‘I felt like a crap mom and crap employee’: Utah women share caregiving struggles during COVID-19

Hundreds of women across state describe juggling responsibilities at home with work in new report.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Janel Hulbert spends time with her children Henrik, Cambria, Vebika and Miles, from left, at a park near their home in Roy on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Hulbert who struggled balancing work and home during the pandemic left her part-time job last fall to take care of her four children, ages 5 to 13. The tipping point was when her youngest was left unattended for nearly two hours on a school bus last fall after he was picked up for preschool.

Janel Hulbert was juggling her part-time customer service job with her four children’s schooling when her 4-year-old son was left unattended on a school bus for nearly two hours after being picked up for preschool in September.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” the 37-year-old mother said.

Hulbert, who lives in Roy, quit her job to focus on her family. And she’s not sure when — or if — she’ll look for another one.

“It’s hard to explain just how ... emotionally difficult this year has been,” Hulbert said.

That’s what 803 women and mothers across the Beehive State tried to do, though, in a new report released in July from the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University. The participants were asked in an online survey in January to describe the the impact that COVID-19 has had on them as caregivers.

“I don’t think, as a woman, I’ll ever recover from this,” wrote one woman, who said she cried while filling out the survey. “My career stalled, [I’m] financially ruined, frazzled and spread thin, and my children are behind socially or educationally.”

“I feel like a ‘slacker’ when I attend to my family’s needs,” she said, “and the emotional toll has broken my marriage because of serious inequality in unpaid labor. I guess this will be a scar on the rest of my life. I’ll never forget it.”

Women in Utah lost jobs at more than twice the rate of men from 2019 to 2020, and they also had higher unemployment, according to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

One likely explanation for these discrepancies is “the disproportionate burden women have carried for child care and home school children as day care facilities and schools have been closed in efforts to curb the spread of the virus,” the Utah Women and Leadership Project report said.

Between “working whenever they could, being interrupted, putting in extra hours, becoming full-time entertainers and coaches for their children, experiencing burnout, and navigating the mental and physical health of their children, thousands of Utah mothers experienced the ‘struggle to juggle’ in ways that negatively impacted their work and home lives,” the authors wrote.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Janel Hulbert is joined by her children Henrik, Cambria, Vebika and Miles, clockwise from top left, as they visit a park near their home on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

‘Crap mom and crap employee’

Nearly three-quarters of the women surveyed said they had difficulty managing their home and work responsibilities.

“I felt pulled in so many directions that I was struggling to survive,” one person wrote. “... If I could afford to quit, I would. The stress is too much, and my body is starting to have issues.”

“Being a single mother during the pandemic meant that I lost my support system,” another woman said, since her children’s husband was exposed to COVID-19 at work, and her parents were at risk of catching the virus. “It has all been on me,” she said.

Roughly a third of women said they experienced some form of guilt, according to the report. One mother said, “I feel guilty most of the day telling my child that ‘mom needs to work right now.’” Another person said, “It’s been hard to not feel guilty for wanting my career and not wanting to be an in-home educator.”

“I was distracted and definitely not as productive as usual,” a woman responded. “I felt like a crap mom and crap employee. My mental health suffered quite a bit and my anxiety skyrocketed.”

As Hulbert decided whether to quit her job, her daughter was falling behind in reading, while her son needed extra attention for behavioral issues.

“When I do a job, I like to do it well,” Hulbert said. “And I just felt like I couldn’t give what I needed to, during a time I knew was stressful for the company, and also stressful on my end.”

Hulbert had been working at her customer service job for nearly two years, as a way to get back in the workforce now that her children, ages 5 to 13, are in school.

“I wanted to get experience under my belt to put on my resume,” she said, and the part-time hours and ability to work from home provided the flexibility she needed.

Hulbert was “sad” to lose that outlet for herself, and the extra money it provided her family, but she said she feels privileged that “we’re financially fine without it.”

Whenever “things are more normal again,” Hulbert said, she wants to find “a good job that fits into my personal and work goals,” whatever those may be.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Janel Hulbert spends time with her children Cambria, Henrik, Miles and Vebika, clockwise from top, at a park near her home in Roy on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Hulbert who struggled balancing work and home during the pandemic left her part-time job last fall to take care of her four children, ages 5 to 13.

