Why so many women are pivoting during the global pandemic
Lauren Tetenbaum is one of the millions of women who changed their career since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A licensed social worker and attorney, she pivoted away from her career in law to become a therapist supporting young women and working and new moms. Lauren and I talked about how she knew it was time to change and the excitement she felt after transitioning into a role that felt right. Lauren is personally and professionally on the pulse of what other working women are feeling lately, helpful coping mechanisms for working parents, and what employers should be doing to retain women in the workforce. We also discussed Fair Play and Find Your Unicorn Space, books and movements to help women alleviate their mental load and reclaim their passions!
You started your career as an attorney. Today you are a therapist working with young women and working parents. Tell us more about your pivot!
I have always wanted to support women — it’s the demographic I was drawn to from a young age. In college at Penn I took a legal studies class on gender and the law and interned at Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia. I thought the best way I could support women was as a lawyer — working for gender equality, advancing reproductive rights, helping survivors of domestic violence, and otherwise supporting women with my legal skills. Once I started law school, I chose to also pursue my master’s in social work because I was drawn to working directly with people and I wanted to learn the most effective ways to support them in times of need.
After grad school, I spent a decade in the legal industry. I practiced for many years as an immigration attorney, maintaining an active pro bono practice in which I helped women and teens who had survived abuse and other trauma. I also held personnel roles where I guided young lawyers on issues including professional development and work-life integration.
And then during the pandemic, I found myself to be a working mom deeply struggling with my own work-life “balance.” I needed support that I wasn’t getting. I felt totally burned out, totally overwhelmed. At the same time, I knew I was privileged in many ways. I am healthy. I have a wonderful family. I have socioeconomic security. My husband is a hands-on, true partner. I thought to myself, If I’m feeling this way, how many other women are feeling this way? And who is helping them? Then I thought — I can help them. I can be a source of support for moms and young women who are trying to navigate the corporate world, while also dealing with the anxieties that come from just being a woman in America.
When I started to consider the change, I did a lot of research and really reflected on what it would take to do it and why I wanted to do it. I had the degree and credentials. I had the networks. I had the drive. I believed I had what I needed to make this a career.
I know that we both value authenticity. And pivoting my career into one where I am truly my most authentic self has been amazing. Focusing on mental health and providing support to other women — it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.
I love that! So many women I interview say their pivot turns out to be more rewarding than they expected. But it’s easy to doubt that. What did the people around you think?
My initial thought in answering this was to say that people who had known me for a long time were supportive but wondered if it was the right move, given that I had invested a lot of time, money, and energy into a legal career. But actually, as far as I know, I was the only one who had any doubts! I was my own biggest critic (like many of us are). I was never an entrepreneurial kind of person. I didn’t think I would ever be a small business owner. I like structure and predictability.
But once I told people, including colleagues at the law firm, the messages came flooding in and were incredibly encouraging. People kept saying things like: This is such a natural and perfect next step for you. You have a gift of connecting with people. It was really validating, I admit! It takes a lot of faith to leave a steady job and bet on yourself.
Also, the pandemic coincided with my move to a new town, where I met a lot of new mom friends who knew me only as a “pandemic parent,” just trying to survive each day with limited childcare, etc. When I would explain my desire to do something else professionally, they were beyond supportive and have continued to be my biggest cheerleaders (along with my husband). They’d go for walks with me to listen when I had a bad day, they eagerly participated in the first round of virtual support groups that I put together for mothers, they have attended charity events I organized supporting women’s mental health and rights in the workplace. They have demonstrated the true meaning of women supporting women and have given me motivation and confidence.
I love to hear about the women who supported you. How was it that you executed such a big shift, from the legal field to mental health?
Even though it was a big shift, I feel like everything I’ve done, even from childhood, has led me here. I was the president of my school’s women’s issues club, I volunteered at Planned Parenthood, I served on boards of women’s organizations. I was always doing something to contribute to women’s issues. I became a lawyer because I wanted to provide counsel, advocacy, and support to people when they need it most — to really help people — and working as a therapist is another way to do that.
