I have gone about a lot of my life at the same speed. My feet touched the ground, and it's been one speed ever since—full speed. I am not an anomaly, as a female in American culture we have assumed this role. Especially as moms, women in the workforce, female identified domestic partners. The roles society has taught us, fed us, labeled us into, are ones of striving and service and sacrifice.
As a working mother, and just a person who gives a damn, I have found this to be particularly true. Wake up before dawn to start the day, not to slow down again until the sun is long set and the world sleeps around you. Spending every hour trying to catch up, keep up, not trip up. And maybe occasionally even remembering to stop and take in the fleeting moment with your child who has a very important slimy worm to show you in his pocket.
Balancing the never-ending pressures and expectations to not fall, and instead excel, on the treadmill that is steadily accelerating at an incline while you juggle all the things; being a total babe, accomplished and thriving, icing cakes while you balance budgets, and changing diapers with a smile and ease. Proving oneself at work and at home, in the school pickup line and the platforms around us. This is us. This is the American woman, the dream that we have continued to uphold even in its deeply dysfunctional and damaging ways.
We have been taught this by our mothers and their mothers and their mothers' mothers. For many beautiful reasons women have stepped up and stepped in, time and time again, generation after generation. They have met the need and met the moment that communities and countries called them to. But with time, patriarchal ways have thwarted and taken advantage of the beauty and led women to a whole different way of being in the world. One that circles the edge of burnout at all times.
You may know it well, that constant feeling of just trying to keep your head above water. You knew it pre-COVID-19, but now, now it is something more.
The recent Women in the Workplace report notes that women are even more burned out than they were a year ago, and the gap in burnout between women and men has almost doubled. In the past year, 1 in 3 women have considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers—a significant increase from 1 in 4 during the early months of the pandemic. High stress levels are not surprising, given the labor force is knee deep in the second year of complex pandemic workplace conditions, unrivaled workforce shortages, and a child care crisis that weaves through it all. This doesn't even touch on the experiences of those who are full-time caregivers, or the significant complexities added when the woman is low-income, a single parent, or part of a group that faces systemic discrimination every day.
President Joe Biden has proposed a significant investment in child care in hopes of offering parents some support. But as we wait on the government, women are reaching yet another critical moment as more and more exit the workplace due to unrealistic demands, inequity in promotions, the continued drastic pay gaps, and ingrained expectations to assume primary caregiver. The number of women on payrolls fell last month for the first time since the winter COVID-19 surge in 2020, and this drop was even more stark for those aged 25 to 44, who are more likely to have school-age children. Without women in the workforce, we all lose. We will have weaker economies, communities, companies, and families. There is no winning by continuing to systematically burn out women.
The change we are waiting for isn't coming quickly enough, and in truth, the world is fine with keeping women where they are. No one is lighting a flame under this issue unless the 166 million women in America do. But there is no silver bullet. Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Policy alone can't deconstruct the narratives and job descriptions that society has written women into, nor is self-care the solution to unrealistic expectations.
This collective problem calls for collective solutions. We need a new level of investment from companies and leaders and individuals to push beyond important but smaller wins in the representation of women, and do the deep work necessary to shift our culture to one where all women, all people, are valued, belong, and are supported to carry the burden together.
You, reader, are a part of the collective solution we are talking about. If COVID-19 has taught us anything (and it has taught us many things), when change is critical, we are capable. Change is critical now. If you are an employer or a leader or in any position of power, it is time to reexamine the practices that keep us here. If you are a spouse or partner, time to redistribute the burden. And, if you have been subject to systematic gender inequities that leave you on the brink, reclaim your time and redefine what it means to be a woman in America.Δ
Quinn Brady (she/her) is a community advocate, organizer, and mother on the Central Coast. Send a response for publication to email@example.com.