The Mommy gap: Why I had to leave a job I loved
I had not intended to return to work full time while my five-year-old was in half-day kindergarten, but the job as Coordinated Entry Prevention Navigator for a Milwaukee nonprofit was a perfect fit. I was brought on to kickstart a new prevention program, which sought to shift focus to housing rather than emergency shelter. Prior to the existence of prevention, when faced with impending or current homelessness, an individual was either offered a chance at a shelter bed that day or told to call back the next. Our volume was huge, and early on in my time as a prevention navigator, I expressed my distress at not being able to help more. Our shelter specialist reminded me that before I joined Coordinated Entry, it was either shelter or nothing.
As we worked, word spread and people began to trust that we were a source to lean on in dire times. The team developed a gut sense, and with some straightforward criteria for shelter prioritization, we listened and checked in to make sure that families were safe and connecting with housing opportunities as they arose, or if things tipped in the other direction, we prioritized them for shelter when available. Our clients’ housing histories were often spotty, peppered with evictions, often due to predatory leasing. We would look at apartments with them and attempt to advocate and bridge the gaps. We fought every day for our clients’ right to safe and fair housing. I have very literally been a shoulder to cry on, a place to unload frustration and more than anything, a cheerleader for keeping the hope of a better opportunity around the corner.
An early measure of our success was that 83% of people who worked with prevention did not go to shelter or end up outside homeless. This challenging, heart-wrenching job was what I was born to do. After having to give up a career in the emergency medical services field due to a significant injury, it was a new way to serve my community and to make a tangible difference.
The one downfall of this dream job was that I earned significantly less than my husband. A barely livable wage in fact. When our son was experiencing acute difficulties at school and was diagnosed with anxiety and sensory issues, the logical person to go on leave to help him through his therapies and appointments was me. After a little over a month of dedicated efforts, he was finding his footing and I was eager to return to work. Just then, the coronavirus bore down on our country. I knew that our clients would be hit hard. Under normal circumstances, a small bump in the road — be it income loss or food insecurity — can lead to catastrophic damage for the individuals whom we serve. But these were not normal circumstances. And just as my job became more essential than ever, our governor put in place the very necessary stay at home order. Previously, my husband and I had been fortunate enough to stagger our schedules so that the kids required no childcare outside of school. With schools closed, as I called around trying to find childcare, it was quickly apparent that it would be an impossibility. I would be paying nearly my entire paycheck each week to put my kids at greater risk than they would be at home with me. With a heavy heart, I phoned my boss to have the conversation that I had been dreading.
Despite the significance of my job, as unemployment numbers post, my job loss is not counted in that tally. So often it’s the moms of the world, the often lesser paid partners, who step down from their outside employment in order to step up within their households. Just as women in the workforce were building momentum in the job market, many of us find ourselves back at home and feeling that our plight is invisible.
I know that one day I will return to the work that I was born to do. I know also how incredibly fortunate I am to have a partner whose work is also essential and who is able to continue doing it. I am grateful for the fact that we are all healthy and happy (if frustrated). We, like so many families right now, are struggling to keep our heads above water. Each challenge that my family faces brings to mind a client (or 8) who I am certain is struggling so much harder, and I wish that I could be there to help. I know that my work is important, but I wish that my government valued it enough to pay me a fair wage so that I could afford to have my children cared for. I hope very much that our country is headed in the direction that my job loss counts because it certainly does for my clients and myself. It counts for Robyn too and that is one of the many reasons that I will continue to support her and vote for her every chance I get. – Mary