Parent, employee, all of the above? Eight working mothers on the realities of post-pandemic life

| Interview

On this Mother’s Day, we’re reminded that while the COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all in innumerable ways, the impact has been especially acute for women. Mothers of young children experienced burnout more often, for instance, and were more likely to have considered leaving their careers compared to fathers of young children.1 They also assumed more of the household responsibilities during the pandemic period.2

The occasion also offers an opportunity to ask working mothers at McKinsey what the year has been like for them. Specifically, what themes are top of mind on this Mother’s Day? How has their work life informed their parenting life, and vice versa? What has been most challenging for these working mothers this past year?

Their answers are as varied as their backgrounds and experiences, but some common themes emerged, including the difficulties of maintaining work-life balance (especially during a global pandemic) and feelings of deep gratitude for their own mothers and for their children.

Eva Beekman, partner, Amsterdam

Eva Beekman headshot
Eva Beekman headshot

It’s the first Mother’s Day in two years that I can spend time with my own mother without restrictions. It’ll also be nice to spend extra time with my children. I am also thinking about the women and children of Ukraine. Everything else is trivial when I see what is happening there daily. It’s good to reflect on that on Mother’s Day and on how privileged we are: we don’t have to worry about leaving our homes with our children; we don’t have to leave our partners behind.

The unpredictability of the past two years, which made it difficult to get steady support, was tough. But I also enjoyed my time at home and being there in unexpected moments. The years had both challenges and also real advantages in that sense.

I have a daughter and two sons, and I think it’s important for me to be a role model for them. It’s important to show them that you can do this. Even though they may not understand a lot of what I do, they see it’s something important to me. My daughter recently asked, “Can I go on holiday with your colleagues?” Because she sees how much I enjoy my time with them. Through my work, my children see that there’s a whole world out there waiting for them to explore.

Gretchen Berlin, senior partner, Washington, DC

Gretchen Berlin headshot
Gretchen Berlin headshot

With all that is happening around the world, I feel grateful for the safety and health of my family. I am constantly reminded by recent events of the inequities many are born into. I’m thinking about the mothers all over the globe who have to face so many challenges and the ways in which we can, and are, helping them. I’m also appreciating my flexible schedule. With the push for hybrid work, I am excited about how we can maintain that moving forward.

I have young children, and as the world has started to return to normal in the last year, my stance on the pandemic hasn’t changed as much as many others who can be fully vaccinated. For those of us with younger children or immunosuppressed relatives, we have additional levels of stress because the pandemic is not over for us.

Becoming a parent has also added another dimension to who I am—another level of empathy. I have something in common with many other people I interact with, whether a colleague or client or even a stranger on the street. I find myself smiling at other moms with strollers. It’s a common recognition and understanding.

Tiffany Burns, senior partner, Atlanta

Tiffany Burns headshot
Tiffany Burns headshot

Mother’s Day is always a special time. I lost my mom in 2009. She was my best friend, and on so many levels, she’s who I aspire to be. I always think of her—especially on Mother’s Day. She molded me and embedded a set of beliefs and values that show up in everything I do. I now have a four-year-old and two-year-old, and on the other side of missing my mom is the joy of being my children’s mother. Mother’s Day is a day for family, appreciation, and being thankful for the connections that I had with my mom and that I now have with my children.

As the lines have blurred between work and home, my work has become a much more visible thing for my kids. It used to be we had physical distance from work, as well as more mental distance. In the shift to working from home, those things converged. Early on, I thought this is hard because I need more support at home. Then, I thought this is awesome because I get more time at home. But then I realized it’s not so easy for my children to navigate me being close in proximity and not being available. I pay extra attention to make sure that I protect the time that I have with them.

Being a parent—and not everyone has to be a parent—puts things into perspective. You’re responsible for little lives: you’re making the calls on what is safe or unsafe for them. Often at work, things feel like very big decisions with very big implications. Being a mom helps put work into perspective. I think differently about what’s a big deal and what’s not. That allows me to be so much better at my job. Everything’s not going to go perfectly. It’s the big things that need to go right.

Maria Helo, partner, Bogota

Maria Helo headshot
Maria Helo headshot

On this Mother’s Day, I feel super grateful. I am lucky to have my mother, who continues to be a role model and a source of inspiration for me. She’s about 70, still working, and very active. It’s always a reminder of the kind of mother and type of woman I want to be. I am also so grateful for my kids, for my family, and the type of mother I’ve become. I’m not perfect, but I manage to do a good job with my kids. It’s also nice to see them grow and become full people, which in the end, is the most important thing.

The obvious challenge has been homeschooling and support. My kids are seven and nine and still at an age where they require a lot of support. The pandemic was a challenge to them in terms of mental health. My biggest challenge has been keeping them strong and helping them persevere while also keeping myself strong. It was a tough time. I had to multitask at an extreme rate. I would be in the middle of a meeting and have to turn the camera and microphone off as they shouted, “Mama! I don’t know how to do this.” I worked to keep myself strong to help them on their journey.

Being a working mother has helped me teach my kids how to set big aspirations for themselves and about resilience: how at times you might not get what you want, but you need to continue working toward it. When I am frustrated that I haven’t achieved something, I use that as an opportunity to reflect with kids about continuing to work toward goals you set for yourself. Being a mother has also taught me patience and how to be patient with my teams. That hasn’t always been my biggest strength, but my kids have given me a different perspective. I also always seek a good work–life balance, which helps me with my teams and my clients. I work to bring a human perspective: it’s OK to make space for a family, for personal things.

Valentina Ibarra, partner, Mexico City

Valentina Ibarra headshot
Valentina Ibarra headshot

I am excited to celebrate with my family and be celebrated. I also want to reflect on what kind of mother I am and want to be as my daughter continues to grow.

