“Please don’t wake up,” I plead silently to my 10-month-old son as I log into another Zoom meeting from my tiny New York City apartment. I use a virtual background—a picture of my university office—to hide the fact that I’m in my kitchen, where it’s easier to avoid the loud calls for “Mama!” from my 3-year-old daughter and the hunger cries of my infant son. Such meetings—a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic—add to the stress I feel as a working mom, trying to hide the messy reality of my life as a parent. It has led to a unique type of Zoom burnout, one I fear is specific to working mothers.
I’ve always tried to hide my motherhood duties from plain view. I don’t have photos of my children on display in my university office, even though some of my male colleagues clearly feel comfortable doing so. I’m keenly aware of the bias mothers experience in the workplace, and I haven’t wanted my colleagues to view me as less committed to my work because I have children. But now, working from home, I feel unable to control whether my children are visible.
My workdays are filled with meetings to discuss research projects with collaborators and mentees. When the pandemic started and the meetings switched to Zoom, I felt an unspoken pressure to turn my camera on. Almost everyone else had their camera on, and I feared that if I kept mine off, I wouldn’t be viewed as “present.”
As a result, I spent most meetings fretting my daughter would waltz in, sit on my lap, and ask, “Mama, are those your co-workers?” It happened more than once, nullifying my futile attempts to hide my home life with a virtual background.
I’ve encountered difficulties even when my children have stayed off camera. For instance, I was taken aback recently when a colleague brought our meeting to an abrupt end. As my son screamed in the background, he told me, “It sounds like someone needs mommy; I’d better let you go.” Later, I ran the story by my husband, who was shocked. He has never once received comments indicating a child of ours might need him—their father—as they scream in the background.
My husband’s more positive experiences could be due to his personality or his different profession. But I think a major contributing factor is gender inequities in how parents are perceived: I’m the distracted and much-needed mother, whereas he’s the professional who also happens to be the father of two cute little kids.
The anxiety I experience during Zoom meetings compounds other stressors in my life. We haven’t had child care for much of the pandemic. My husband has been a wonderful partner—splitting child care duties—but the reality is that he simply can’t perform some tasks, such as nursing our infant son. I am in demand by my family and my job, and that makes my daily life as a working mother incredibly challenging.
The anxiety I experience during Zoom meetings compounds other stressors in my life.
One strategy that makes it all easier to juggle is to take work calls and even join Zoom meetings by phone. I started to do this a few months into the pandemic, when it was clear I was burning out and needed a different strategy. I realize colleagues might perceive me as less engaged when I’m not on camera, but the payoff—reduced anxiety and a chance to take care of household duties while still contributing to the meeting—is worth it to me.
I offer this advice to colleagues of working mothers: Understand that many of us are burnt out. Allow flexibility in how we call into meetings, outlining the policy with explicit language. Avoid making us feel uninvolved or not committed to our work when our cameras are turned off. And think carefully about whether you are treating us differently, perhaps by asking yourself, “Would I say the same thing to a father?”