When they met as students in Chicago, 20 years ago, Vondetta Taylor and Jennifer Anderson were all aspiration. Taylor was training to be a chef. Anderson was working toward a career in broadcasting. They also dreamed of starting families. Careers and kids didn't seem like too much to hope for or too much to handle; growing up during the 1980s and '90s, they were part of a generation of young women raised with the expectation that they could have it all, that they should have it all.
"That was just instilled in us: 'If you can dream it, go do it,'" Taylor says.
As the years passed, the two women traced over those youthful visions with the brush strokes of real life. Anderson, now 41, got married, moved to Indiana, had a son and started a career in information-technology. Taylor, 38, gave birth to a son she was raising alone while selling insurance full-time. "Having it all," in the sense of being moms and professionals, wasn't easy or glamorous. But they were doing it.
Then came the pandemic, and it all fell apart.
Taylor was supposed to make 100 sales calls a day while managing her kindergartner's online education. That meant being a teacher, a disciplinarian, a mental health counselor and an extracurricular-activities director on top of her sales job. And there was still only one of her.
In July, Taylor says, her bosses told her she was underperforming. She was fired.
Anderson's husband couldn't do his custodial work from home, so it was on her to stay home with their 10-year-old son. His school announced it was going to be remote in the fall; Anderson's employer said she had to come back to the office in late August.
It just couldn't work. She quit.
Just like that the two friends became part of a legion of women leaving the U.S. labor force. In September alone more than 860,000 women dropped out of the workforce, compared to just over 200,000 men. An analysis by the National Women's Law Center found that women left the labor force at four times the rate of men in September, just as schools came back in session. The unemployment rate for all U.S. women was 7.7 percent in September. And it's worse for women of color: 11 percent of Latina women were unemployed that month, as were 11.1 percent of Black women -- more than double the pre-pandemic rates.
Women make up high percentages of workers in hard-hit industries such as hospitality, child care and travel. Societal forces are proving to be as crushing as economic ones. Despite what girls of the '80s and '90s were promised, women in 2020 are still expected to shoulder a majority of household duties, including taking care of children and aging parents. Without day cares and in-person education, what was previously an untenable situation has become impossible.
"Even before the pandemic, our social safety net for families in the U.S. was so weak and broken," says Jessica McCrory Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University who has been studying the impact of the pandemic on mothers. "And moms are the ones who've been left holding the threads. And eventually they just can't hold on any longer."
Some economists predict the workforce exodus could set women back a generation. The long-term impact on the presence and advancement of women in the professional ranks is not fully known. At the individual level, women are already feeling the pain of watching hard-earned careers evaporate -- along with their incomes and a significant portion of their identities.
Not that the mothers among them have much time to process all of that.
"It's OK to go into the bathroom and close the door and scream," Anderson remembers telling Taylor during one of their near-daily phone calls. "It was such a rough transition, battling the demands of work and being a mom and not taking it out on the child."
The pressures of holding a household together during a pandemic are intense on their own. "I literally sit up and cry at night because I don't know how I'm going to do it," Erin Rose says.
Rose left a job she loved dearly so she could take care of her two boys, a 5-year-old and an 8-month-old. Her husband made more at his warehouse job than she did as a paralegal. So while he remained in the working world, she redid the family budget for a single income, got on a payment plan with utility companies, moved everyone on to her husband's much-worse insurance plan -- all while caring for their infant and trying to keep her kindergartner focused on virtual school.
Rose took pride in her professional life. Through tears, she explains that she worked "super hard" to get her job. But when the pandemic struck, both the math and society's expectations was stacked against her -- and many other women.
There's the fact that women generally are paid less than men, which tends to obviate the question of who should be the one to quit if there's a crisis. And women already tend to be the ones who pick up the slack at home, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics finding 85 percent of women and 67 percent of men spend some time on household activities. During the pandemic, mothers of children under age 10 who are in dual-career couples have been twice as likely as men in the same situation to spend more than five additional hours per day on household responsibilities, according to a new McKinsey report.
"Working mothers are much more likely to have experiences of burnout or feeling exhausted, and that's one of the reasons they're considering taking a step back," says Jess Huang, co-author of the report.
