Q: Our federal workplace, under the CARES Act, permits parents to work 75% of their hours (30 hours/week, any days or times) for the same pay. I’m glad not to lose my teammates and work friends, and glad they can better balance their personal lives and work, but this has translated to a heavy burden on those of us who are child-free. I’m overloaded, and the assignments just keep coming, with no legitimate-enough excuse to make my “no, thank you” stick. The constant narrative from leadership is what heroes parents are — and they are, but those of us without kids are doing so much heavy lifting, and we have families, too.
I know that even though parenthood is a choice, having kids at home during a pandemic wasn’t. As an employed, teleworking, snugly housed and safe person, I know I’m privileged. That said, my workplace feels very unequal right now. It sounds ugly out loud, but as a married woman without children, I’m losing my empathy and patience after months of being treated as though my time is therefore infinite.
A: As I once said in response to a child-free worker disgruntled by parents working from home with kids: One worker’s right to work-life balance does not trump another’s.
But that was in the Before Times, when children on conference calls were rare occurrences. Maternity leave could be planned around. Children eventually aged out of needing so much attention. Child-free workers had opportunities to stoke their careers and earnings. There was an ebb and flow to the imbalance.
But now we’re all paddling in quicksand, trying not to get sucked under. And there’s no solid ground in sight.
Being an income-earning parent during this pandemic is hell. Parents — let’s be frank, moms — are, like you, buried in additional unpaid work they can’t turn down. If they’re like me, they’re also aware of all the ways they’re falling short and how every lost work-minute threatens their employability, their earning power and their child-free colleagues’ goodwill. They sure don’t feel like heroes. COVID-19 benefits for parents aren’t about balance; they’re about not drowning.
Many of these women are leaving the workforce — at four times the rate of men. And all women, mothers or not, should be alarmed by that. We are not that far past the days when it was common — and legal — for employers to view all female job candidates as potential sunk costs — or the days before parenthood truly could be a choice.
But as you note, child-free workers can’t serve indefinitely as backup levees for our nation’s fragile support systems. Stretching the same salary over more hours isn’t technically a pay cut, but it certainly feels like one. And your diligence and child-free status are no guarantee against layoffs.
And employers trying to stay afloat are having to reallocate resources and comply with new laws to accommodate a functionally reduced workforce.
The few solutions I’ve seen revolve around managing expectations, adjusting priorities and supporting each other.
For employers and managers, this means rethinking expectations and priorities and reducing demands to the essentials. It also means supporting employees in using flexibility and setting reasonable boundaries.
As for you: Know that “breaking down from overwork” and “too many tasks in too little time” are not “excuses” — they’re legitimate reasons. Determine the daily or weekly threshold at which you begin producing diminishing returns, and ask your boss for help setting priorities on what you can defer and what you should focus on before you hit that threshold.
Remember also that this isn’t the mommy wars of yore. It may help defuse resentment if you think of your parent co-workers as being incapacitated by the novel coronavirus, similar to someone on sick leave. They are as eager to return to normal as you are.
Pro tip: For details on pandemic-related unemployment among women as well as recommendations for solutions, see “Women in the Workplace: Corporate America Is at a Critical Crossroads,” published by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org.