The video message Adele released last week, tearful and apologetic about rescheduling dozens (!) of concerts in Las Vegas, really struck me: To admit that everything’s a mess and the show actually can’t go on…seemed the most honest anyone has gotten about this stage of the pandemic.
"We’ve been absolutely destroyed by delivery delays and Covid. Half my crew, half my team, have Covid, and it's been impossible to finish," the 33-year-old singer-songwriter-megastar said. “I'm sorry, it's so last minute. I'm so upset and I'm really embarrassed and I'm so sorry.…We've been up against so much and it just ain't ready." (Yes, there are reports of internal drama and creative differences, but the current climate only heightens such tensions.)
Basically, we are all Adele right now.
2022’s been a long year.
A survey last month by the American Psychological Association shows Americans are struggling to make day-to-day decisions; millennials reported the highest levels of this stress, with “a disproportionate impact on parents, given changes to work, school, and everyday routines during the pandemic. Many are struggling to manage households divided by vaccination status, with one set of rules for vaccinated adults and kids over age 12 and another for younger unvaccinated children—not to mention varying health conditions that may exist.”
Health officials are optimistic that Covid cases may have peaked and things are looking better. The problem is that the virus stubbornly preys on the exceptions, and we are a world full of them (children under five are not vaccinated, and much of the world is not boosted, for example). Further, the rollercoaster of the last few years, with little actual systemic upheaval to solve for underlying inequities, leads many working parents to be skeptical of any assurances that smoother times await.
This and my next column delve into this pivotal moment of the pandemic and how this latest surge and ensuing uncertainty affect our workplace and our roles within: as employers, entrepreneurs, consultants, middle managers, freelancers, and individual contributors. Today focuses on the collective exhaustion of mothers with children under the age of five. Next week, I’ll share a list of hacks and tools and solutions they suggest, in case the outright cancellation of work à la Adele is impossible.
Say a prayer for the parents with little ones, and many more.
It’s worth noting that in the course of my interviews, the parents’ overwhelmed states and pleas for understanding could just as easily have come from the immunocompromised, the elderly, the pregnant, and many other categories who find any semblance of normal pretty impossible right now.
“The pandemic affects everyone differently. Some folks are finding it way easier to be honest about the reality of work life in a way that they wouldn't have before,” says Sarah K. Peck, founder and CEO of Startup Parent. “There are only so many things that capitalist enterprises can solve. So much of the pandemic reveals the broken civic and social infrastructure, and why we need things like paid leave to come from our civic (government) institutions and not from private enterprise.”
And yet many families have come to the realization that they are on their own. The offers of babysitting on Zoom, the pot-clanging at 7pm in solidarity, the extra paid leave and unemployment benefits. It’s all over, as my colleague Erin Grau recently wrote. “It’s a sad reality that at most companies, parents will have to advocate for themselves because their employers aren’t paying attention,” she concludes.
One nation, very divisible, with justice for some.
Indeed, the personal and political have been colliding throughout the pandemic, leaving Americans less optimistic and more nervous about this new year than they were heading into 2021. A December Axios/Momentive poll found that more than half of all US adults fear what awaits the world in 2022. A separate report dubs this group “the exhausted majority,” deeply frustrated with public policy but not reflected in partisan discourse.
It’s the inconsistency that’s gotten to Betsy Johnson, cofounder of SwimZip, a sun-protective swimwear line based in Boise, Idaho. She founded the company a dozen years after being diagnosed with skin cancer—an experience she thought was the lowest point of her life. Until now.
“I wake up every morning feeling like I am going into war,” she says. She rattles off why: who might be sick, emails from school or activities reporting an exposure, teacher or colleagues calling out. “The constant inconsistency of each day is the only thing I know. Telling my kids, ‘I'm tired, I'm scared, I'm exhausted.’ Being a parent in 2022 has been the hardest thing I've ever faced, and I face it each and every morning.”
It’s worth reminding ourselves that we haven’t even been through a month of 2022 yet. But what a year it’s been, says Raven V. Faber, who runs a design firm and a sexual-wellness company outside Denver, Colo. She describes the initial lockdown in the spring of 2020 as “nothing short of hellish, stressful, and chaotic.” Then daycare reopened, kindergarten started and things seemed to be normalizing.
But then Omicron. “I've had to cope with deaths in my family, help support my team as they deal with deaths in their own families, navigate delay after delay, keep the wheels turning in my companies, raise my kids, prioritize time with my husband, and make time for myself. It's a lot,” Faber says. “Dealing with the fact that we seem to be back in March 2020 is a lot. We've been in this mess for two years now. I was so hopeful that this would be over by now but it's not. It's a really demoralizing feeling.”
The resumption of normal is abnormal.
Even the process of re-entering work, whether that’s after the holidays or a bout with Covid or a school closure, feels different.
Haley Lieberman, a Connecticut mother of twins and CEO of ShopTomorrows.com, says all four members of her family, including herself, got Covid. While it was mild, she is still shoveling out from missed work.
“I am currently in a capital raise for our company, and with each call that I had to cancel or every email that I missed, I felt like a failure. I worried, 'Will they think I'm lying and judge me as unreliable?' with each cancellation, or every email that went unanswered within a day,” she says. “I got back into the office four days ago and went to work attempting to mitigate any fall-out from my absence.”
Even some parts of Corporate America are taking an Adele. Yesterday, Ford Motor said it would halt taking orders for the Maverick, an affordable pickup truck, because it just cannot meet demand. Supply-chain issues, namely a shortage of computer chips for cars, has led to manufacturing delays. Analysts called Ford’s move highly unusual but a better alternative to dealing with unhappy, impatient customers later.
Some startups are following suit. By the time the Omicron variant hit last month, rather than rushing to make deadlines, Peck said: “We'll pick back up after we know when this is over.” Since schools and daycares were closing, Peck told clients and her staff she would be out of the office until they reopened. Consultants were asked to pause contracts. Program launches were postponed by two to four weeks. “Since so many of my clients are parents, it was also a strategic decision,” she said. “Selling things when everyone is trapped at home with kids wasn't going to work for what I do.”
The blurry lines of work and home are also changing business relationships and the need for companies to be honest with each other about what’s really possible. Says Lieberman: “Women of steel are not the face of this pandemic.” A more appropriate face of the pandemic, however, might be a woman crying on Instagram, admitting it’s all just so damn impossible right now. We owe her, and ourselves, a bit of grace.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled Raven V. Faber’s name.