Support from spouses and work

Of the hundreds of mothers who took the survey, 22.4% discussed their spouse. While 24.4% of those women said their partner was supportive during the pandemic, 75.6% said they did not receive support from their spouse.

“Trying to maintain my workload while home schooling the kids and cooking and cleaning all day has been killing me,” one person said. “... I sacrifice sleep to be able to stay on top of my workload and meet deadlines. Many times I get four hours or less a night. I ask my spouse for help and don’t get it.”

Of the 18.7% of people who mentioned workplace support, 44.7% said they had a supportive environment, while 55.3% talked about their boss’s lack of support.

“When we returned to work, my employer made no allowances for me,” one woman said. “I was required to work more than twice as many hours as before the pandemic. I had to tell my kids’ teachers that they would not be doing their schoolwork because my husband and I had to work full time.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Janel Hulbert spends time with her children Henrik, Cambria, Vebika and Miles, from left, at a park near their home in Roy on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

While working in accounting and finance at a software company last year, Kayla Lengyel, of Sandy, said her employer sent an FAQ about working from home during the pandemic.

“One of the questions said, ‘I have young children at home. Do I still need to work business hours?’” according to the 30-year-old. “And literally it was just the word ‘yes,’ period.”

“I wanted to scream,” Lengyel said.

On top of caring for her daughter, who was born in 2019, Lengyel and her husband worried about potentially catching and passing COVID-19 to their baby. The spread of the Delta variant hasn’t relieved that stress, even though Lengyel and her husband are vaccinated, she said.

Lengyel said she also dealt with postpartum depression and anxiety, and didn’t always take care of herself while juggling motherhood and her career.

“I wasn’t taking NyQuil or any of those things that might have helped me, but make me less able to care for her because I’m just trying to keep up,” she said.

Lengyel left her job in April to take a position as a financial analyst with the state. She’s already burned through all of her sick hours from her three months working there, though, because of the illnesses she keeps catching from sending her daughter to day care.

“You can have an education that allows you to make a living wage, but you always feel like you’re on the edge,” Lengyel said. “And if you don’t have family or somebody nearby to be a backup for you, it could just be all over.”

Lengyel said she thinks that’s why “a lot of women just think, ‘Ugh, is it worth being in the workforce?’”

“And I’m there,” Lengyel said. “I’m there.”

‘Incredible uncertainty and upheaval’

According to the report, over 43% of mothers who had children at home said they had challenges accessing child care during the pandemic. And despite increased safety protocols, some said they “did not feel safe sending their children to child care with possible COVID-19 exposure.”

“Our day care closed in mid-March, and as of today has not reopened,” one working mother said. “I pivoted to working at night and on weekends while my husband could watch our children.”

There has also been “incredible uncertainty and upheaval” for child care workers during the pandemic, according to the report. One person wrote, “COVID-19 has pretty much destroyed my career in child care.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A classroom, unused due to lower enrollment during COVID-19, at Imagination Time Childcare and Preschool in Marriott-Slaterville on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

Many women dealt with stress caring for older, at-risk adults, the report shows, such as their own parents. And some grandmothers became home school teachers for their children to help their children better balance their work lives.”

“All of my breaks from work go to taking care of an elderly parent, three kids, and a house. There’s no real downtime during the day, and I am drowning,” one person said.

Another wrote, “Caring for my 92-year-old mother and worrying about her health, at the expense of not seeing any of my children and grandchildren, has been overwhelming!”

Ways to help

Hulbert and Lengyel said they hope that we, as a society, learn from this experience during COVID-19 and start to look issues such as at work, paid leave and child care differently. Lengyel started a group during the pandemic called Utah Working Parents Alliance to help initiate these discussions.

The authors of the report also offered a few recommendations “that can help with a more equitable recovery for Utah women in the workforce.”

For instance, if both parents are in the labor force, the report said, the couple should try to equitably distribute unpaid care and housework labor.

Employers can provide support and reasonable accommodations for working parents, such as keeping flexible schedules and remote work options that were used during the pandemic.

And Utah state and local governments can implement policies that support Utah’s mothers, and future mothers, in terms of child care, flexible work arrangements, family leave policies and career relaunching programs, the report said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vebika Hulbert, 7, gets a push from her mother Janel Hulbert as they visit a park near their home in Roy on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount t by clicking here.