Working Mothers and the Role of Paid Work Post-Pandemic: Using Super’s Life Career Rainbow as a Modern Tool
By Michele Johnson
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted the careers of working mothers, especially those with young children. Tracking work status at the pandemic’s onset, the US Census Bureau found 3.5 million mothers left active work in the early months of the crisis—taking leave, losing jobs, or exiting the labor market entirely. By the second month of the pandemic, nearly one in two mothers of school-age children were not actively working (Heggeness et al., 2021).
In many families, working fathers and parents in same-sex couples have also had their paid work and roles at home disrupted by the pandemic, so the problem is not unique to cisgender working mothers. However, working mothers may be disproportionately affected. A New York Times survey (Miller, 2020) of 2,200 adults at the height of the pandemic’s initial waves found that about 80% of women in families with children under 12 reported being fully or mostly responsible for housework and homeschooling during lockdown, and 70% fully or mostly responsible for childcare.
As schools and childcare closed, many mothers were forced to take on the role of teacher, childcare worker, and activities director. Pre-pandemic, those in the privileged position to pay for support may have had these roles filled by professionals outside the home. For others, these roles had been filled by extended family members, who might now need to tend to their own pandemic challenges.
As the parenting and housekeeping roles of working mothers expanded during the crisis, other roles shrank to accommodate the change. Some mothers reduced the amount of time spent at their paid jobs, moving to part-time work or quitting altogether (Khazan, 2021). Others halted or scaled-back community activities, and many had no time to spend on hobbies or self-care. This time of transition and changing roles has led some mothers to re-evaluate the role of paid work in their lives.
A McKinsey & Company article (Huang et al., 2021) declared this a year like no other for working mothers. This phenomenon, in turn, may have made this year, and the months to come, “years like no other” for career practitioners supporting these women.
Using Super’s Life Career Rainbow
One classic tool relevant for these contemporary times is Super’s Life Career Rainbow (Super, 1980). This tool is based on Super’s life-space, life-span theory, which posits that people usually move through eight roles at different points throughout their lifetime: child, student, leisurite, citizen, worker, parent, spouse, and homemaker. Although these roles can be performed simultaneously, the roles that require the greatest time commitment will tend to become most central at that point in a person’s life. When reconfigured as a pie chart, the life-space segment of the Life Career Rainbow may be used by career practitioners as a qualitative assessment tool (Okacha, 2001) to help women re-evaluate the role of paid work in their lives, post-pandemic.
Consider the case of Jennifer, a mother of two young boys who resigned her marketing manager position early in the pandemic due to difficulty juggling a full-time job with the caretaking and homeschooling required once her sons’ school switched to remote learning. Although she missed her job, she enjoyed spending the extra time with her family and did not want to give that up. She met with a career coach to explore options for her post-pandemic life career roles. Using the Life Career Rainbow, a career coach can first assess pre-pandemic roles, then roles during the pandemic, followed by post-pandemic roles.
Assessment: Life Roles Pre-Pandemic
To help clients understand how their life roles may have shifted as a result of the pandemic, it is important to illustrate what their roles were prior to COVID-19. Jennifer’s coach asked her to create a pie chart with each slice representing one of Super’s Life Career roles, with the size of each reflecting the amount of time spent in that role pre-pandemic. She was then asked to share:
- her overall impressions of the chart
- her thoughts on the amount of time spent in each role
- what she liked and disliked about her life roles
- challenges she faced and how she overcame them
- ways that outside support helped her maintain these roles
Jennifer’s pre-pandemic chart reflected time spent in all eight of Super’s Life Career roles. Fifty-five percent of that time was spent as a worker, which she believed to be excessive.
Assessment: Life Roles During Pandemic
Jennifer then created a similar chart for her life career roles during the pandemic and shared insights gained from her shifting roles and priorities, making particular note of which roles had become more or less important to her. Jennifer’s pandemic chart omitted three roles – worker, citizen, student – as she had stopped not only her paid work, but her community activities and the class she had been taking at the local college. According to her chart, Jennifer spent about 75% of her time in the parent and homemaker roles during the pandemic. Since her husband no longer had a lengthy commute, the time she spent in her role as a spouse increased, a change she enjoyed.
Assessment: Life Roles Post-Pandemic
Finally, Jennifer created a chart reflecting her ideal post-pandemic life career role balance, which helped her form a vision and plan for post-pandemic life.
Once this chart was complete, Jennifer reflected on the differences between the three pie charts, with her career coach posing such questions as:
- To what degree do the charts illustrate the changing role of paid work in your life?
- Do you want to work less than before? More?
- Which other life roles will need to expand or contract accommodate this change?
- What steps do you need to take to make the life roles reflected in the ideal chart a reality?
- What challenges do you anticipate and how can you overcome them?
Jennifer noted that her role as a worker changed from occupying the majority of her time pre-pandemic to no time at all, and she actually desired something in between. Her post-pandemic chart also revealed her desire to continue her increased role as a spouse and to return to her roles as student and community citizen. To accommodate these changes, Jennifer wanted to spend about 30% of her time in paid work. After speaking with her spouse about ways they could reduce their expenses, Jennifer ultimately decided to seek a part-time position in her field closer to home.
A Crisis and an Opportunity
With a crisis often comes the opportunity for change. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many mothers experienced a shift in their life career roles, resulting in a reconsideration and re-evaluation of the role of paid work in their lives. Using Super’s Life Career Rainbow as an assessment tool, career professionals can facilitate this process.
Heggeness, M. L., Fields, J., Garcia Trejo, Y.A., & Schulzetenberg, A. (2021, March 3). Moms, work and the pandemic: Tracking job losses for mothers of school-age children during a health crisis. The United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/03/moms-work-and-the-pandemic.html
Huang, J., Krivkovich, A., Rambachan, I., & Yee, L. (2021, May 5). For mothers in the workplace, a year (and counting) like no other. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/for-mothers-in-the-workplace-a-year-and-counting-like-no-other
Khazan, O. (2021, May 2). The professional women who are leaning out. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/05/why-dont-more-american-moms-work-part-time/618741/
Miller, C. C. (2020, May 8). Nearly half of men say they do most of the home schooling. 3 percent of women agree. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/06/upshot/pandemic-chores-homeschooling-gender.html
Okocha, A. A. (2001, January 22-24). Facilitating career development through Super’s life career rainbow [Paper presentation]. NATCON 2001: 27th, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Super, D. E. (1980). A life-span, life-space approach to career development. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 16, 282-298.
Michele Johnson, M.A., C.P.C., is a Certified Professional Coach with a special interest in helping women in midlife find meaningful work. She earned her master’s degree in counseling and the Certificate in Adult Career Development from New York University. Michele is currently employed as a career counselor at the Women’s Center at the County College of Morris, Randolph, NJ. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelejohnson/