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Working Mothers in Lockdown: COVID-19 Threatens More than Our Physical Health

By: Michele Wood

A friend called the other day to get a plumber recommendation. She is married, the mother of two children ages 10 and 7, a full-time teacher at my daughter’s high school, and a department chair. About six weeks before the pandemic lockdowns had started, her husband had moved across the country ahead of his family to take a dream position in healthcare. The plan was for her and the kids to finish the school year and follow in the summer. Now in lockdown, she is the sole parent and caretaker of her two special-needs young children, moved all of her own classes to online, is overseeing the entire social studies staff of a 4,000 student high school and trying valiantly to sell a home in the middle of what might be the worst possible time to do that — especially here in Houston as the oil industry has collapsed and sent thousands of white collar workers to the unemployment line.

And yet, she is buoyant. She does not complain. She tenderly addresses the 7-year old as she interrupts our conversation for the 20th time. She excitedly looks forward to later stealing an hour of television for herself and finally watching an episode of her favorite show. Literally every single one of my friend’s support structures has collapsed without warning in the blink of an eye, and she has found a way to get out of bed each morning and keep the rest of her world from burning down. She will get no raise for it, no bonus check, no award, no feature in the paper. She may get called “a hero” for her work as a teacher but that is often just a word we use for people we don’t want to pay more to do important work.

It’s not that the dads aren’t struggling too — it’s not that husbands and partners aren’t stepping up. But moms handle so much of what is invisible to their family members, that often burdens go unshared because no one else is aware that they are burdens. The constant inventory of the pantry, fridge and toiletries. The calendar of the last time sheets were washed, towels were replaced, carpets cleaned and the a/c filters changed out. The thank-you notes, thank-you posters, donations of meals, gift cards, etc. to recognize the Herculean tasks that the kids’ teachers have undertaken to move school to cyberspace in a week. The ordering of gifts, party decorations and special supplies to make your child’s quarantine birthday or virtual high school graduation a little less lonely. The constant watching of your children’s faces, phrasing and body language to determine if they are experiencing depression or other stress disorders. The overwhelming anxiety of what to do if they are.

How can the people around mothers help? The good news is — countless ways!

  • Be aware of all the roles that women in your organization/office/family are playing right now. Ask! Really listening to them is one of the great acts of kindness available.
  • If a mom, dad (or someone caring for an elder) is feeling overwhelmed, take off what you can from their load.
  • Be sensitive to messages to the group that may suggest “in this downtime” or “with your new free time.” For many, this situation represents the terrifying opposite of that. My commute time has been replaced twice over by the number of dishes that have to be done each day.
  • Allow that some virtual meetings may not be possible for moms. If you have children with their own online learning schedules, demands on time and devices mean some of it won’t happen. Record online meetings that can be watched later if necessary.

Moms — listen to me here. You are doing great. You are enough. You deserve help and a break and a treat. Hang in there, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Imperfection is beautiful and someday your child will write a best-selling memoir about the magical quarantine days when he was finally allowed to watch 18 hours of YouTube and eat nothing but Cheetos and Scooby Doo gummies. And you will all laugh together because it turned out fine.