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Making It Work: On giving birth during the pandemic—and returning from maternity leave with a renewed sense of urgency

The pandemic has disproportionately affected women. In our Women in the Workplace research last year, 1 in 4 of them said they were considering taking a step back in their careers or leaving the workforce entirely. A year after WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, we’re talking to several McKinsey women about how they’ve made it work over the last year—the surprising challenges, unexpected joys, and how the last 12 months have shaped their outlook on life and work. Here, Sarah Mulligan, a communications manager based in New York City, talks about giving birth during the pandemic, navigating grief, and returning to work with a new outlook on life.

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On navigating the changes of the last year:

It has been extraordinary in every positive and negative way imaginable. I was pregnant during the pandemic, and working while parenting my two-year-old, until I had my second child at the end of August. I still think it's very funny that I labored and gave birth to my daughter wearing a mask. At one point, I pulled down my mask to breathe better while having a contraction and the nurse said to me, “Honey, I need to ask you to put that back on.” I will never forget that moment and being so upset—and in pain! The last year has been extremely challenging, but I also spent more intimate, one-on-one time with my family than I would have otherwise, which I loved and cherished.

On the lived experience of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Asian-Americans and other communities of color:

It hit our South Asian community pretty hard. My grandmother was in a rehab facility from the beginning of 2020 recovering from a stroke. When lockdowns began in March, we couldn’t see her. Like a lot of South Asians, I grew up with my grandparents living with me, so I was very close to her. She didn’t have a smartphone and she didn’t speak English, so we were relying on the kindness of nurses to get updates or—if we were very lucky—to video chat with her. It was a horrific time, and we were always bracing ourselves that she would contract COVID-19 at some point because this was at the height of the pandemic, and so much was still so unknown about the disease that all of us were too scared to bring her back home. She then got COVID-19 in April, was hospitalized in an isolation unit in a hospital for a week, and miraculously beat it at 86 years old.

I recently lost two uncles to COVID-19, one in Montreal and one in Dubai. They were both beautiful people, so vibrant and full of life. Because of the pandemic, I couldn’t be at their funerals or be with family. This distance has added another layer to such devastating and premature losses. Cumulatively, my family knows about a dozen acquaintances and relatives who have contracted COVID-19, many of whom have passed away.

On finding hope during the most difficult parts of the last year:

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Sarah and her family.

Whenever I feel upset about something, I try to remember to count my blessings. At least I have a backyard for my kids. At least my mom and siblings are in my social bubble, so we see them frequently and they’re able to help with childcare. I have a supportive and loving partner. I think I was also lucky my children weren’t in school yet. I really cannot imagine having to balance multiple kids, a dual-career household, and school schedules on top of that. I think the parents who do, especially moms who often carry a disproportionate amount of responsibility in a household, deserve medals.

I’m actually reading Option B by Sheryl Sandberg. It's this book she wrote on grief after she lost her husband suddenly in 2015. One of the things that she and psychologist Adam Grant talk about is when you have gone through trauma or you are grieving something, try and think about how it could've been worse, because what that forces you to do is be grateful for what you have, even when you’re going through something difficult. I’m grateful that my young children encourage me to be emotionally present, healthy, and calm. I still find pockets of peace and true joy every day because of them.

On how the pandemic has changed her outlook on life:

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Sarah’s grandmother with her first great-granddaughter, Noor.

Life is so delicate. I think I’ve always known this in general terms, but what’s shifted is that I don’t think there’s any time to waste. I approach life with such urgency now. The second I’m able to travel again and have my vaccine, I need to visit my grandfather in Bangladesh, who just turned 92. I want to celebrate every birthday and anniversary with gusto. The Zoom calls with extended family are now mandatory and consistent. I heard Sheryl Sandberg say once, “You have two choices: You either grow old or you don’t. And if you do, it is a gift.” I try to always remember and honor that.

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