The Pandemic Has Been Make or Break for Working Moms: How 4 Fashion, Retail Leaders Are Coping

As I write this article, I have just left an orientation for my son’s first term of first grade and I still don’t know whether I’m sending him to this particular school, which only two weeks ago informed of us that it’s abandoning its plans for a hybrid system and going completely remote.

At this moment, I’m prepping for a virtual edit meeting — during which the massive wave of retail bankruptcies and layoffs will undoubtedly lead the conversation — with my 12-year-old shih tzu at my feet, my 6-year-old son begging to go the park and my husband negotiating a workaround in his own jam-packed schedule in order to accommodate this innocent wish.

This kid’s whole life and sense of normalcy has been tossed into disarray as COVID-19 takes aim at our desire for stability in every possible way. The least any of us could do is take him to the park, right?

It reminds me of a conversation I had last week with Beth Goldstein, executive director and industry analyst for accessories and footwear at The NPD Group, who joked that she would literally buy her daughter, Torie, anything her heart desires for her upcoming eighth birthday because, well, it’s the least she and her husband could do.

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The NPD Group’s Beth Goldstein with daughter, Torie.
CREDIT: Courtesy

It’s also bringing to mind another chat I had that same week with Isadora Versiani, a mother of three and director of design at Andre Assous and BCBG Max Azria, who reminded me that “before COVID, being a working mom was already a struggle.”

“But now, working at home with my family of five means I’ve lost my physical space to be creative, my travel to find inspiration for each collection and my office,” Versiani said. “If I were financially able to do so, I would take a year off.”

And that sentiment isn’t dissimilar to one revealed during my heart-to-heart a few days ago with Martha Garcia, director of global brand creative and communications at Hoka One One, when she described the biggest challenge she has faced in switching to remote work for herself and virtual learning for her 6-year-old daughter, Luz.

“I worked really hard during the last two years to create this environment where I have boundaries and where I say, ‘OK, there’s Martha who’s the partner and the wife, and there is the part that’s a mom, and there is Martha who is the businesswoman and leader at this brand,” she explained. “It’s like I created these different personas. Now, COVID-19 has meant bringing all of those personas under one roof. That’s the part that has been tough — trying to navigate all of those roles all the time — and all at once.”

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Hoka One One’s Martha Garcia with husband and daughter, Luz.
CREDIT: Courtesy

Yet and still, every single mom-friend I spoke with in this industry is steadfast in the awareness of this: We are incredibly privileged.

Tracy Royal, VP of global communications at Foot Locker Inc., put it this way: “I have, like many people, had all the feelings throughout the course of the past six months — sadness, helplessness, gratefulness and guilt, just to name a few. With the understanding that things are in constant flux and out of my control, I have tried to focus in on the feeling of gratitude. As a parent, I am grateful for my family’s health and grateful that my [3-year-old daughter, Addison,] is still young enough to not fully grasp the gravity of what’s going on in the world.”

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Foot Locker’s Tracy Royal with her husband and three-year-old daughter, Addison.
CREDIT: Courtesy

Indeed, gratitude has been a life raft for many a working parent in these unprecedented times as the pandemic has hit families across the world hard and taken a disproportionate toll on mothers.

In May, when the pandemic was only starting to show its ripple effects in the United States, the Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America estimated 100,000 footwear jobs had already been lost due to the coronavirus.

Many of those affected had turned to the Two Ten Footwear Foundation for assistance, with the organization receiving more than 5,000 applications for assistance and the majority (65%) of them coming from women.

The instability of the industry in which we work is not lost on any mother who calls herself lucky to still have a job — or who is repeatedly crunching the numbers with her partner to determine if it makes sense for one of them to continue working as the needs of their children mount. (Hint: The data also shows that if one of those people were to sacrifice their job, it is most likely to be the mother.)

“The U.S. footwear market is down almost 25% versus last year during the last five months [March to July]. So we’ve got to be aggressive, innovative and extremely consumer-centric in order to bring it back,” explained Goldstein. “Everyone in the industry can be a part of this, but those who have been bearing the brunt of the home school-work balance have likely had to rely on the same determination that it will take to drive a recovery in the industry.”

And that’s tough — if not damn near impossible on some days.

But trailblazing, successful women like Royal, Goldstein, Versiani and Garcia will tell you that they did not get where they are in their careers without being solution-oriented — even if those solutions aren’t neatly tied up in corporate speak.

“For such a long time, we were told, ‘You have your work stuff that stays at work and then you have your family stuff that’s personal.’ But I think we’re going through a really big cultural shift because we are all humans and it was bound to happen that these [worlds would merge],” said Garcia. “Now, it’s really important to show vulnerability and to lead that way. I recently broke down on a team call: I cried in front of my team and I just said ‘I feel really overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do.’”

She added, “That was me showing up in the only way I knew how to show up at that moment. I couldn’t hold it together. And I think that brought us closer together as a team.”

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Martha Garcia, director of global brand creative and communications at Hoka One One, attends FN’s Women Who Rock 2019 event.

Garcia said she has become a vocal proponent of self-care measures such as therapy and journaling. And she’s encouraging her team to be open and honest about their emotional needs — even if that means shutting off and ignoring an email every now and then.

“I recognize that there are moments where I just don’t feel creative,” said Garcia. “I don’t feel like I can think outside of the box or I can’t really process certain information. But I also recognize that I should give myself that permission. I’ve learned that I have to be flexible with myself. I’m always very conscious of checking in with myself and giving myself the space and boundaries I need in order to do my job.”

Similarly, Versiani said she’s had to get creative in order to be creative.

“One of the things that has helped me recently is riding my bike to the office just to have the time alone and to be able to find inspiration in the city again,” she said. “I’ve lived in New York for 18 years and never rode a bike — but I guess [the pandemic] is teaching me to try new things.”

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Isadora Versiani, director of design at Andre Assous/BCBG, with her 3-year-old son, Henri.
CREDIT: Courtesy

As Royal has also seen firsthand, the lifestyle changes spurred by COVID-19 are helping many moms discover new and interesting nuances about themselves and their children.

“I’m learning that Addison is smart, sassy, fearless and independent,” she said. “And that I both have a lot of patience and need to practice more patience.”

Spouses, for better or worse, aren’t left out of the mix when it comes to our pandemic-borne discoveries: “It’s funny because with both me and my husband working from home, I hear him on the phone taking his work calls and I’m noticing he sounds different — more formal,” she said. “I joke, ‘Who is this guy?’”

For Versiani, remote work has given new meaning to bathroom breaks: “I recently had to take a work Zoom meeting in my bathroom — and we only have one bathroom in our small, Brooklyn apartment. So mid-way through, my husband starts knocking on the door asking to use the toilet. And everyone in the meeting could hear him. I thought, ‘Oh man, this is crazy!’”

It is crazy. But if there’s one thing that working moms have in common, it’s this: We know crazy well. And we can work with it.

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