How this pandemic affects mothers

How this pandemic affects mothers

Hey, moms. Can you hear me over the incessant din inside your head? 

I see you. Man, do I ever. 

Here you are, having abruptly begun your homeschooling career in March, while struggling to work from home — if you’re fortunate enough to still have a job; a questionable benefit for some of you I’m sure. It’s been a long time. I know you’re exhausted. 

I feel for you. You didn’t have a chance to get ready for this. It all happened overnight, without warning. The pandemic assaulted us all with all the subtlety of a Mack truck. We had no time to protest, negotiate, look for some kind of compromise. 

You kept your kids at home because the schools were closed, but no doubt you would have done it even if they weren’t. When it comes to choosing between your kids’ basic needs and your sanity, you don’t hesitate. You do what needs doing to protect them and preserve their mental health. 

Apparently you do not get to think about your own mental health for the next little while. You understand and accept this state of affairs, but that doesn’t make it suck less. 

But, um, until when? 

Support networks gone

I see you, parents isolated from your usual support networks, and I want to cry. Chances are even your parents are off-limits if they are frail or medically challenged. 

I know what it’s like not to have anyone who can come over and scoop up your kids just to give you time to focus on yourself for an hour, even if “focus” in this context mostly means “biting down on the pillow to stop the screaming”. 

I spent 12 years parenting my kids without a support network. The why is too long to explain. Suffice to say I did everything on my own, without a break, all that time. Self-care was not something I had time to think about and I have permanent scars on my psyche because of this. Your struggle, after months of isolation, is real. I know it deep down in my belly. You need a break. I’m sorry there’s no way to get it for now, and possibly for a long time. 

An epidemic of abuse

I want to cry when I think of the women and children isolated at home, breathing the same air as the man with whom they are the least safe.  

Those of us more sensitive to the issue of domestic abuse — usually people who have suffered from, then escaped, their own version of hell — have been warning about this since the spring. Being forced to stay within the same four walls as your abuser 24 hours a day will only increase the frequency and severity of abuse. 

We know this. The police know it. The usual intervenors know it. We scream, we yell, we wave our arms this high, we kick, nothing works. 

Kids for whom school was the only safe place have no more respite. Women for whom work was a welcome break from their never-ending nightmare no longer have that. Neighbours don’t talk anymore. They don’t watch. And because they don’t watch or talk, they don’t see. Neighbours or friends who don’t see, don’t report to the authorities. 

Victims are completely alone. 

The stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, especially when it comes to economic uncertainty and job loss, makes the likelihood of abuse that much higher. To call this pandemic an explosive cocktail for domestic abuse victims would be a gross understatement. A lot of mental health professionals are warning about a pandemic of emotional suffering, and they’re certainly right to do so. But who’s out there trying to protect the women and children victims of domestic terrorism?

As I write these lines, someone somewhere is being beaten, abused, terrorized at home and nobody can hear her scream. All we can do is cry. 

Exhausted mama bears

Even in homes where there is no abuse, the people who suffer the most from the pandemic are the moms. This does not negate the suffering of others. It just highlights a salient issue that is not debated enough but should be. At least as much as how many dollars your local government will send you if you lose your job because of COVID-19. 

There are exceptions of course but by and large it’s the moms who take on the mental work of keeping everyone organized. While performing well at work, overseeing the homeschooling, checking virtually on their friends and relatives, doing the grocery shopping for their elderly parents and making meals every goddamn day since restaurants don’t feel safe or fun anymore. 

Did I mention how tired they are? 

I want to cry because five months was all it took to undo three decades of progress. Since March, women’s participation in the workforce has declined to rates not seen since the 1980s. 

The 1980s. Are you even old enough to remember that? 

I was a teenager back then. And it wasn’t a picnic for women who wanted to join the workforce, especially if they were married and had children. My mother took some flack for getting a part-time job once her kids were teenagers and could be trusted to get themselves home and properly snacked after school. Back then, a real mother stayed home even if her children were old enough to have sex. Anything else was considered selfish, not just because it took jobs away from men but also because it took jobs away from unmarried women.

We have mostly moved past that, except in some pockets of backwards religiosity (but I repeat myself) where men still control the destiny of entire households. Today, if a mother prefers to stay home to look after her family and keep the house organized she is viewed as a person making a valid choice. Well, OK, there are nasty mommy-war blogs where criticism of stay-at-home moms is common, but since they display the same kind of blanket intolerance as bigoted religious men most of us over here in the real world do our best to ignore them. 

