Working Mother's Subha Barry: 'The load we're asking moms to bear is simply not sustainable'

With Mother’s Day landing during the COVID-19 crisis, Barry says now is a more important time than ever to pay tribute to moms who are doing more than ever before. She also explains how managers can support them better.
Subha Barry, president of Working Mother Media.
Subha Barry, president of Working Mother Media.Miller Hawkins

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By Subha Barry

One thing that’s bringing a smile to my face during these uncertain times is when I have videoconferencing calls with my team members, and I see their children’s curious faces pop up on the screen or hear their little voices in the background.

Still, I see the stress on their moms’ faces, a feeling I remember when I had young children. I see my employees’ glances directed at their kids to give Mommy some quiet work time. I see their exhausted eyes from juggling so many roles, as a parent, an employee, homeschool teacher, partner and more.

We’ve known for decades that moms shoulder more responsibility than dads at home— even when dads aren’t working; even when they’re in dual-career couples. And we also can say with reasonable certainty that this imbalance between moms and dads’ childcare and housework efforts hampers a mom’s professional success. But never has this disparity been more on display than during COVID-19 quarantine.

For what might be the first time for many colleagues and managers, our numerous video calls are giving us a window into the homes of parents with young children—and we’re seeing all the heavy lifting moms usually do in private.

And they have been doing more than ever during this lockdown. Many are preparing three meals a day, plus snacks, doing the laundry, cleaning, homeschooling, making sure assignments get completed, and managing kids’ ever-changing Zoom call schedules that often overlap. That’s all on top of doing their own full-time jobs, and perhaps caring for older relatives staying with them.

Partners are pitching in, but it still doesn’t seem to be enough — or at least there is a big disconnect. While 45 percent of dads say they do the lion’s share of homeschooling or assisting with distance learning, only 3 percent of women agree that’s true.

This is all wreaking havoc on working moms—and the country at large. In a recent survey of “Working Mother” readers, 27 percent said their emotional state was terrible or poor. Eighty-one percent said their ability to engage effectively at work has been negatively impacted. That, in turn, equals a $341.5 billion impact to the US economy from lost productivity and attrition. This is disproportionately affecting moms of young children, but these times are hitting moms of grown children hard too.

That’s why this Mother’s Day, moms deserve acknowledgement of their hard, albeit unpaid, work. But what they need more is action—and they just might get it now that their needs are quite literally in decision-makers’ faces. Here’s what can help:

They need managers to be flexible. For example, when a toddler is crawling on the head of one of their direct reports, as I’ve seen in my own direct reports’ video calls, I know then is not the time to ask tough questions of that team member.

They need managers to trust moms. Just because a mother might not be able to be her best professional self while she’s handling a child’s tantrum (and there are a lot of those when kids are out of their routine, like right now), with appropriate notice, she can still amaze superiors with her projects and overall performance. In fact, due to their excellent job at multitasking, moms are some of the most efficient employees.

They need managers to give their parent employees psychological safety. I needed it recently because of my 31-year-old daughter. She’s a surgeon in Tampa, Florida, who signed up to relieve the exhausted doctors and frontline healthcare workers in New York City. She didn’t have COVID-19 antibodies, but she was determined to go.

As her mom, I was proud of her commitment and courage but also felt a paralyzing fear: worry of her getting infected and not making it out alive. Through tears, I confessed to some of my team during a call that her leaving would be tough for me. They were sympathetic and understanding. Being able to share that burden with them openly helped my mental state. As it turned out, my daughter was informed that she might not be needed because the state’s COVID-19 patient burden is declining (you could hear my sigh of relief).

They need paid time off. Companies need productive, reliable workers desperately during a financial downturn, but the load we’re asking moms to bear is simply not sustainable.

Employers, managers and governments should grant moms—and dads–days off without them having to sacrifice the pay they rely on to survive. Those mental health days can save their physical health down the line. Isn’t that the most important thing of all?

Some of this will take investment, in both time and money. A federal paid sick leave and parental leave policy that applies to all parents, as we’ve seen the beginnings of in the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, would go a long way in showing moms how much we value their work and their wellbeing. Other factors will take managers becoming more human-focused. Yes, we need to remain profit-focused. But by remembering that our mom teammates and direct reports are under absurd amounts of pressure and affording them the above, we are engendering loyalty that spares the costs of recruiting and retraining new hires. Just as important, we are helping moms soar to the professional heights we’re quite capable of reaching.

Happy Mother’s Day, and here’s to next year’s with extended family and hopefully a better work environment for us all.

Subha V. Barry is a world recognized diversity and inclusion expert and currently serves as the President of Working Mother Media.