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Baltimore-area working women support one another, find new passions during COVID pandemic

Jasmine Norton, 33, opened The Urban Burger Bar in the Whitehall Market in December 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. She is optimistic about the future.
Jasmine Norton, 33, opened The Urban Burger Bar in the Whitehall Market in December 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. She is optimistic about the future. (Amy Davis)

Amber Daley, 33 and a mother of four, needed to take a step back. She worked at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, coordinating transfers of patients in critical condition. The stress of the job, coupled with the fear of spreading the coronavirus, proved to be too much, and even though money was tight, the Arbutus woman left her job in November.

“I found work was starting to affect my home life,” Daley said. “I just wasn’t happy. I was irritable all the time.”

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The pandemic has been devastating for women in the workplace. A net 2.4 million women dropped out of the workforce between February 2020 and February 2021, according to the Pew Research Center. Black and Latina women were impacted disproportionately, accounting for 46% of the total decrease despite making up less than a third of the U.S. population.

The pandemic laid bare the untold burdens women face, particularly the difficult balance of work and child care. Over the last year and a half, many women in the Baltimore area have mastered the art of pivoting after being forced to reexamine their working lives.

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Gia Johnson, left, and Danielle Vinson, right, are the co-founders of Mothers Helping Mothers, an organization that provides support to mothers such as a clothing share for children.
Gia Johnson, left, and Danielle Vinson, right, are the co-founders of Mothers Helping Mothers, an organization that provides support to mothers such as a clothing share for children. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Supporting one another

Danielle Vinson, 43, and Gia Johnson, 54, are both leaders of the Facebook group, “Mothers Helping Mothers … For Baltimore Maryland and county women only.” Vinson started the page five years ago, citing her desire to connect women with the resources they need.

Vinson said she saw more mothers posting during the pandemic about food insecurity, and so the group coordinated meal drives. Others offered tutoring and babysitting services, or new clothes — something Daley took advantage of, as all four of her kids went through growth spurts mid-pandemic.

“We’re trying to get women to stop bashing each other and come together as one,” said Vinson, of Park Heights.

Johnson said a major problem for women in the area was losing their jobs after contracting the coronavirus. The West Baltimore woman saw numerous posts in the Facebook group detailing this experience.

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Marcelina Tillman-Wallace, 24, shared her story. The Northwest Baltimore resident contracted COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic and took a month to recover. She lost both of her jobs and dropped out of her classes at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County when she fell too far behind.

Many women “fell through the cracks” during this crisis, Johnson said. She worked throughout the pandemic with HER Resiliency, a nonprofit helping vulnerable young women, especially those experiencing homelessness.

“We’ll go where we have to go and do what we have to do for our ladies,” Johnson said. “But we ask that they work for what they want. You can’t sit home and expect me to bring you a mansion, because I don’t live in one myself.”

A wider look at working women

Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, has been working on a long-term study, “Assessing Social Consequences of COVID-19,” since the early days of the pandemic. The team is monitoring people’s time use throughout the day, as well as perceptions of the division of labor in a household.

So far, she’s analyzed data from the first wave in April and May 2020. In married, heterosexual couples, men spent more time in paid work and women spent more time in housework. She also found that women took care of children or others more steadily throughout the day compared to men, who provide care mostly in the mornings and evenings.

Another finding, Sayer said, was stress increased more for women without children than mothers; possibly because of the elimination of commutes between work, school and home, or because of employer flexibility during the early pandemic days. Sayer cautioned, however, that this data may not reflect stress levels as the pandemic persisted. And not all women had the privilege of being able to work at home.

Adele Newson-Horst, coordinator of women, gender and sexuality studies at Morgan State University, noted that Black and low-income women, in particular, had no choice but to keep working in-person. Women in service or health care jobs also had greater exposure to the virus, she pointed out.

Even women who are able to work remotely, if they have kids, face the daunting task of looking after children while remaining focused on work.

“You remember Virginia Woolf talked about, in order for a woman to write, she has to have a room of her own,” Newson-Horst said. “Well in order to work, you need some solitude.”

Often, people running out of options will turn to informal support networks like those forged on social media Newson-Horst said.

“People are solving this for themselves, they’re relying on their support group, be that the church, their women friends, what have you,” Newson-Horst said.

School nurse Dina Brookmyer, a Pikesville mom to three kids under 10, said the increase in leisure time, especially in the evenings, motivated her to enroll in online classes related to her photography hobby.
School nurse Dina Brookmyer, a Pikesville mom to three kids under 10, said the increase in leisure time, especially in the evenings, motivated her to enroll in online classes related to her photography hobby. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Forging a new path

Some women have taken the respite from daily routines and social pressures to pursue their passions.

School nurse Dina Brookmyer, a Pikesville mom to three kids under 10, said the increase in leisure time, especially in the evenings, motivated her to enroll in online classes related to her photography hobby. It gave her inspiration and joy when much of the world seemed cold and dark, she said.

“I thought, for all the work and effort, I might as well do something with it,” said Brookmyer, who launched Brookmyer Photography officially in 2020 as a business. “At first, it was a hobby, but out of respect for myself and for photography, I took it more seriously.”

Jasmine Norton, owner of The Urban Oyster, said the past year and a half has been a “roller coaster.” From closing her Locust Point restaurant in July 2020, to opening the Urban Burger Bar in Whitehall Market, she’s become adept at adapting.

“The amount of love and support that surrounded us was unparalleled,” Norton said. “It speaks volumes to having a strong network and sense of community.”

She adopted five-day work weeks during the pandemic, compared to her usual seven-day operation. That’s something she wants to keep, normalizing a healthy work-life balance.

Jasmine Ashley, 27, always dreamed of starting her own business and loves all things “beauty and glam.” In May 2020, the Baltimore County resident launched “PRE$$ed*ish,” her own line of custom press-on nails. She said being stuck at home encouraged her to take a “leap of faith.”

“The extra income is great, but it’s moreso just me having fun with it,” said Ashley, a human resources professional. “It’s my way of decompressing.”

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Ashley promotes her products on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, where she’s gained almost 39,000 followers.

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As for Daley, the former Shock Trauma administrator, time away from work meant she and her husband dipped into savings and retirement funds and used food stamps to get by. The time at home was isolating, but it gave her more time to focus on her kids, especially as they adjusted to remote learning.

Daley started a new job as a donor services coordinator in March, which she says is rewarding and much more manageable. And she’s found that both loved ones and people at large better understand the challenges women have to juggle.

“My husband’s definitely more like, ‘Wow, you had a million things on your plate,’ ” Daley said. “It opened eyes, but I still don’t think it’s talked about enough.”

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