Women do what they want even if that means not having a career outside the home to focus on family life or volunteerism or what have you. Others study and work in any field of their choosing, and even though they still don’t earn as much as men on average for comparable jobs, that gap is slowly closing. At least for white, college-educated women. We have big problems when it comes to hiring and properly paying people from marginalized groups, be they sexual minorities, Indigenous people, recent immigrants or persons whose skin is not white. We can comfort ourselves thinking that eventually the tide will lift all boats, but maybe it won’t. Still, we should cheer every bit of progress as it contributes to other bits of progress elsewhere. 

It’s been a long, slow slog. And just like that, March happened and we’re back to the Stone Age. 

When the pandemic hit North America, according to Time magazine, “women dropped from the workforce at a higher rate than men. Now, as the country begins to reopen, women are being re-employed at a slower rate than men — an early sign that the economic pain will last much longer for women.”

You know why this is happening, yeah? 

It’s happening because in the absence of schools, camps or daycare, guess who in the family stays home to look after the children who are not old enough to be left on their own? 

As a rule, it’s women, not men. At an individual level, maybe this makes sense. Quite possibly the dad’s job pays more or is more secure, or maybe it includes benefits such as health coverage, so that family would be crazy to say you know what? You go back to work, Mom, it’s OK we don’t need money or health coverage. 

Or maybe Mom worked in a service job, and those aren’t coming back for some time. Maybe the choice isn’t really a choice after all. This, the not-having-a-choice part, appears to be especially true for women of colour, at least according to that same Time article. What does that tell you? 

It tells you that despite decades of slow, gradual, painfully uneven improvement, despite the great strides individual women have made in the workplace, their position, in the aggregate, is incredibly fragile. The whole system is rigged against everyone who is not already privileged, white and male. Why do you think they’re the ones with the better-paying jobs that provide families with health coverage? 

This is true in the U.S., in Canada, in Europe, in Australia, everywhere. Across income brackets parents in many countries find themselves hugely divided in the COVID-19 era; mothers as a rule do a lot more housework and childcare than fathers, while continuing to do their job from home. 

In the spring we could look forward to things going back to normal maybe by September. We all thought the pandemic would be temporary. I know I did. 

Boy, was that naive. 

The way things are going, “temporary” is going to mean a lot more than five months. We are looking at a year, maybe more. Do you have any idea how fast the workplace changes in that timeframe, especially if you happen to be out of it because you just couldn’t do homeschooling, parenting, housework, and a job so you quit the latter? 

Time, when you’re outside the workforce, passes you by at the speed of light. When I tried to find a job after being out of salaried employment for several years, it took me nearly 18 months to find something suited to my skills and talents. And while they are lovely and treat me well, the job I got was entry-level with the compensation package to match. I’m not complaining; I’m grateful to have found this neat job that includes great benefits. But there is no question I am worth more than I’m getting paid. I will claw my way back up to where I belong, but it’s going to take time. If I hadn’t left the workforce to homeschool my kids and launch my then-husband’s career, I would be in a very different place, professionally and financially, in 2020. 

In a year or two from now, women who left the workforce in March 2020 will have lost their spot. They will have to start all over again.

I have no doubt they will do it. They will work harder than they ever have to earn a decent position for themselves. 

But, say, why do we take for granted that of course they’ll have to do it? 

And we stress…

In the meantime, we stress about everything. Many of you will settle on homeschooling and working from home for the foreseeable future. I might wind up doing something like that myself. And I don’t really want to. 

I remember those days when I was overwhelmed and tired beyond words, and if you’d told me I would ever get back to that I would have wailed. 

I see how exhausted you are all the time. And anxious, too. Which isn’t helping your kids deal with their own worries. The kids are scared. They’re mentally exhausted by the uncertainties. And they miss their friends like crazy. Naturally they take it out on you, because you are 1) there, and 2) safe. They know they can act out and you’ll still love them. 

Between 2006 and 2018 I popped and homeschooled three kids. None of my babies spent a minute in daycare. They were with me the whole time. I don’t think I had them babysat half a dozen times in 12 years. 

While homeschooling I continued to work as a freelancer. In fact one of the people I worked for during my third pregnancy continued to send me questions and requests even though he knew I was in the hospital pushing an enormous melon out of my body then recovering from same. The emails said “not urgent” and “only for later” but these words were lies and we both knew it. 

