like cats. He’s been exposed to concepts like negotiations and corporate hierarchy. “Are you getting fired, Mama?” he asked, having apparently learned the term from the show. “No,” I said, “but I might not be working for a little while, and maybe I can spend more time with you and your brother.” His frown melted into a grin so pure, I could almost hear him thinking: more baby love.
“I think I’m entitled to my time. I think I’m entitled to that happiness and being there for my kids.”
A few days after BuzzFeed announced the staff reductions, a middle-aged door attendant I knew died suddenly. Kidney failure. He came in to work until his very last day. Colleagues seeing he was unwell, too weak to walk, sent him home in the morning; he died hours later. Two weeks after that, during the morning rush hour, a man wearing a gas mask and construction worker’s vest shot 10 people in New York City on the train line I normally would have taken to the office. My husband, who only recently started going back in, was stuck on a train just behind the incident. Transit staff never announced what was happening, or that there was a shooter at large in the area, so my husband just transferred to a bus for the remainder of his commute and prepared for his 10 a.m. meeting. He stayed the full workday — I wished he had just come home. So many of us default to work, to the grind. Our childcare had fallen through that day, so I was home taking care of my kids, listening to police helicopters overhead searching for the shooter. I tried to write, but mostly thought about how precious the time we have is.
I started doing the math on whether I could afford to take a break if I didn’t immediately secure a new job, whether there were enough expenses we could cut (childcare, discretionary groceries, streaming services, random impulse purchases) to comfortably rely on my husband’s salary. I had just interviewed all these women who managed to work it out. For Alexandra Muirhead, the owner of a burgeoning hair-and-makeup business in Connecticut, stepping back ended up making more financial sense than paying for care for her three children. Part-time care for two babies was $2,200 per month and preschool for the older child, which lets out at 2 p.m., was $500 per month — altogether about double their mortgage payment. Now, she works just one or two days a week and packs those days with as many clients as possible in order to keep up with the bills and keep her business alive.
My own numbers just barely worked out, with little margin for error or for savings despite my husband earning a good salary. Like 62% of married-couple families with children, ours has been a two-income household, and rejiggering it all to run on just one salary is not easy, no matter how efficient we are. The most frustrating large expense was healthcare, since my husband’s company does not subsidize family coverage. The premium for the high-deductible plan through his employer would cost us $1,800 per month ($21,600 per year). Continuing coverage on BuzzFeed’s plan through COBRA would cost $2,100. The cheapest marketplace plan I found is $1,300 a month, with a $9,400 deductible. These are very big numbers. We don’t qualify for Medicaid, but there are other subsidized plans we could apply for, although I am not yet sure if we are eligible. I resented that something as unfulfilling as health insurance was a determining factor in how I mapped out my future.
I had always thought I wanted a simple life, but only learned with time its actual cost. What “simple” entails for me — a secure life in which we aren’t at risk of medical bankruptcy, in which our savings grow, in which I can help my parents, in which there’s a modest budget for summer vacation and activities for the kids — will require that I eventually get back on that endless, imperfect treadmill. I just wish it wasn’t so hard.
What I learned from speaking with these women is while this life is hard, we do have some agency over how much hardship we’re willing to endure. Before COVID, Meron Tekle had been an elementary school principal and a coach to principals in the Houston area. Around 6 a.m. her husband would get their baby ready, and Tekle would drive in the opposite direction of her hourlong commute to work and meet her mother, who would take the baby the rest of the way to the babysitter along the way to her job. The frenzy of daily survival felt like treading water. Even though Tekle was earning an upper-middle-class income, financial pressures weighed on her too: Childcare cost about $1,200 per month, and the price of health insurance shot up by $800 per month when her baby was added to her plan. “There was this just horrible feeling, and you realize, Oh, I can't do what all the other women did,” she said.
Tekle’s mother, an immigrant from Eritrea, had gone through the same struggles as a working parent, only without benefits like maternity leave and office pumping rooms, which she told her daughter she was fortunate to have. “To her, there wasn’t another way,” Tekle said. The message Tekle took away was: “This is part of being a working woman. It just is what it is. There’s no other option. You just struggle.”
The pandemic pushed Tekle to find another way. Schools closed and she took a few months off, a period she calls “the pause,” to think about what she needed to get on solid footing again. Now, she won’t consider jobs that don’t publish pay bands, knowing the lack of transparency could work against her as a Black woman. She wants to work remotely sometimes. And she won’t work for an employer that doesn’t understand all the unexpected things that come up for parents, that doesn’t see her as her “full self” but expects “my mask on, like I can do it all.” She found all this in a job doing strategic advising across multiple school districts. “It’s a wonderful place,” she said. “My mom is constantly like, Jobs like that exist? All the time.” In 2021, Tekle had another baby.
Our mothers shape so much of how we see ourselves. And I understood from these conversations, from being a mother myself now, that while parents always want the best for their children, it can be hard to imagine all the possibilities, to know how far we should push past our own lived experiences. All a person can offer is what wisdom they’ve gained.
Last month, on my mother’s 70th birthday, she, my father, and their children and grandchildren strolled together down a wooded walking path along a creek. “Don’t worry so much if you have to take a break,” she told me. “You can’t expect life to just be smooth and have no bumps.” The afternoon was sunny and warm and the kids picked wildflowers as we went; my mother seemed genuinely content. “These tough experiences will help you appreciate it more when things are good,” she said. We paused for a moment to catch our breath, and then kept moving ahead. ●