‘I am better mom’: After quitting their jobs during the pandemic to care for family, here’s how it changed these women

NEW YORK — More than 2.2 million women left the U.S. workforce since the start of the pandemic. Last fall, there were 1.6 million fewer mothers in the labor force than would be expected without COVID-19-related school closures, according to an analysis by Ernie Tedeschi, an economist at the investment banking advisory firm Evercore.

Working mothers have long faced “the second shift” – coming home to unpaid work that includes household labor and child care – and the pandemic has heightened the caregiver burden with children learning at home instead of returning to school.

Economists believe this could have long-term effects on the gender wage gap and a woman’s career trajectory.

In late September, The Journal News, part of the USA TODAY Network, spoke to mothers who had to make the tough decision to step away from their careers to take care of their children.

Almost six months in, we checked in to see how they were faring.

Leslie Chiaramonte zips up her three-year old daughter Phoenix's jacket Feb. 25, 2021 at home in Peekskill. Leslie quit her job as a nurse last fall because of hybrid learning to stay home with her two children. Now, she is pursuing her funeral director license so she can help her husband out in the family business.

Leslie Chiaramonte, a mother of two daughters, ages 3 and 6, had to quit her job as a nurse case manager at White Plains Hospital when the cost of a full-time babysitter exceeded her own salary.

Nicole Johnson turned down the offer to return to her teacher’s aide job full time because her 6-year-old was on remote learning.

Meredith LeJeune, a public relations professional from Garnerville, was forced to step back from some of her client work to focus on her children: 7-year-old twin boys who were on a hybrid schedule at school, and a baby girl born in March 2020.

Khloe Johnson, 6, a second-grader at the Mamaroneck Ave. School in White Plains, does school works on a tablet Oct. 14, 2020. Her mother, Nicole Johnson, who had worked for the past eight years as a teacher's aide, was forced to give up her job in order to care for Khloe, who is doing all virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her husband, a teacher in Mount Vernon, continued to work full time, while she took on more responsibility at home.

For Stacy Brodsky, a mother of two who had taught pre-K in the Scarsdale school district, there was never any question that she, and not her husband, would stay home and care for her kids, who were learning remotely.

Like LeJeune, her husband continued to work. “I didn’t feel financially burdened because my husband was working,” she said.

Positives of the pandemic

Before the pandemic, Chiaramonte had never stayed home with her children for more than 12 weeks, or what her maternity leave allowed.

“We just couldn’t afford it,” she said.

Now, almost six months in, Chiaramonte is experiencing a part of motherhood that had eluded her as a working mom.

Leslie Chiaramonte does work for her funeral director license with her husband, Jason Chiaramonte, and daughters Brooklyn, 6, and Phoenix, 3, close-by at the Nardone Funeral Home, the family business in Peekskill, Feb. 25, 2021. Leslie quit her job as a nurse last fall because of hybrid learning to stay home with her two children. Now, she is pursuing her funeral director license so she can help her husband out in the family business.

She’s now a co-leader of her older daughter’s Girls Scouts team and takes the girls for play dates in the park on weekdays.

“On the positive side, I’ve been able to really get to know my children in a different way than I’ve had in the past,” she said. “And, I’d never interacted with the other moms before.”

Still, it has not been easy.

Chiaramonte, who lives in Peekskill, said giving up her job to be a stay-at-home mom was a hard switch. Her husband, who works as a funeral director, has long and unpredictable hours. The family lives above a funeral parlor they bought a couple of years ago.

“The first few weeks, I was almost borderline depressed; it felt very isolating,” she said. “The hospital, my job, was part of who I was. I was able to socialize with other adults. Once that was gone, it was like my whole social circle was gone. It was a really hard thing to accept.”

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To try and make up for one lost income, Chiaramonte said the family has severely cut down on takeout orders and she does almost all the cooking herself. She cuts coupons to go grocery shopping. The family has decided against all-day summer camp; instead they are considering enrolling the kids in programs that would be a couple of hours every other day.

“They’d hate me otherwise,” she said.

Chiaramonte has enrolled in an online certification course in funeral directing. With some of her nursing credits, she believes the course, which requires licensure, should take her another year to complete.

