What Being a Working Mom in COVID-19 Lockdown Taught Me About Empathy

Shannon Shallcross, CEO and Co-Founder BetaXAnalytics

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught me a lot of things, but the biggest lesson is that we are not all equal.

As the CEO of a data science company and a working mom, being in lockdown at home with my family added a frustrating level of time-consuming, distracting and unusual responsibilities on top of my normal work day.

March 13th was the last day of normalcy for us. It was that day I learned that schools would be suddenly closing and my kids, ages 4 and 7, would be having an unplanned “vacation week” the following week. At that time no one knew when classes would resume, but schools planned to move to remote learning for an undetermined amount of time. Little did we all know that they would not set foot in their classrooms for the rest of the school year.

This sudden change threw my world upside down. I joined other parents trying to figure out working from home while simultaneously caring for young children and overseeing their school work. I took the weekend to do some research to put together a packed schedule for my kids for the following week of no school, with the goal of keeping them busy and out of my work area from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. While this was a great goal in theory, it was a huge failure in practice. 

We got through that first week with great effort and guidance on my part, and my investment of time continued once classes started back up online for distance learning. Whereas my pre-lockdown days were 100% devoted to growing my company, this focus dwindled sharply given the guidance needed to help my 7 year old with navigating Google classroom, Zoom meetings and his assignments. The frequent interruptions of suddenly having my office space overrun by kids, having to break up squabbles, prepare snacks and literally wipe my 4 year old’s butt was a serious buzz kill to any professional momentum I hoped to build for my company.

The hectic tone that working and overseeing distance learning set each day made concentration on anything nearly impossible. Because of my general inability to ever gather my thoughts and plan strategically, the background music in my head each day was nothing short of an existential crisis playing on repeat.

During the first week of lockdown my days were full of work calls with lawyers to figure out up from down on this pandemic roller coaster. One difficult discussion was with one of our health care clients whose current existence, and thus our relationship, was precarious under a crippling lack of equipment, facilities and people as their proximity to the country’s COVID-19 epicenter in New York City was fueling more hospitalizations than they could handle. At the same time I was obsessively checking 5 grocery stores to see who might be able to still be delivering groceries (answer: none). Like many others, it took nearly 3 months in lockdown for me to find my first roll of toilet paper at the store. At the heart of my own difficulties is a profound truth—in our world of inequality, so many were experiencing challenges that were exponentially worse than my own.

There were 3 specific things I changed during lockdown that helped me to make it through.

  1. I stopped drinking alcohol. Pre-lockdown I usually only had a few drinks on the weekends, but early on in March I could tell that I was going to want to have wine much more frequently as a coping mechanism for all the stress and change taking place around me. But the more I thought about the temporary relief a glass of wine would bring, the more I realized that there was no amount of alcohol that would improve the challenge of being stuck at home and trying to make 24/7 parenting, teaching and running a company simultaneously. I realized I needed to take my feelings of frustration with the impact of the pandemic, sit down with them, and look them straight in the face. I could not check out during this challenging time. I needed to learn so many lessons through all of this, and I could only do this while stone cold sober.
  2. I started walking every day. As a former marathon runner, I pretty much had given up running or any regular exercise for that matter once I became a parent. It was too difficult to add exercise to the already mountainous list of things I had to do as a working mom. But this is where I suppose my inability to focus during lockdown was a blessing–in an attempt to introduce more balance to the crazy days working from home with kids, I gave myself permission to have some time every day outside of the house for walks. The fresh air and exercise was immensely helpful for my physical and mental health.
  3. I read books constantly. To be honest, pre-COVID I could count on one hand how many full books I read for pleasure since becoming a parent. I used to smirk at all the people (show offs) who would proudly share their lengthy recommended reading lists at the end of each year. I wondered, “Who on Earth has the free time to read all those books?” The time and concentration it takes to read an entire book during the rare, 3-minute stolen moments I could find in my day meant my average time to finish one book could very well be a year. However during lockdown I found that during my daily walks and the many hours I would lay awake at night unable to sleep, audio and print books were a welcomed distraction, an opportunity to learn, and a much-needed escape from reality.