After my first child was born in 2016, I made an initial career pivot. I stopped practicing immigration law in a “Big Law” setting because of the hours and the environment. I shifted into a personnel role at a law firm, which I enjoyed because I was basically the in-house social worker. I supported attorneys who were preparing for or coming back from parental leave and developed mentorship programs. I also coordinated the pro bono program, often working directly with refugees and other vulnerable populations. This step proved to me that I could really make a difference even if it wasn’t as a lawyer; instead, it was all about my connections with individual people.
But I was still in the legal world, in a very corporate world, and then in that world during a global crisis. There is a statistic that about one-third of all mothers in the workforce — roughly 8 million workers — have scaled back or left their jobs, or plan to do so, since the pandemic started. In many ways, I was another statistic. The corporate world was just no longer sustainable for me.
I had to make a change, and I knew what I was good at, but I didn’t want just a hobby. I did the research. I needed to know I could earn an income and have professional growth from this pivot — that was important to me. So I tested it out on the side for a while. I launched a series of mom support groups for charity to see if I could do it, to see how it felt. And soon after, I realized I was ready to rip off the band-aid. I was ready to be the entrepreneur that I had never imagined being.
A lot of women start their pivot as a side gig. But there is still that moment when you’re standing on the edge of the diving board and you need to jump. How did you know it was time to jump?
It’s funny — I was just going through old pictures and came across a photo of me working on my website in the very early stages. I remember the moment because it was when I said to my husband: I think I can really do this.
Before jumping in, I built a business plan. It was nothing formal — many spreadsheets, several handwritten notes I scribbled during phone conversations. But I did the calculations, I crunched the numbers. And I unapologetically used my networks: for referrals for clients, for getting the right clinical supervision, for guidance in various areas. I sought higher levels of training in topics I was interested in and got certified in perinatal mental health. And I engaged in a ton of self-reflection. At certain points in my life, the jobs I’d had in the corporate world were what I thought were my dream jobs. But the pandemic changed a lot of things. I had to reset. I reflected on what I would be happiest doing, how I could achieve that happiness, how I could take more ownership over my career.
It took about four months to go from the inkling that this idea could be feasible to having the confidence that I could make a career change and turning in my notice.
Four months is quick compared to most women I interview! After you made the decision, how did you feel? Excited? Panicked? Terrified?
I was excited! And I agree that four months to build a business does seem short. But that was just the practical piece of it; the pivot was really based on more than a decade of work. A decade of asking, Is this really the right role for me? Am I living up to my highest potential?
When I made the change, I was genuinely excited. And I was really relieved. I felt like I had been focusing so much on other people’s schedules and other people’s goals. I felt very independent and excited to be an entrepreneur. I told myself to be open-minded and to say yes to all the opportunities coming my way. It felt like the beginning of something amazing and it has proven to be!
One of those opportunities was being invited to become a certified Fair Play facilitator. Tell us more about Fair Play and the work that you do.
Fair Play is a book by Eve Rodsky, who is an organizational management expert and another former lawyer who talks a lot about her own career shifts. It is also a system based on a game of cards where household tasks, ranging from date night planning to packing school lunches, are divided into five suits. It’s meant for couples or anyone who shares domestic tasks. The intention of the game is to open up a conversation about unpaid work and the inequitable division of labor in the home. Because most domestic tasks — and this is in a cisgendered, heteronormative setting — tend to fall on women. Women are the “she-fault parent.” Moms are the ones doing the school pick-up when the school calls and your kid is sick. Moms are the ones who plan the dentist appointments, who make sure the kids’ boots still fit this season. Moms are the ones doing this work whether or not they also work for paying jobs and even when couples say they believe childcare responsibilities should fall on both parents.
I read Fair Play in the early months of the pandemic and I felt so seen and heard. It helped inspire me to pursue this career of supporting women, to change the narrative like Eve and the book are. I was invited to participate in the first cohort of certified Fair Play facilitators in 2021. Eve’s new book, Find Your Unicorn Space, came out recently and it advocates for taking time for creative pursuits. I realized that my unicorn space is related to this work. Of course I have days where I’m exhausted and all I want to do is watch junky TV once I get a free moment — but the other night I was putting together a corporate workshop outline on Fair Play and I was truly having so much fun. I stayed up late just because I was enjoying it. Curating resources for women, facilitating mom support groups, and connecting with young women to help them navigate personal and professional stressors — this really is my unicorn space. And I feel so privileged that I am able to make a career out of it.