Of course I dealt with them, right from my hospital bed. The nurses didn’t like it, but not as much as they hated the fact that my then-husband brought my older two kids (ages 3 and 20 months) in the hospital room, barely 20 hours after delivering my third child, so he could go to a work meeting. Yeah, I handled it. I may even have made it look easy. That’s how we mothers roll. 

I worked through everything. Including sleep I should have had but didn’t because when you have deadlines, sleep becomes a luxury you can’t afford. I would stay up late, get up before dawn, do what needed doing. Somehow I managed not to miss a single deadline in two decades. At what cost? Oh, just a couple of burnouts. 

School, the new frontier

Ah, but September is right around the corner. Schools are preparing to re-open, with a variety of safety measures in place. We’ll be fine, right? 

I hope so. But hope is never a plan. Instead we parents — and more precisely we mothers — must be on high alert at all times, watching for signs of anything amiss and being prepared to take swift action should it become necessary to pull our kids from school. 

So can you go back to work or try to find a new job now? 

What if you find a job for early September and have to quit it in mid-October because the school is not safe for the kids? Or what if suddenly the school says kids will go back to learning-at-home half the time and be in school the other half, and you have three kids in different schools and their schedules are all over the place and you have to quit your job again? 

Is it better to find jobs that we quit, or stay longer out of the workplace so as to remain flexible enough to be there when our family needs us? Which one will look the lousiest on a resume? 

I don’t know either. 

Some people are enthusing about homeschooling pods, what in the old days you might have called private tutoring. Parents who can afford it form small groups with other like-walleted parents and hire private teachers. 

Costs vary greatly. I’ve seen everything from $400/week per child to $50,000 a year per child. Let’s just say it’s expensive. 

It is a great opportunity for qualified educators who do not wish to go back to teaching in school and risk their health (or life) in a regular classroom. And it’s also excellent news for affluent professional women who will be able to focus on their Zoom calls and other duties without feeling like they’re neglecting their children’s education. 

I cannot fault educators for jumping at the opportunity to secure steady, safe and well-paid employment in small groups. It’s one of the worst things about re-opening schools: What to do if you’re a teacher or staff and either you or someone close to you has a health condition that makes them at high risk of dire consequences if they come in contact with the coronavirus. As a parent I want my kids’ teachers to be at their job, but I have no right to demand they put themselves or those they love at risk for my sake. 

I also cannot fault wealthy parents for doing what’s best for their children. We all do that. We make sacrifices and take whatever advantage we can get when it comes to giving our kids a leg up. It’s human nature. And those who have lots of money to spare will use it to further their children’s interest. 

But man. Inequalities in schooling were already bad, between those who can afford private school and those who can’t, between those who can afford to live in a “nice” district where public schools are excellent and those who can’t... Now some of the best teachers will be poached by people who already have way more privilege than you and me and make their kids even more privileged than yours or mine. 

The gap between rich and poor kids was already pretty awful. COVID-19 is only going to make it wider, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. 

We are not all in the same boat

I see you, moms. I hear you. I feel your fatigue, your worries and your pain. Some people say we’re in the same boat but that’s not true. We’re in the same storm, yes. But not in the same boat. Some of us have nice luxurious yachts with a private pool, a chef and working air conditioning. Others cling to a homemade raft. Some don’t have anything to cling to. They will likely drown. 

I am frustrated beyond words that we can’t do what’s necessary to make sure everyone has at least a seaworthy vessel. I am angry that so many choose to use this pandemic as an opportunity to become even more “lucky”. I don’t understand why basic altruistic measures such as wearing a thin piece of fabric over our nose and mouth is violently opposed by lunatics with guns. 

I can’t think about these frustrations, for they take up all my attention and make me miss opportunities I have, in my regular everyday life, to be of service to other people. Sometimes, all I can do is wave at the little kid in the stroller as I jog by, acknowledge his presence, say something nice to his mom, and move along. (I also talk to dogs; it’s not clear this represents “being of service” to anyone but I can never resist.) 

Part of me wants to calm down and relax in the knowledge that eventually, given that most people are doing their best to make sure we get through this pandemic with the fewest number of scars possible, we shall find a way. 

And then I stop breathing in a panic. 

What if we don’t? 

We are all exhausted and keep going nevertheless. Quitting is just not an option so we don’t think about it. 

We cry, though. We cry.