Last March, when my daughter’s kindergarten class went online due to Covid-19, I left my job as a part time executive assistant. Six months later, as summer faded and America headed “back to virtual school,” another 865,000 women also dropped out of the workforce. Some men did too - about 216,000 of them.
Quitting my job last year wasn’t difficult as I’d already quit my 14 year career in 2017. While the first ten years were a lightning bolt of achievement and success, the end was a death by a thousand cuts. My parents became sick and died, I endured two difficult pregnancies plus eight months of unpaid maternity leave, “5pm meetings” became untenable, and childcare options were expensive and unreliable. Technically, I resigned, though it felt more like a forced confession.
Since then, my plan has always been to return to work - my career - full time once my youngest entered kindergarten. Science willing, that should happen this fall. But as the clock ticks, and a new administration takes the reins, I can’t help but wonder if working mothers, who have shouldered some of the greatest burdens during this pandemic, will return to new and improved working conditions, both in the workplace and at home, once the dust settles.
That’s what happened after The Great Recession of 2007 - 2009, when college educated men suddenly found themselves out of work at a rate significantly higher than working women. I was on the other side of an economic crisis back then - single, childless, and an “executive.” While hardly a great period at the company it was far from catastrophic, and nearly every department, including mine, had the good fortune of adding on new staff.
I met a handful of those unemployed men while interviewing, and there’s one I’ve never been able to shake. When I asked my standard first question,“Why do you want to work here?” he simply stared right at my face, tilting his head to the side. He began to breathe with a bit more force and closed his eyes, fighting back tears.
“This is EasyNuts.com, right?” he blurted out, immediately aware that no matter where he was, this was not a great answer.
Noticing our company logo painted on the wall behind me, the pieces came together, “Right. Duh,” he said. “I’ve been to so many interviews. It’s hard to keep track.”
I hadn’t been on so many interviews, but for those I was fortunate enough to score, I would spend days preparing, memorizing as much about their products and my interviewer as possible. I could not conceive of bungling such an important opportunity.
I gently explained that I can’t offer the job to someone who doesn’t know where he is but also offered to continue the interview so he could get some practice. He agreed and we spent the next thirty minutes working together on his answers, some were strong, most were mediocre. He thanked me for my time as I wished him good luck.
Freak events have catapulted men like “Easy Nuts” into unemployment throughout history, always resulting in a wave of reforms to prevent it from happening again. There’s the New Deal after The Great Depression and the Dodd-Frank reforms after The Great Recession. Life’s predicaments - sick loved ones, growing families, homework, school athletics - have always been the cement blocks tied to the ankles of working mothers. Women exiting their careers at key moments, just like I did in 2017, has happened consistently since we became half the workforce and it’s that predictability that has hampered reform. It doesn’t feel like a crisis if it’s happening all the time. Maybe the pandemic has finally changed that.
Hopefully, the Biden/Harris administration will meet this moment for working mothers. With non-essential employees now successfully working from home, is it time to write flexibility into labor law? Will my husband be required to participate in a “Housework is for All” seminar? Will we monitor households to ensure fathers and mothers are taking care of sick kids and sick parents equally? It’s difficult to imagine breaking this cycle without outside accountability. I’ve brought up “the dishes” countless times in my house with little success. Maybe it’s time to bring in the Taxman.
A few weeks after our interview, “Easy Nuts” called me to see if the position had been filled. After breaking the news a second time that he did not get the job, he asked me to keep his resume on file for future positions. If you are surprised by this turn of events, I can probably guess your gender.
Since quitting, I have heard, “How privileged you are to be able to focus solely on your children,” and they are right. But not a single person has commented to my husband on the privilege I’ve given him. It is, apparently, utterly unremarkable. That’s the real privilege, and a privilege I fully intend to revoke. In a few months, I’ll dust off my resume, right along with millions of other Americans, in the hopes of returning to work and staying there for the foreseeable future. I’ll be 44 years old and considered unemployed, though the real story is far more complex. Should I be lucky enough to score an interview, you can be damn I’ll know where exactly I am.
What do you hope will be different at work and at home after the pandemic? I’d love to hear from you.