Leslie Chiaramonte gets a kiss from her daughter Phoenix, 3, at the Nardone Funeral Home, the family business in Peekskill, Feb. 25, 2021. Leslie quit her job as a nurse last fall because of hybrid learning to stay home with her two children. Now, she is pursuing her funeral director license so she can help her husband out in the family business.

“When the kids go to sleep, I go online and do my schoolwork,” she said. “I think that we have to take this opportunity to better ourselves and create more opportunities. You have to work and hustle to get things you want. Maybe the universe was kind of saying, there’s something else out there for you. And I took it, I jumped at it.”

Nicole Johnson, who lives in a low-income public housing apartment building in White Plains, used some of her downtime to attend a series of webinars to educate herself in first-time homebuying.

Come fall, Johnson, who has a degree in social service, hopes to find work as a case worker. She said it was a strange feeling to be on unemployment as she has worked since her teenage years.

“I updated my resume. I am ready,” said Johnson. “I was very anxious six months ago when I had to go on unemployment. But it has worked out. I get my unemployment; I get rental and food assistance. I feel grateful.”

Nicole Johnson helps her daughter Khloe, 6, do school work in their White Plains home Oct. 14, 2020. Johnson, who had worked for the past eight years as a teacher's aide, was forced to give up her job in order to care for her daughter, a second-grader in the White Plains school district who is doing all virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson said that while the mother and daughter have had to make a few sacrifices, she appreciates the opportunity to be a hands-on mother to her 7-year-old daughter Khloe, who is attending school remotely.

“She’s thriving at school and I feel lucky that I can help her,” she said. “This fall, I hope my daughter will be back in school full time, I will be a caseworker in Westchester County and I’ll be working towards becoming a first-time owner because that’s something that we both want.”

Struggle with isolation

For Brodsky, the pre-K teacher, getting the COVID-19 vaccine was a game-changer. After six months, she finally returned to work two weeks ago.

She said she struggled with the isolation that came with staying at home and that it was not always easy managing her older daughter, who just turned 13. Her younger daughter was in-person at school five days a week.

Stacy Brodsky looks on as her daughter Alice, 12, works on an assignment at home in White Plains Oct. 8, 2020. Brodsky gave up her job of six years teaching Pre-K during the pandemic to stay home for her children, ages 12 and 9, who are on hybrid school schedules. Her husband is also a teacher and she feels lucky that she can stay home, but feels stripped of an entire identity.

“She’s a good student but she was missing assignments and we were fighting about grades,” Brodsky said. “It took us at least one quarter to get our groove on, because I was depressed to be out of work and resentful of the whole situation, plus, you know, teenagers, it’s just hard on everybody.”

By the second quarter, Brodsky had devised a plan that would help her daughter get organized and mother and daughter had found a peaceful resolution around schoolwork.

The time at home also allowed her get the paperwork in order to refinance her mortgage, and to plan and host her daughter’s bat mitzvah.

But once she got vaccinated early last month, Brodsky said she couldn’t wait to go back to work. She accepted a job at her old preschool.

“It was so nice to be with these little kids in my classroom,” she said. “I think I really just needed to feel another identity. Like almost instantaneously, I feel like myself again.”

Meredith LeJeune, the public relations professional, said her time at home has been good for her children. She has been able to help her twins with their homework, as well as talk and play with them more.

Meredith LeJeune, 37, and her three-month old daughter Mecca at home in Garnerville July 16, 2020. LeJeune, also a mother of twins, said her experience with her first pregnancy with a Black doctor was much warmer and comforting than her second experience with a white doctor, which felt more sterile. She said she is considering becoming a doula herself to advocate for other women.

“I feel I am better mom. My daughter was born shortly after the pandemic started. So it gave me a lot more time to connect with her. Whereas with my twins, I had a month off and then got back to work,” she said.

“There is, of course, that added level of stress of everyone being in the home at the same time. But it’s taught me how to to relax a little more, that things are different.”

Looking ahead, LeJeune is hoping she will be able to engage with clients at the pre-pandemic level by later this year. One of the first clients she lost was from the travel industry.

“I anticipate the client coming back. Things are going well for them,” she said. “I’m not hanging on to what it used to be, this is our new normal and we have to adjust for that.”

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy covers women and power for the USA Today Network Northeast. Follow her on Twitter at @SwapnaVenugopal or email her at svenugop@lohud.com

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