Amy1 is a working mother with three children in middle school through college. Three years into the pandemic, after cutting back on work, activities and friendships to support her family, she feels like a shell of her former self.
“I feel like my 24-hour job now is holding my family together,” she says. “But lately I feel like everything is coming apart. And some days I can barely breathe.”
Research shows that women have borne the brunt of the pandemic, leaving the workforce in greater numbers, taking on more household duties and supporting children with remote learning.
Since the pandemic began, 1 million U.S. women have left the workforce and not returned, reports the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
And mothers who remained at work now face a mental health epidemic: According to 2022 Harris Poll data commissioned by CVS Health®, more working mothers have been diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression (42%) than the general population (28%), their coworkers without kids (25%) and even working fathers (35%). Working mothers were also more likely to report that their mental health had worsened in the last year (33%).
Cara McNulty, DPA, president of Behavioral Health & Mental Well-being at CVS Health, is also a mother of two teenagers.
“The pandemic impacted absolutely everyone’s mental health,” says Cara. “But the added stress for working mothers was magnified.”
Making matters worse, working moms typically care for themselves last.
“On an airplane, you're supposed to put your own oxygen mask on first and then your child’s. Women inherently do the exact opposite. They're taking care of those they love before they prioritize themselves.”
With her husband and children claiming the common spaces in the home for work and school, Amy moved her own workspace into her bedroom. One of her children is struggling with depression and she often stays awake at night worrying.
“There has been no place to escape the constant stress and sadness,” she says. “I’ve tried to be strong for everyone and to help them all feel safe, but now I’m just exhausted.”
Asking for help
According to Harris Poll data, in addition to higher rates of anxiety and depression, working mothers are also the least likely of any group to seek help for their mental health. Just as concerning: Four in 10 working mothers don’t think their mental health will ever return to its pre-pandemic state, the Harris Poll shows.
According to Harris Poll data, 42% of working mothers have been diagnosed with anxiety/depression, 33% say their mental health has declined in 2022, 40% don’t feel their mental health will return to pre-pandemic days and 72% don’t feel supported at work.Source: Harris Poll March 2022
“There’s this sense that we've been through this once-in-a-lifetime traumatic event that's changed us forever,” says Gwen Schiada, Psy.D at Broad Reach Consulting, Inc., in North Beach, Maryland, who helps working mothers and others learn to live life on their terms.
“And for working moms, there are also these feelings of guilt for what their children had to go through or didn't get to experience in terms of milestones,” she adds.
Working mothers can help themselves by distinguishing what they can control from what they can’t, and giving themselves time to heal, she says.
Workplaces can also make mental health a priority, Schiada adds. Harris Poll data shows that less than a third of working mothers think their workplace would be very accommodating of a mental health issue.
At CVS Health — where nearly 40% of the company’s VPs and above and over half of managers are women — the company prioritizes flexibility and support for allowing employees to do their jobs differently, Cara says.
Many companies, including CVS Health, also offer employee assistance programs that provide counseling, support and guidance.
“Right now, more than ever, working mothers need those around them to lean in. Without that, I agree that 4 in 10 working mothers likely won’t have better mental health. But we also can change that trajectory.”
Early in the pandemic, Cara found that even as someone who focuses on the topic of mental health every day, she still wasn’t taking care of herself.
“I was stretched so thin and I was becoming impatient and agitated,” she says.
Her family asked how they could help. Today, they have a “community meeting” every week to discuss what everyone is doing — and how they can support one another.
“It’s amazing what happened when I let go of the mentality of what I thought I should be doing as a mother. I just encourage us as women to take time for ourselves and support each other and know that seeking care and support is normal, not abnormal.”
Just like caring for physical health — from routine tasks like brushing your teeth to prioritizing exercise, eating well and getting enough sleep — caring for one’s mental health should be a daily activity, she adds.
Gwen agrees. “There's the concept of slowing down to speed up. It sounds counterintuitive, because we think that if we just run faster, we can get it all done. But if we can slow down and create space for ourselves to breathe, we will actually be able to get further ahead.”
CVS Health offers mental health support, including virtual and in-person services that are available at CVS MinuteClinic® locations. “Care is right in your community and you don’t have to do this alone,” says Cara.
Amy has since been working to reconnect with friends and now takes daily walks to expand her personal space.
“I’m still just realizing how many ways the pandemic has impacted my family,” she says. “But I’m also accepting that I can’t fix everything — and I’m remembering how to breathe.”