The pandemic has been extremely challenging for many reasons. It has been difficult to explain to my two-year-old why she has to go to her room and play while I am at home but cannot spend time with her. It’s been difficult to set boundaries at work, too, for the times I’ve chosen to spend with her. Both my clients and teams have been very understanding, but it’s still been challenging. I had to deeply reflect on what times of day I really want to protect. I also have to say that none of these challenges, even when I put them all together, can measure against the joy I have had and the satisfaction of being closer to my daughter, and seeing her grow every day.

Being a mother has helped me to become a better professional. I’m far more efficient and much more comfortable with uncertainty. I have become much more aware of my teams’ and clients’ needs, feelings, and unstated thoughts. Motherhood has opened my mind and heart. I am not ashamed to say, though this is very personal, that I was unsure for a long time about whether I wanted kids or not. I worried about whether I could balance them with a career. And now, I can honestly say I am a better professional, and the runway for my career is even longer than before. That mindset shift has been so powerful. My daughter already understands the concept of work. I am so proud that, at such a young age, she is already looking forward to working at some time in her life! In Mexico, more than 60 percent of women with an undergraduate degree choose not to work. Recently, I was interviewed on the radio about a Women Matter report we just launched in Mexico. My parents were driving my daughter to a check-up at that time and were able to listen to my interview on the car radio. I was so proud when my parents told me that when my daughter met her doctor, she immediately told him that she had just been listening to her mommy on the radio. She understood that I could not be with her at her appointment because I was on the radio. That was priceless.

Dymfke Kuijpers, senior partner, Singapore

Dymfke Kuijpers headshot
Dymfke Kuijpers headshot

We very unexpectedly lost our best friend recently in a freak accident. On this Mother’s Day, I will be thinking of him and his family. I will call his wife and kids, and remember our shared adventures, and celebrate him and his life with his loved ones.

I have four sons and one daughter. Each will be a better partner because they saw their parents juggling careers and family time on a daily basis. That has nurtured our collective flexibility and ability to deal with chaos. My five-year-old once explained: “Because my mom works, we can go on holidays, and when she is home, she really plays with me.” In the end it’s the quality time that counts. Being a mother helps me set very clear priorities at work. And stress is a real waste of energy, so I don’t have time for it. I’ve also gotten very good at spotting and delegating things that do not give me energy early on, not only in housekeeping and administration, but also in selecting who I work with. Most importantly, becoming a mother has made me take myself way less seriously: I cannot be the perfect mom, nor can I be a perfect professional 24/7. And I don’t actually aspire to be either!

Homeschooling with a child at your desk has been challenging, as has maintaining professional and personal lives separately during the times when we all had to work from home.

Emily Shao, partner, Bay Area – Silicon Valley

Emily Shao headshot
Emily Shao headshot

On this Mother’s Day, my own mother is top of mind. I have always admired and appreciated her. She worked full time, taught my sister and me Mandarin, cooked homemade dinners every night, planned our extracurriculars, and so much more. Now that I’ve been a mom for three years, I am even more inspired and amazed at how resilient, dedicated, and loving my mother was and still is. She sets a high bar for the kind of mother I aspire to be.

It has been challenging to make time for myself, which is probably the case for almost any mom out there. I really enjoy my work, and I also want to spend every moment possible with my son, which leaves me with little to no “me time.” I’ve implemented a few hacks: protect 30 minutes a day, five to six days a week, to go on a run to clear my head; trade sleep-in days on the weekend with my partner; take five or so minutes at the end of every day to reflectively journal. I am constantly iterating my operating model, so I welcome any tips or tricks!

As a working mother, I am role-modeling for my son what it looks like to work hard, make a positive difference, and have fun doing it. I work on future of mobility topics like autonomous vehicles, electrification, and advanced air mobility, which just happen to align with my three-year-old’s passion areas: cars, planes, trains, anything with a motor or engine that moves. It’s wonderful to have that shared interest. I’ve also found that the structured problem solving I use in my day-to-day job can be very helpful in solving parenting dilemmas. Being a mom also helps me as a professional. I love my job, but it all comes down to family. My priorities are very clear, enabling me to be efficient, focused, and maintain perspective. At the end of an intense work week, my stress melts away when I’m joking around with my partner and son at dinner. Just being around them is a constant reminder of what matters to me.

Sonia Wedrychowicz, partner, Dubai

Sonia Wedrychowicz headshot
Sonia Wedrychowicz headshot

These days, I am thinking about Ukrainian mothers. Mothers who lost their children at war or were forced to flee from their homes with their children to take shelter in other countries, often leaving their partners behind. I also feel for those forced to give birth under fire, those who have been abused and abandoned, and those who have been killed.

The last year introduced hybrid ways of working, partially online and partially on the ground, and that made it much more difficult for me to spend quality time with my kids. I was either online or in the air or somewhere else. I found a new appreciation for the times when we were all together at home [during the lockdowns], which we spent cooking together, playing cards, or watching movies. I am working on introducing this “be together more” routine again in the new working environment.

I always say that a working mother is one of the best employees you can ever have. We’re usually very organized, juggling a number of priorities at the same time to ensure that everyone and everything is taken care of. My kids are grown (18 and 23 years old), and our relationship is more like a friendship these days. There’s a lot of trust and understanding between us, respect, and no judgement. I’ve also had the opportunity to counsel my children about their careers and life choices and to guide them through difficult decisions with the help of the knowledge and experience I gained through my own work. I also brought home much of the well-organized routine I have at work so that things run smoother.

This article was edited by Justine Jablonska, an editor in the New York office.