‘It’s been extraordinarily hard.’ Fierce Mamas open up on the pandemic’s impact

In 2018, a group of women working in Canadian advertising joined together to create a line of Mother’s Day cards celebrating what they described as “power moms.” They dubbed it Fierce Mama Cards.

For the first two years, the digital cards were characterized by messages of empowerment and encouragement, such as “Every time you get on a plane, you show me that the sky’s the limit” and “You’ve taught your kids everything they know about kicking ass.”

“They were fun and celebratory, with a ‘boss bitch’ type of tone,” said Rica Eckersley of Toronto agency Union, who is joined in the Fierce Mamas by Kammy Ahuja and Lindsay Di Tolla of The&Partnership, Alexis Bronstorph of Taxi, and freelance designer Kimberley Pereira. “And then last year the pandemic hit just as we were ramping up for the year, and we thought ‘How do we even do this right now?’ We were all pivoting last Mother’s Day.”

A year ago it felt temporary. But the pandemic is still raging, and women continue to bear the brunt of its effects, with studies suggesting that much of the progress women have made towards achieving parity over the decades could be undone. “It’s been extraordinarily hard,” said Eckersley. “It’s just exhausting on a level you couldn’t even comprehend.”

Eckersley said the Fierce Mama partners even discussed how they’d be able to find the necessary bandwidth to create a line of cards this year. They managed it anyway, and nine digital cards are available on their site now.

“This year’s cards still go for a fun tone, but are a tiny bit darker and just acknowledging that there is a need for a primal scream into the abyss,” said Eckersley. “We’re going for truth above anything else—just acknowledging the pain in a way that doesn’t make people feel even more depressed. It’s not shying away from the fact it has sucked, but doing it in a way that makes people smile.”

Aside from creating the cards, the Fierce Mamas took a little extra time to consider some of the big questions about women and working moms in a pandemic, and in advertising specifically. They agreed to share with The Message some of their personal stories about what this past year has been like for them personally and the industry as a whole.

We’ve all seen articles suggesting decades of progress for working women could be reversed due to the pandemic. What’s your response? 

Kammy: It’s true. It’s no secret that women tend to take on more of the childcare roles within the home. In my case, I have a very young child and was still breast feeding at the beginning of this pandemic, making it impossible to split the care in a helpful way with my partner.

To have my home world and work world collide feels like a setup for failure. There’s a good reason why childcare exists, since it is virtually impossible to do both things well simultaneously. Mothers are being asked to make tough choices on a daily basis. The increase of the mental load alone has vast effects on work performance. Already there is a discrepancy of how often women raise their hands for challenging, tough tasks. The likelihood of being able to keep your head above water, let alone raise your hand, seems small.

Kim: Yes the numbers are real. I faced a period of burnout last year. But that was one thing I could take control off. I set better boundaries for myself to recover and still be a part of the workforce, but not everyone has the support system to cope.

Each organization is different—some are more empathetic than others while some are just about the bottom line. 

On another note, as if maternity leave did not already create a dent in a woman’s career, now we have a pandemic. I have been through two full mat leaves, and I know too well the effects of it. You can’t just pick up where you left off. There were systemic problems even before the pandemic preventing women from re-entering the workforce.

Alexis: Ultimately, it just makes me really sad. I have a great partner who shares the parenting load, but you still feel like as the mom, a lot of that unpaid workload falls on your plate, and yours alone. And even if these are temporary leaves while we navigate this pandemic, I think it falls on all employers to look at those gaps in employment with a different lens moving forward.

Lindsay: It breaks my heart into pieces. Women have worked so hard to get to where we are today and there is still a long road ahead to equality. It’s such a shame that we are being set back because of a pandemic and it doesn’t seem fair that it’s affecting women more negatively. I’m not surprised, but it doesn’t change how mad it makes me. 

Do you think this will ultimately set back moms in advertising? 

Kammy: Yes. What I said about women raising their hand above is a real factor. Also, I feel that men and women without children have the space to excel in a way that is very challenging for mothers right now.

Advertising is an industry that prides itself on the amount of time we spend working and how we are consumed by our work. That it’s a badge of honour. But it’s not a badge I can earn right now, so I do worry about the longterm effects on my career.

Kim: Of course it will. Most moms juggle the responsibility of work and kids at home, and kids’ needs trump anything else.

Advertising demands that things get done “now.” When a mom’s time is constantly interrupted, whether it’s working or attending to kids, neither is given the proper attention. It forces a mom to choose everyday: Are you going to be a better mom or a better employee?

Rica: I think it was hard to balance motherhood and a kick-ass career in advertising before the pandemic, and this is the giant setback nobody needed. We will fight on, because that’s what we do, but this will hold women in advertising back, for sure. 

Alexis: I think everyone is re-evaluating what work looks like. I really hope that the newfound flexibility will encourage moms to stay and thrive in agency settings. We know that some form of remote work works, and it works really well. So hopefully we can change those stats quickly.

Lindsay: I even feel it in my own life. I’m on maternity leave, but I’m dreading going back to work at the end of the summer. When I do return, I know I’ll have to go back to juggling so many different priorities, which is stressful. I will always put my family first, but it’s scary to think about what that means for my career—which is also so important and a huge part of who I am. The industry must rally together to ensure women, and especially moms, continue to feel heard, seen and supported throughout the remainder of the pandemic and when things transition to the new normal.

How could the industry respond or change to accommodate moms during the pandemic? 

Kammy: I’ve seen other industries revise workloads, hours etc. We are in a pandemic, and there’s an expectation around the same level of productivity and project production. We pride ourselves on making that happen, but how is it sustainable or good for mental health? Even with flex hours, moms are still always working. Childcare is work. Burnout is inevitable unless the amount of work is somehow revisited.

Kim: Create a space for dialogue. Working moms need allies in the workspace that they can open up to and have honest conversations with. Not only implement a flexible working environment, but design jobs around them. Create a different workspace to come back to.

Instead of fixing the position of women at work, why don’t organizations fix the environment in which women work? Way too many companies talk about empathy, but are they really putting themselves in the shoes of working moms in order to determine what they want in the workplace?

Rica: I am thankful that Union’s president, Catherine Marcolin, is a woman and a mother. It has led to an empathetic attitude towards the need for a flexible attitude towards women’s mental health and the logistical needs of being a parent during the pandemic. 

I think we need more kick-ass moms at the highest levels of agency leadership. Those who are willing to reinforce the message to the entire agency: It’s okay to work different hours, or that sometimes compromises will have to be made to accommodate family life. 

If that message is said enough, hopefully working moms will feel free to speak up and ask for the space they need to survive, without fear of being seen as underperforming. 

Alexis: Keep up that flexibility. We’ve all gotten a window into each other’s homes, and the shit we all have to deal with. I think our empathy has grown, and that’s an important thing for the industry to embrace post-pandemic, too.  

Lindsay: Implement parent-friendly scheduling policies, and ensure that everyone knows it’s okay to use them. Studies show that a compressed work week or a shorter work day can reduce burnout. To help accommodate heavily impacted employees (such as working parents), managers can consider updating job descriptions, enact organizational development processes, or allow employees to job craft. 

Continue to have empathy and provide support throughout all aspects of a mom’s job and career. Be flexible, communicate and reward/acknowledge successes. This will be more important than ever. 

Maybe one day there will be an organization that supports women and specifically moms in advertising, connecting them with other moms for support and providing a safe space to talk about the issues moms in advertising deal with. 

(Originally published on May 5, 2021)

Chris Powell