January 27, 2022

I knew it wouldn’t be easy to be a journalist and a mother all at once.

I was warned of the pitfalls way back in the 1990s, long before I had a career and even longer before I had a child. At age 16, I was a bright, mouthy feminist raised on a steady diet of aphorisms, mostly variations on the theme of “follow your dreams.” One day I marched into the guidance counselor’s office at my exurban Minneapolis high school. I wanted to finalize plans for spending my senior year at the University of Minnesota. That way I could get a head start on studying journalism, I explained.

The counselor shook his head. He leaned back in his swivel chair. “Have you considered teaching?” he asked.

Yes, I assured him. I even tutored middle-schoolers as a sort of test, to see if I liked it. The experience left me longing all the more for a fast-paced newsroom career.

But teaching is perfect for balancing career and family, the counselor countered. You get summers off. The schedule would perfectly align with that of my future children.

I felt a burst of rage — like the brain dropped in a deep fryer — for I imagined the counselor wouldn’t give this speech to a male classmate. I exited his office politely but swiftly, rolling my eyes as the door clicked behind me. I didn’t stop, not for a millisecond, to consider the advice. Rather, I filed it in my memory as interesting but out of touch, like something from the 1950s.

The counselor couldn’t have predicted circumstances that would plunge 21st-century teachers into their own burnout crisis. But it turns out, he saw what I would face as a journalist in the decades to come. Last year I stepped away from my hard-won newspaper career after struggling to reconcile pandemic-era family life with the long hours of an editor. Put another way: I could no longer uphold my own professional standards while giving my 9-year-old the attention she needs in a crisis. Oh, and I wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep.

I’m hardly alone in this experience. As I scroll through Twitter, I’m struck by the volume of journalists announcing their resignations. While many are moving on to bigger, better jobs, others (like me) are taking a breather. I’m also struck by the preponderance of women and especially women of color sharing these “personal news” posts.

“Almost 100% of the time when a female reporter leaves the industry it’s because she’s A) overwhelmed and B) can’t support her family,” observed Kiran Nazish, a journalist and founding director for the Coalition For Women In Journalism, a nonprofit which mentors and supports women journalists around the world. “This is very consistent especially for journalists who are moms.”

Since 2020, the American parent has taken a professional hit due to school and day care disruptions as well as the youth mental health crisis. In short, COVID-19 caused our domestic workloads to mushroom, subsuming hours once fully focused on employment. All caregivers who stepped up for their families were affected, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation or partner status. But I’ve deliberately chosen the word “mothers” in a few instances below because it’s important to acknowledge their particular plight.

“If you look at all of the different studies and research that’s been done, women bore the brunt of that extra labor,” said Brigid Schulte, a journalist and director of the Better Life Lab at the New America think tank.

As a result, women stepped away from employment at higher rates. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women ages 25 to 44 were almost three times more likely than men to leave jobs early in the pandemic due to daycare closures and the shift to remote learning. And an alarming number of Black women have continued to leave the workforce, according to the November 2021 U.S. jobs report, with experts pointing to an ongoing lack of child care options.

“It’s basically the women and mothers of America subsidizing our public policy failures,” said Katherine Goldstein, a journalist who writes a newsletter called The Double Shift about the forces that shape family life in America.

In fact, the idea that women are “human givers” (as Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne put it in her 2018 book “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny”) is so entrenched, and so internalized, that many women find themselves shouldering extra care work not just in the home — but in the pandemic-era workplace, too. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2021 survey found that women in corporate leadership are doing more than male counterparts to support employee well-being during these stressful times while also disproportionately stepping up for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Another report, detailed a few years ago in the Harvard Business Review, found that women carry heavier workloads in collaborative office environments. That is, women carve out more time for meetings and work that benefits the entire team. None of this came as a surprise to Schulte, a former Washington Post staffer and author of 2015’s “Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time.” “Women are often expected to be the connectors — the ones who mentor and do service work,” she said.

As Schulte sees it, working women everywhere are now “overworked to the point of burnout, to the point of beyond burnout.”

In journalism, reporters and editors further contend with the pace and substance of the work itself — a pileup of COVID-19 surges, climate disasters, political violence, and government dysfunction. “If you also have caregiving responsibilities added to that in a society that has totally abandoned families, and you’re expected to do your job like we’re not living in the second year of a pandemic, that seems like a recipe for burnout and attrition among talented people,” Goldstein said in a December call.

