If there is one thing this pandemic has highlighted about family life in the U.S., it’s the emotional load that is placed on mothers. There has always been acknowledgement that mothers play a very “special” role in American society, but 2020 has left many mothers wondering if they can apply for a different position. I do want to take a moment to recognize that not all families will follow this structure. Special shout out to the fathers who are doing what has been traditionally the “mom’s job”. The single fathers, the stay-at-home dads, and the fathers working from home. Another shout out to the men who truly share the load of household management and child-rearing. I admit that my narrative doesn’t necessarily encapsulate every family dynamic. I can’t speak from a father’s point of view; there are societal pressures that are not fair to fathers as caregivers, but I can’t to speak that.
Statisitically speaking, women are more likely than men to be responsible for raising children. Even the most progressive of couples may still fall into “traditional” roles. After all, that is the blueprint we have been raised with. The men take out the trash and mow the lawn and focus on being the earners. The women take care of the children, the cooking, the cleaning, the household management…. And starting with the Baby Boomer Generation, more and more women also work outside the home. There is a certain formula that is expected if you hope to have the American dream of a white picket fence in the suburbs with 2.5 kids.
What a load of meconium! Let’s take a look of what this dream life actually looks like. As a mother, I am in charge of my child’s well-being. This used to mean making sure they were fed, clothed, and healthy. It has increasingly included other responsibilities, such as ensuring they are emotionally supported, protected from bullies and predators, kept clean, fed balanced meals, and entertained in the appropriate ways. I am supposed to get my child ready for school, make sure he gets to school safely, listen about my child’s day when he gets home, cook a nutritious meal, help him with his homework, make sure he gets enough outside play, and enforce hygiene. During the summer I need to organize his days so that he is not spending the entire time on electronics. If I work, this means researching and enrolling in summer programs. My success is measured by my child’s accomplishments and happiness.
As both a mother and a wife, my role is to make sure the house runs smoothly. Not only do I need to cook nutritious meals, I need to plan them. This means I am in charge of the grocery list and the grocery shopping. I need to know the sales and clip coupons in order to stay within the budget. (In some cases the wife is also in charge of the budget, but that is not the case in my household). I am in charge of keeping the house clean. Since we have pets, my responsibilities include caring for them. My husband may mow the lawn, but I am in charge of any decorative maintenance. I manage all the appointments and activities for the pets, child, and family. I’ve done my duty if my houehold is running like a well-oiled machine.
As a working woman, I need to be focused on my job. Because I work in corporate America, I need to be ready and willing to always take that next step in my career. It doesn’t matter what is happening in my personal life. It doesn’t matter if I have a sick child or if my husband and I had a disagreement. It doesn’t matter if I lost a pet or if family appointments can only be made during working hours. The load I carry as a wife and mother has no bearing on what I do at work. Not only do I have to work harder and accomplish more than the men, but I am often up against younger men who are not yet balancing the needs of their children and spouses. Even with all of that working against me, I am responsible for my own success. There is no acknowledgement that the odds are working against me. Other women have done it, so clearly any issues are my own. (I could obviously write an entire post about this subject alone).
Can I get a show of hands from the people who feel like they too are not really nailing this motherhood thing? According to this forumla, I am supposed to be this put together, focused woman at work who is ready and willing to take the next step in her career. Then I am supposed to come home and simultaneously listen patiently to my child’s day, help him with his homework, cook a nutritious meal, give adequate care and attention to the pets, and keep the house clean and clothes laundered. Would you like to know what my day actually looks like? I wake up early so I can take the dog out, feed the pets, have coffee, and take a shower before everyone else. I then spend the rest of the morning fighting with my son to get him fed and ready for school. I don’t usually have time to eat breakfast, but if I’ve gone shopping recently I might grab a granola bar. I go to work and try to put my best foot forward no matter how hectic my morning was or how little sleep I got because my son had a bad night. I try to do everything my job entails within the time I’m given, even though it is actually impossible. I am told to delegate and ask for help when needed, and then get criticized if I do ask. I usually have at least one interaction where I am yelled at by a superior or by a client. I then go pick my son up and attempt to talk to him about school, only to come up against a brick wall. (Anyone else have a 7yo going on 15?) I come home and 9 times out of 10 realize I never took anything out for dinner, so I try to pull something together after walking the dog. While cooking, I help my son with his homework, which could take anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours depending on his mood. I then send my son to his electronics and let him eat in his room, so I can crash on my own bed and do anything that doesn’t require brainpower while I eat. By the time I am done eating it is time for the bedtime battle. Rinse, and repeat.
