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As the pandemic grinds on, women are hitting their limit

In Boston, one therapist is teaching women how to say the hardest word: ‘No.’

Tina Kularski, a mother of five, comforted her son Kaiden, 3, while at their Ware home. She is looking to limit commitments.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

How are the women? Oh, they’re fine, really, don’t worry about them, they just need to sit down for one tiny minute, just to catch their breath, what with the pandemic and all. Sorry, they don’t mean to complain, but it’s getting to them, the extra child care and home-schooling and the housework, even though their partners, if they have them, do help sometimes, and the job losses, which are hitting them harder than they are men, are just, you know, so dispiriting.

But honestly, it’s all good, they’ll snap right back to themselves in a moment.

Or will they?


As fall looms, with nothing certain — other than sudden day-care closings — a growing number of women are saying that they can’t do it anymore.

Can’t keep jumping when the boss calls. Can’t keep humoring clients, family members, or even some friends. Can’t keep putting themselves second (or third or fourth, or not even in line at all).

The pandemic has caused such burnout — and laid bare the greater burden shouldered by women — that Boston therapist Elaine Espada is currently coaching multiple women on how to say a single word. “No.”

“It is a hurdle,” Espada said. “Women are socialized to be caretakers, people pleasers. And for some, it runs even deeper. It’s a way of getting approval, where self-worth comes from. If I don’t do these things, who am I?”

Nearly every single female scholar, therapist, and expert contacted by the Globe first gave their professional observations, and then revealed that she, too, has had enough — including Espada herself.

In her case, the pushback includes an act as seemingly insignificant as the decision to not take the extra time to cut her son’s sandwich into a star shape.

“I love having his lunch look a certain way,” she said, “but he can have his sandwich just be two slices of bread.”


What are women doing — or rather, what aren’t women doing?

Gretchen Donehower, a demographer at the University of California Berkeley, whose research focuses on unpaid care work, has decided that when her current terms are up, she’s done with the PTO and a volunteer gig.

“I like the idea of ‘pruning the tree,’” she said. “You prune the tree so the rest of the tree can be healthier.”

Nicole Russo — a Boston hospitality-industry publicist known for going out of her way to smooth all bumps — is no longer doing so when it comes at an excess cost to herself.

“I learned how to say ‘no’ and not continue to converse about it,” she said.

“If I don’t want to work with a client, or if they try and go back and forth — Can you do it for half price? — I’ll say ‘If you can’t afford me, you can’t afford me.’

“My tolerance level is down,” she said. “It actually feels good.”

In Ware, Tina Kularski, a mother of five, has told her husband she’s no longer going to parties or even family gatherings that don’t work for her.

“I don’t want to go into a space where I feel compromised — where there’s negative energy — just to make someone else happy,” she said.

Lareina Yee, a senior partner with McKinsey & Company, and co-creator of the annual “Women in the Workplace” study, pointed to statistics that help explain why women feel the way they do right now.


Since the pandemic, mothers who are part of a dual-career couple are twice as likely as fathers in a dual-career couple to spend an additional five or more or hours a day on chores, the 2020 report said. And: “[F]or the one in five mothers who don’t live with a spouse or partner, the challenges are even greater.”

“This is not a summer sprint,” Yee said. “We are staring at two years of this. If women are reflecting how they might want to re-think their work, their life, if they want to say ‘no’ to more things, it’s completely unsurprising.”

The new approach, in which women are asserting what they want, and being open about the limits on their time, is even showing up in “out of office” replies, said Carrie Preston, a Boston University professor whose research interests include feminist theory.

Once verging on apologetic, she said, many messages are now confidently drawing boundaries.

She forwarded a Globe reporter an example. It began with a warning: “Note that I’m not currently accepting invitations to review manuscripts or tenure/promotion dossiers, contribute to anthologies or journal special issues, speak at conferences …” and ended with a cry from the heart: “Preaching the gospel of lowered expectations since March 2020.”

“The pandemic,” Preston said, “had a clarifying way about it.”

But asserting what you want can be hard, in part because everyone still wants and expects the “old you,” said Erin Madore, of Connected Through Strength, a fitness studio in Dorchester. She is trying to quit “bad habits” that include: over-apologizing, saying “yes” to everything, and doing more than her fair share.


“Stating my own desires and needs ruffles feathers,” she said. “But I’m trying to treat myself better.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.