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Running A Marathon with No End in Sight: The Pandemic and Higher Ed Working Moms

Womxn in Student Affairs
August 31, 2021 Dr. Saralyn Dr. Victoria

It’s no secret that mothers bore the brunt of home labor during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reports also have shown that working moms are leaving the labor force at extremely high rates, and some have referred to the effect as a “she-cession.” During the pandemic, mothers shouldered primary responsibility for tracking their children’s minute-by-minute school schedules while simultaneously working. They’re likely doing this while performing caretaking responsibilities like laundry, cooking, and trying to keep their home in some semblance of order. It’s a never-ending marathon.

Just like working moms outside of higher education, our pre-pandemic research into working mothers in the student affairs profession showed similar levels of second-shift work at home. As WISA members know, student affairs workers support every aspect of student life outside of the virtual or in-person classroom for students in higher education. Though we conducted our qualitative research with 21 working mothers before the pandemic, we were struck by how our findings resonated with the challenges facing working mothers now. 

As one mother from our study said, “There's no way to have it all. You've gotta let something slide, and coming to terms with mediocrity in some things like getting the laundry done. Laundry, I can count it twice, since I've had kids, has been all done and all put away ever. That is challenging, but I've learned how to let that go. I don't like telling people I can't do things, so trying to figure out how to get things done, and how to tell people I don't have them done yet. That is a source of guilt.” The mothers in our study wanted to be both model employees and model mothers, and did their best to attain those goals within the confines of demanding jobs and performing caretaking work. Guilt reared its ugly head when they felt unable to keep up with all of their work and couldn’t keep running at their intended pace. 

The transition to the so-called “Zoom University” was not easy for student affairs moms. Although others might find working from home easier, mothers can’t rely on their in-person support networks that might provide a “water break” on this marathon. Although daycare or pod learning, for those who can afford it, could provide some break from at-home care, it is always precarious. For example, a single COVID-19 diagnosis at daycare can spiral into a multi-week shutdown, taking away that pause from constant caregiving. 

There is no doubt the pandemic has exacerbated the emotional labor of being a mother and an employee, showing how impossible it is to succeed at both of those goals. All of these feelings and issues about the impossible balance between home and work existed before the pandemic. Yet the consequences for working womxn’s careers during the pandemic are dire. More than 865,000 womxn left the workforce in September 2020 alone. The pandemic has also showed the lack of progress for womxn in higher education, who often bear the burden of these additional household responsibilities while expected to perform at the same level as their men peers. Working mothers are running the same marathon as working fathers, but mothers are further behind the starting line, are often stopped repeatedly through the race, and may take more than 10 years to make up for ground lost during the pandemic.

The picture isn’t entirely grim, and our research shows that there is much that higher education administration personnel can do to support working moms at all levels of their organization. Individual supervisors, for example, can be supportive pockets within an impersonal institution. As one mother in our study said, “it hasn’t been the institution that has been helpful, it has been the people at the institution” that has helped her thrive as a working parent. Now is an opportunity for higher education to reimagine and adapt to support and empower working mothers during this time. Their talent, dedication, and skills sets are not to be lost or dismissed, but cultivated. One mother in our study said optimistically, “You can have it all once you decide what that all is.” This is a time to redefine what “all” means for working mothers. Institutions of higher education have asked faculty and staff to understand the unique challenges our students are facing. Working parents deserve the same type of grace and capacity to do the same. Because let’s face it, the marathon race doesn’t end when the pandemic does. 


Dr. Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her work studies cultures of higher education, with a particular focus on gender and the academy, financial aid, and transfer between community colleges and four-year institutions. Her current research studies organizational culture and the scholarship of teaching and learning. She calls Indianapolis, Indiana home. Saralyn's B.A. is from Indiana University Bloomington and holds a M.A. from Northwestern University and an M.Ed. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Victoria Black is the Associate Dean for Students Services at Texas State University. She has dedicated her career to enhancing student success for almost 15 years and has worked as the Coordinator for New Student Orientation, Assistant Director for Mentoring and Academic Coaching, and Director for Peer Mentoring. She has provided leadership and support to faculty and staff who work with first-year students, first-year University Seminar, and Title V grant management. Her experiences with mentoring include several publications, various state and national presentations, and international mentoring consultations. An advocate for student success, Dr. Black has published articles in the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory, & Practice, Journal of Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnerships in Learning, and International Journal of Mentoring & Coaching.  Dr. Black actively participates in professional associations, including the Association of the Study of Higher Education, National Resource Center - First-Year Experience, and NASPA's Center for First-Gen Student Success. Originally from La Joya, TX, she received a B.A. from the University of Texas San Antonio, a M.Ed. from Texas State University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the mother to three boys, Sebastian, Oliver, and Caleb.