To be clear, newsrooms desperately need mothers and other family caregivers on the job. Without these perspectives, coverage is left lacking.

As an example, Goldstein pointed to stories about the September 2020 U.S. jobs report, which first captured an exodus of women from the paid workforce. “A lot of the coverage I found to be surprise, awe and wonderment,” she said. “To me, that was a huge red flag about how out of touch news organizations were. And how out of touch economics reporters are, by and large, with the realities of American family life.”

As with all forms of diversity, the presence of caregivers leads to innovation. Founded in 2020, The 19th is an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit newsroom that reports on gender, politics, and policy, where conversation among staffers led to hiring one of the country’s first caregiving beat reporters. “We were grappling with these issues so acutely in our daily lives,” said co-founder and CEO Emily Ramshaw. “For us, it’s not just about child care; it’s not just about elder care. It’s about disability care. It’s about long-term care. And it’s about the people — the women, the women of color, the immigrants — who are on the front lines doing that work.”

The pandemic wasn’t entirely bad for journalist-caregivers. For one, remote work opened new opportunities for those living outside traditional news hubs. “Originally we thought we’d have a robust headquarters in Austin,” Ramshaw said. “Most of our (job postings) now say you can do this job from wherever you have the best support system you need to do your job. The best child care. The best elder care. The best family network.”

Nonetheless, the child care crisis destroyed the delicate work-life balance many journalists — especially mothers — relied on. In my own case, because my husband travels for work, I long hired babysitters in addition to registering my child for after-school programs, a cost-efficient hack that kept me focused on editing in the evenings. I lost access to both forms of care in March 2020, just as my work and my daughter required more attention. And while the after-school programs eventually returned, finding sitters has remained a challenge.

It’s important here to acknowledge the privilege that makes my career hiatus possible. I take pride in my working-class roots — I was the first in my family to attend a four-year college and earn my bachelor’s degree. But I can see how my whiteness opened doors, helping me land plum jobs at legacy newspapers and build up my savings. I also can fall back for a time on my husband’s earnings.

What motivated me to write this article, though, is the fact that most journalist-caregivers don’t have the financial cushion for a break. Furthermore, most bring a deep devotion to their work and the journalistic mission. As we enter the pandemic’s third year, they keep showing up for their families, coworkers and readers. Writing this piece is my attempt to show up for them.

Goldstein, a former editor at Slate, studied how news organizations can better support working mothers and other caregivers during a 2016-17 Nieman Fellowship. “A lot of the bigger news organizations have (since) made significant improvements to their paid family leave policy,” Goldstein observed. “But that’s just one piece of overall culture and how you support people with caregiving responsibilities. That’s just the beginning, not the end.”

At The 19th, Ramshaw listed off benefits designed to keep journalists in their jobs long-term. Most striking is the four months of fully paid caregiver leave for family health emergencies, in addition to six months of fully paid leave for all new parents. Also offering caregiver leave is Capital B, an Atlanta-based nonprofit newsroom launching this month with coverage of local and national issues facing Black Americans.

In 2022, Ramshaw added, The 19th will additionally tackle the very issue my high-school guidance counselor tried to warn me about. “We are prioritizing work-life balance and putting guardrails on our workday,” she said. That means encouraging all journalists — whether they have caregiving responsibilities or not — to log off by 6 p.m. For parents, that means more bandwidth to help with homework. Cooking a healthy dinner. Or just checking in — because let’s face it, these are rotten times to be a kid.

“I have a 5-year-old,” Ramshaw said. “I am largely offline between 5 and 8 o’clock every day, which would have been unheard of in my previous news lives. Because that’s the deadline time of day; that’s the toughest time of the day. But that was not a sacrifice I was going to make with my little one. And we try to provide that kind of flexibility and opportunity for everybody on our team.”

I’ve got to believe more organizations will follow suit, fixing what Schulte called the “macho overwork culture” of newsrooms. Because my inner 16-year-old, ever the idealist, still thinks there’s a place for someone like me in journalism. And in light of COVID-19, leaders can no longer claim ignorance to the forces pushing us out.

“People are realizing that caregiving is a part of life,” as Goldstein put it. “It’s not just about people with children. People are dealing with grief; they’re dealing with mental health crises and loss. Everyone is going to need care at some point. The realities of having to give care shouldn’t be a barrier to participate in the industry.”

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Christy DeSmith was an editor at The Star Tribune and The Boston Globe. She is a graduate of the 2017 Poynter Leadership Academy. Find her…
Christy DeSmith

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