As a working mom, my story is not unlike many, many others. But I have not been able to shake the realization that this pandemic has uncovered some harsh realities of our lives in America. Why were so many women saddled with the burden of childcare, eldercare and extra work during this time? And more broadly, why were the most poor and disadvantaged communities so hard-hit by the pandemic? As data emerged, we started to learn that race and ethnicity was one of the highest predictors of not surviving COVID-19. And after these harsh realities struck such an ugly chord, this theme of inequality was made yet more real with the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests that demonstrated to all just how much the black community has been ravaged by injustice for far, far too long. This reality of inequality is one that we cannot unsee.

If we take anything away from this experience I hope that we realize that not everyone starts their day at the starting line. Some people have to run a mile before even reaching the point where others start their day. The mother who wakes up every day at 4:00 am to try to get a jump start on work before her kids wake up, tries to juggle meetings and childcare simultaneously throughout the day and then works late into the night when her kids go to bed, all to just put in a “normal” day’s work—it’s a losing battle. You’re never set up for success. And these challenges are exponentially multiplied when we consider the many people who have been out of work during the pandemic, wondering if and when returning to work could ever be possible with schools not fully reopening in the Fall. 

The “mom lens” in this pandemic is the one easiest for me to see, since I’m living it right now. But there are countless other lenses–the health care worker, the woman of color, the restaurant worker, the elderly nursing home resident confined to his room with no link to the outside world save a TV and a telephone–to name a few. Each person has been profoundly and frighteningly impacted in uniquely personal and sorrowful ways. The more we understand this, the more grace we can offer ourselves and others during this difficult time. It is this empathy that will help to get us through the coming months.

When we see this pandemic through the lens of what it really is—a crisis unlike any that we’ve ever experienced in our lifetime—my hope is that we come out on the other side better for the experience. Let’s care less about whether we gained weight from stress eating and more about whether we have helped others. Instead of caring whether employees have hit all their production goals, let’s make sure they’re fully supported in this very difficult time. And most importantly, let’s not forget the most important lesson of all—that the inequality of Americans has been magnified in this pandemic. This is a reality that we cannot and should not ever forget. In this sense I sincerely hope I can hold on to this powerful reminder of empathy for others and not go back to “the way things were.”

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can follow the authors on LinkedIn and Twitter via the links below:

Tracy Burns, CEO Northeast HR Association and Co-Founder of Hytched – Twitter @tbmHR, LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/tbmhr/

Shannon Shallcross, Co-Founder and CEO of BetaXAnalytics – Twitter @srshallcross, LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/shannonshallcross/ Bob Selle, Chief Human Resource Officer – Twitter @rdselle, LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/bobsellesphrscpchro/


  • Mindful Bob


    A ‘culture catalyst,’ I thrive when impacting the world around me. My expertise includes change management, cultural change initiatives, recruitment and retention strategy, organization design and organizational effectiveness, and total rewards. My professional life drives a focus on “ Employer-of-Choice culture at Ocean State Job Lot,”  “In recent years, we have made a concerted effort to transform our corporate culture to a more healthy, balanced and engaging place to work. We have achieved that, resulting in an increased rate of retention and greater diversity among associates.” Our efforts have helped  earn OSJL recognition in America's Best Midsize Employers, Forbes (2017, 2018 & 2020); Top 1000 Companies Worldwide for Millennial Women, Mogul (2018); Healthiest Employers, Providence Business News for 5 straight years; Worksite Health Award - Exemplary, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of RI (2017, 2018), 2019 and 2020), and more. As a believer in collaboration and giving back, I am a presenter and collaborator for CHRO Online, the HR Leadership Council, and the Northeast Human Resource Association. I'm also a consultant and advisor for several startups. As a speaker and published writer on culture change, transformational leadership, and organizational effectiveness in the new world. Simply put, we need to lead with LOVE. You can follow my work on bobsellethehrguy.com.