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Project Resilience: Balancing Care-Giving And Career For Women In Their 40s And 50s

Susan R. Madsen (left) and Ruth C. White (right).

Women do the lion’s share of unpaid care work in Utah, spending an average of 5.6 hours a day looking after children or parents. Utah’s women in their 40s and 50s often spend time doing both child and elder care. It makes for some stressful moments in the best of times, and the pandemic adds some new challenges.

“Then the career pressure really comes during those years as well. I would say that some of that comes from families needing more finances, but some of that comes from women who really… oh, man, do I have hundreds and hundreds of women even in the past year talk to me about this. Something happens in their heart and soul that they have really appreciated their time raising children but they’re looking for more meaningful impact and meaningful work. And you see that across the country but you see it in unique ways, I believe in the state of Utah,” said Susan Madsen, a Utah State University professor and author who heads up the Utah Women and Leadership Project.


“Adolescence is lasting longer, so kids used to be launched right after college, they’d leave home, be gone, parents have a little freedom. That’s not happening. And at the same time, they’re staying home a lot longer. People are often taking care of elderly parents at the same time, so it’s kind of like at the height of what they call the sandwich generation and at the same time you’re at the point in your career where you’re probably shifting to higher levels,” said Ruth C. White, a clinical associate professor in social work from the University of Southern California who has also authored books on stress management. 


Both White and Madsen have studied the pressures on women in the workplace.


Nicole Deforge is living that experience—and watching its effects on others in her field.


“I’ve noticed with other female attorneys, as they hit just before they are up for partnership, it becomes a bit of a crisis often where they just think, ‘I just can’t do all of this and then I’ve got to go find another way and they leave private practice,’ and off they go in-house or to government or somewhere, which is obviously fine options as well,” Deforge said.


Deforge is an attorney and shareholder with Fabian VanCott, a firm in Salt Lake City. She’s also a mom.


“They can’t figure out how they can do it without having to sacrifice their families,” Deforge said. “It becomes an either/or, and when you phrase it that way, nobody wants to sacrifice their families.”


And if all that pressure existed in 2019, 2020 has added some new wrinkles.


“Now you have no child care, and you still have a demanding job, so now you are at home taking care of kids while trying to do your job, and at the same time not just taking care of them, you have to educate them. And even you are not staying at home, now you’re putting yourself at risk of a global pandemic if you’re leaving your house, and if you do have to leave the home to work somewhere other than your home and you do have children at home, childcare is not open and the schools not open, so where are your kids?” White said. 


“At my firm, we are mostly working from home, we really have a lot of flexibility, which is terrific,” Deforge said. “I know that’s not an option for many, but it also leaves you at home in my case with three teenagers, and a husband who’s trying to work from home, and children who are dealing with the stress of it also, whether they express it or not, they feel it. And so I am trying to focus on them and making sure that they feel the love and support that they need. How do you deal with the stress, pandemic or no pandemic?”


“One of the most foundational pieces is for women to really understand themselves more,” 

Madsen said. “Understand their bodies, understand their ambitions, understand their aspirations, understand their purpose. The deeper we understand, the more we’re just thoughtful in our decisions moving forward in our career.”


“Other things that I suggest is taking a break,” White said. “Just play some music, get up and walk around because part of the challenge right now is staring at a little dot on a laptop or a camera for hours at a time, staring at that dot, if you wander too much it looks like you’re not paying attention, whereas if you were sitting in a room it would be totally normal to look around and maybe get up and stretch. You can’t do that in Zoom in the same way.”


“Motherhood and dealing with children, you have stages,” Deforge said. “The stages, they go quickly and they pass quickly, and just because right now feels like it’s always going to be this way and my children are always going to be this age or need these things from me, that’s [not] always going to be the case.”

How do you deal with the stress, pandemic or no pandemic?

“Reflection is really great to understand and strengthen who you are and what you want moving forward, but women more than men tend to move over into a rumination,” Madsen said. “And it is clear from all the studies throughout the years, not just in Utah, not just in the nation but globally, that women ruminate more than men. When we ruminate, we spin, and it really is a waste of time. Reflection can be healthy. Rumination can really feed into poor mental health.”

“Spinning isn’t going to lead you to resilience at the end of the day,” Deforge said. “It’s going to make you crash and burn.”



Ruth C. White: 

Managing the stress of COVID-19

Move at work

Susan Madsen:

Utah Women & Leadership Project Toolkits



Music: Modern Jazz Samba by Kevin MacLeod


This story was produced in partnership with the Center for Persons with Disabilities.