The United States is not a place that makes it easy for mothers to work. For many women, the pandemic made it unfeasible. And President Donald Trump has spoken to women as if careers are something reserved for their male counterparts. "We're getting your husbands back to work," Trump said at a recent rally.
"We don't have an epidemic of personal failures," says Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO of MomsRising, an organization that advocates for issues related to mothers. "We have national structural issues."
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Faith, a New York City communications professional, knew she needed to quit her job when she found herself spending time thinking about killing herself during a Zoom meeting with her boss and colleagues. She needed them to understand the extent of her despair.
Back in January, she was a 38-year-old first-time mother who was getting acquainted with all the practical challenges of attempting to maintain some semblance of work-life balance. She was commuting, pumping, packing day-care bags, cleaning bottles -- and struggling to keep up with her work.
When New York shut down in March, her challenges multiplied. Her work, which now involved orchestrating covid-related events online, was unrelenting and though her husband did his fair share of baby duty, many tasks -- like pumping and nursing -- necessarily fell to her.
"I felt like I was going to throw up or cry a lot of the time," says Faith, who asked that her last name be withheld so she could speak candidly about her mental health without worrying how it might affect her career in the future. "I had episodes where I felt lightheaded. My husband had to help me to bed one time."
She started falling asleep at 9 p.m., right after the baby, then waking at midnight to finish chores around the apartment. She talked to her boss and to the folks in her employer's human resources office. She took the month of August off to get herself together. She says she asked to work part-time and was told that wasn't possible.
Her thoughts became darker and darker. She knew she had to quit to survive.
America's public health crisis has created a parallel mental health crisis, and working mothers may be uniquely vulnerable. "This is a mental health crisis for our moms," says Calarco, the sociologist. "It's untenable in the long term and even in the short term."
Calarco and her fellow researchers have found that, during the pandemic, stress increased significantly among moms who started spending a great deal more time than usual with their kids. The women who seem most stressed are the ones who hold themselves to very high standards, as both parents and professionals.
"They felt a tremendous amount of pressure to be this committed parent and this committed worker and are feeling like they're failing all the time," she says, and the resulting stress "is pushing many of them to consider dropping out of the workforce."
Jasmyn Lugo occasionally finds herself hoping for the rapture. Seriously. It's hard to see any other way out.
Lugo is a military wife and mother of two. She became a substitute teacher because her husband's job, drill sergeant for the U.S. Army, meant he had unreliable hours, and she needed a job with flexibility. But the work dried up when schools went online. And her children, especially her 7-year-old son, who has a developmental delay and possibly ADHD and autism, needed her help learning from home. "I have always felt that teaching was my calling," she said recently. "I've been really sad."
Lugo's father died of covid-19 in April. Her family was transferred by the military this summer. With her husband working at the base, she's alone with the kids most waking hours in their temporary hotel room. Her only option for child-care help is one that feels unhealthy: screen time. Still, "I'm so rundown myself," she says, "that I just give him his iPad."
Caroline Owens, a physical therapist assistant outside of Seattle, was furloughed at the beginning of the shutdown, and eventually her job was eliminated entirely. Her mechanic husband took a second job, working night shifts at a grocery store while Owens stays at home with their two boys, one of whom has cystic fibrosis and is a survivor of brain cancer, counseling them through tears over missing their friends and being sick of screens.
Now, even if the perfect job landed in Owens's lap, "I couldn't take it," she said.
Both she and her husband have made sacrifices this year, but Owens's role as caregiver seemed inevitable. "It's not that men don't have stresses," she says, "but I have no choices."
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"Going into 2020 I was like, 'This is going to be the best year ever,'" says Marcelena "Marcie" Ordaz, a single mom of two teenage daughters in Iowa. Ordaz was turning 40, her oldest was graduating high school, her youngest would be celebrating her quinceañera.
For years, Ordaz has tried to do everything right financially. While earning a steady paycheck as director of operations for a data processing company she invested in her 401(k), purchased her own home and put aside money for her kids' college costs. When the pandemic hit, she doubled down, stashing away her annual bonus, tax refund and stimulus check. She refinanced her house.
Then, in August, she was laid off.
The timing was terrible. Ordaz's eldest was preparing to leave for college. "I had hoped to not use student loans and parent loans," she says, "but that's where we're at now."
Ordaz estimates she'll be able to live off her savings for two to three months. She's been sending out résumés but hasn't been hearing from any prospective employers. She doesn't want to have to relocate her household, which includes a teenage daughter and elderly parents. And she doesn't want to have to liquidate any of her retirement savings, having worked so diligently to build that nest egg.
The mental health toll is visceral and immediate, but the pandemic could also have serious, long-term costs to the financial health of American women. Each day out of a job is a day not spent working toward financial independence or saving for the future. Women without jobs can't earn raises. They can't move into leadership roles or advocate for one another. The longer they spend out of the workforce, the harder it will be to get back in.
"Overall, for women, the situation is pretty grim," says Julie A. Nelson, an economist at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "It's a huge setback in terms of any kind of justice and fairness for the women in the workforce -- for women being able to access income and power on their own."
When her youngest of three sons was about 10 months old, Katie Loeb took a year off. She loved being a pediatric physical therapist, but she wasn't making enough money to pay for three day-care bills. Last year, when she rejoined the workforce full-time, she rediscovered parts of her life she'd been missing. "It was so great to have an existence outside of my home and this purpose that wasn't wound up entirely with my children," Loeb says. "It just gave me something that year off had taken."
She absolutely cannot work now. Not with her two older kids doing school from home and her toddler needing constant attention. Loeb ends most days with a headache, which sometimes becomes a full-on migraine.
She knows she's more fortunate than many others. Her husband has a good job as a pediatric neurologist. "We are fortunate that I can leave my career for now," Loeb says. But the couple has student loans totaling $500,000, and "the only way we are able to stay afloat right now is because student loans are furloughed," she says. "I very genuinely don't know what we're going to do when that ends in January."
The pandemic has laid bare hard truths for American women. The gender gap is still wide enough for a crisis like the pandemic to pack it with explosives and light the fuse. And when it comes to unpaid labor at home, in many households, women end up being the essential workers.
"The big ticket to inequality in the home is that the men can usually assume that because the mom loves the kids she will not let the ball drop," says Nelson, the economist. "And it doesn't quite go so well in the other direction. The men are still able to plead incompetence, if nothing else."
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Sure, there are silver linings. Danielle Lafave, a D.C.-area veterinarian, will be the first to admit that she's been lucky -- so far. What would have been a short maternity leave -- she was off from his birth in August until November -- will end up being a year with her 14-month-old son.
When Lafave's in-laws, including her immunocompromised father-in-law, came for an extended visit to help in late February, Lafave became concerned about exposing her family to the virus. In late February, Lafave's boss said she would understand if her employees didn't feel comfortable coming in.
The first week of March was Lafave's last week of work.
"In theory, it was going to be temporary, until my in-laws left," she said. But her son's day care showed no signs of opening, and the pandemic showed no signs of stopping. "We ran the numbers to see if we could afford for me to continue to stay home, and thankfully, we could," she said. "We can afford it for a year if we need to, and then we'll reevaluate."
And so she's just surrendered to it.
Lafave spends her days watching her son gradually get better at walking on his own. They recently discovered he really likes books, and he loves to be outside and play in the nearby park, picking up rocks and acorns.
"At least my kid doesn't know to miss anything yet," she says.
Lugo was recently able to move her family out of a hotel and into base housing. She and her husband decided to put the kids back to school in person and simply accept the risk. And, she said, she hopes she can find some decent-paying substitute teaching jobs soon.
Anderson and Taylor, the old friends, are trying to make the best of a bad situation. They have new goals, new dreams -- more modest, but achievable.
Anderson is looking at the situation as an opportunity to be a less exhausted, more available parent.
Taylor, in Chicago, is working to become an independent insurance agent; she hopes being her own boss might allow her to support her family on a schedule she controls. She is an optimist by nature. Even as winter approaches, coronavirus cases rise and her city prepares to impose new restrictions, she's trying not to dwell on the darkness.
But the uncertainty eats at her. Will her son learn to read properly from home? Will she be able to keep them both safe? What will life and her career look like on the other side of all this?
"I can't do the big picture," she says. "For my sanity, I try to do it one day at a time."