And this was before COVID! I was fortunate enough in that even though I am an essential employee, my company took me out of the frontline due to my high-risk condition. My husband had to continue working outside of the home. I feel for those families in which both parents were essential employees and they had to figure out what to do with their children. It doesn’t mean that working from home was easy. Mothers had an additional load to bear: teaching. There is a reason I did not become a teacher. I don’t always have the insight into what my true skills are, but I know what they are not. Add this new common core teaching method and there were regular outbursts of frustration. My son also did not take well to virtual learning. All of this combined with my new work from home assignment meant I was not doing well. I had emotional breakdowns at least once a week, often locking myself in the bathroom after my son went to bed and sobbing.
It didn’t really get any easier once summer break came. My son spends way too much time on electronics because I work 40 hours a week. I would love to at least have him engage in other activities beside me while I do my work, but unfortunately my 40 hours are all phone-based and he does not know how to stay quiet. I worry that the forced change in my role is going to set my career back. I reached out and asked for help and was shamed into shutting up. The only response I would get is: “reach out to EAP”. I didn’t need a “confidential” conversation with a life coach. I have a therapist for myself, one for my son, andaI psychiatrist. I meet with them regularly and I am medicated. None of that changes a shitty situation. Not every problem is solved by maintaining a positive attitude.
Human beings are not meant to handle this level of constant stress. Society places way too much of its burden on mothers. COVID-19 only increased it. And it did so in a terribly isolating way. Thank goodness for the internet. I could video chat with my friends to try to deal with the loneliness. I could scoll through memes and tiktoks and laugh through the tears because it was all so accurate. Most importanly, I could see that I wasn’t alone. My friends made Facebook posts about their own struggles. I read articles and blog posts about parenting and quarantine fatigue. Mothers and experts kept sharing encouraging words. “We are not supposed to have to do all of this.” “What you are feeling is normal.” “You are doing the best you can.” “None of us have any idea what we are doing.” “You are going to be okay. Your child is going to be okay.”
I suppose with so many already writing about it, there wasn’t much need for my two cents. But I actually want to take that further. What happens when we finally do get this pandemic under control? I’m not so naive to believe that things will go “back to normal”. There have been some fundamental changes to our psyches that I don’t think we can ignore. I do believe we will reach some sense of normalcy, in which we are able to socially interact a little more freely. When that happens, will we have learned from the experience? Will we understand that asking parents to completely seperate their home life from work is ludricous? That asking anyone to “leave your personal issues at the door” is psychologically unhealthy? Will we actually care about our coworkers and ask how they are doing? When we encourage people to ask for help, will we actually mean it?
As mothers–as women–will we stand together and support one another instead of bringing each other down?
Mothering during the time of COVID has been exhausting. We are all nothing short of miracle workers. But we were miracle workers before this. Who else can perform the circus acts that society expects of us? We have always done our best. We were never meant to do everything that our culture says we should. Let’s keep this #momlife comraderie. Let’s continue to lift each other up. Let’s share smiles of solidarity when we pass each other in the store (even if you think they can’t see it behind the mask). Let’s tell each other, “You’re doing a great job.”
If we can make that promise, then I very much look forward to motherhood after the time of COVID.