That resonates with me personally. So many pivoters get closer to that Unicorn Space. Often it’s the result of leaving corporate America to do something entrepreneurial. But I know you and I both believe that women should have a viable path to thrive within corporate roles too.
Yes! Women shouldn’t have to leave. There’s so much work that can and should be done in corporate settings to allow women to stay on a corporate track. There is so much room for improvement. Everyone wins when women and moms stay in the corporate workforce while simultaneously living fulfilling lives.
You come from the corporate world. You work with many working moms. What do you wish companies would do so that women can actually thrive within the corporate world?
My answer is very simple. It’s to listen. I recently read a piece by Melinda French Gates: “We’re sending our daughters into companies built for our fathers.” She said that years before the pandemic and it’s still true.
You see it daily in the headlines where XYZ company is demanding people return to the office. This was before the latest pandemic surge. But women, especially moms, were reading those headlines and hearing those office policies and, generally, they didn’t want to go back to the office. Many people do enjoy going to the office, but most people prefer having the option to go back. They want flexibility. They need flexibility, especially when childcare issues and health concerns are paramount. They want to be treated as grown-ups who know how to manage their time and schedule. They’re thinking: Why am I being infantilized? I’m being treated like a cog in the wheel of this corporation that doesn’t care about me. They’re incredibly anxious about not having a choice. They feel they need to look elsewhere for work or simply quit working if they can afford to, otherwise they will be miserable.
So, I encourage companies to listen. Do the employee surveys and actually listen to the results. Look at your employee as a whole person — whether they are a mother of three young kids or a 24-year-old who is eager for socialization and mentorship in the office. Be creative and be flexible. Working remotely is just an example; across the board, it comes down to listening and leading with empathy.
I love that advice: Listen. Many companies listen for the answer that they want, when they need to listen for the truth instead. What else are you hearing today from the parents and moms you work with? How are they coping during a global pandemic?
When we first got on the phone today, we talked about how we, as moms in a pandemic, are taking things one day at a time. And that’s my advice to women. Get through it one day at a time. If you need to, take it one hour at a time.
My feelings during quarantine were very similar to my feelings postpartum. You’re just in a fog. You don’t brush your hair. You’re wearing the same pajamas multiple days in a row. What day is it? Nobody knows. We’re in this transitional period of waiting and no one can say what exactly we’re waiting for or when it will come. It’s very similar to when you’re a new mom. You are following a rigorous set of rules, but you also don’t know what the next hour will bring. Will my baby actually nap? Will school shut down because the variant is on the rise, which means I can’t work because I have to watch my kids?
We’re all in this together, but we all have very little control. And that gives rise to feelings of anxiety. As we discussed earlier, so many women that I work with are anxious, especially about decisions that are being made for them without their input. I was recently talking to a woman going through fertility issues who was very nervous about having to return to the office. Sure enough, the mandated return just got postponed. But I wish she hadn’t had to spend her energy feeling stressed about this, instead of feeling supported.
And of course there is health anxiety as well. This is very real. You have to make a risk assessment every day you choose to send your unvaccinated child to daycare or preschool. We are experiencing a collective trauma and should recognize it as such; we should also recognize this moment as a cultural opportunity to really consider what women need to succeed in their careers. When employers do listen and are compassionate, when they provide the resources and flexibility that people need, it helps so much. And it helps long-term. So I encourage people to speak up so their needs can be heard.
And of course, one of the most important coping mechanisms one can engage in is to reach out for help and support. Connect with people during this time of isolation, whether that’s a mental health professional or a friend who can make you laugh.
I have never heard the comparison of pandemic parenting to postpartum — but it is so spot-on! Thank you so much, Lauren, for sharing your story! You can connect with Lauren on LinkedIn and learn more about her services here.
Reclaim Your Career shares the stories of women who have made brave career pivots. They inspire and unlock what women always had the capacity to do: Break free from the traditional narrative of success to write your own story.