Mothers Deserve to Feel Like Heroes of the Pandemic
Four strategies to help moms cope with excessive responsibility and burnout.
Posted February 5, 2021
All of us have been impacted by the pandemic, but mothers in particular are bearing a burden of responsibility that is almost intolerable. Recent headlines and data from the last year are grim:
- Women have lost more jobs than men. According to U.S. Department of Labor data, women lost 156,000 jobs overall in December 2020, while men gained 16,000. More than just a lost foothold in a profession, reduced work hours, layoffs, and vacated jobs often trigger food insecurity and homelessness.
- The pandemic economy has hit child care workers, who are predominantly women, especially hard. Sixty percent of licensed child care centers have closed during the pandemic, and as many as 4.5 million child care slots could be permanently lost due to the pandemic.
- Interruptions caused by child care affect women more than men. Studies show that as a result of school, child care, and camp closings, significantly more women than men have reduced their work hours, left work to care for children, and spent more time on their children’s education and household tasks. These disproportionate reductions have more than doubled the gap between the number of hours worked by women and by men.
- Women of color have been disproportionately laid off due to pandemic lockdowns and closures. Black and Latina women working in retail, restaurants, and other "essential" service-sector industries, often for low pay, face even greater economic security.
- Millions of essential health care workers are moms. One in three jobs held by women has been designated as essential. Nonwhite women are more likely than any other demographic group to be performing these essential jobs. Of the 5.8 million people working health care jobs that pay less than $30,000 a year, 83% are women. Moms who are essential workers face the anxiety and expense of reduced child care slots, coupled with the threat of contracting the virus.
But we don’t need headlines and statistics to tell us what we already know: The pandemic has forced mothers to scramble more than ever. The already hard job of juggling work and family has become almost impossible as women take on an even greater burden of child care and health care.
By ratcheting up the demands of motherhood, the pandemic has put our physical and mental health at risk. Not surprisingly, it’s estimated that 9.8 million working mothers are currently suffering from burnout symptoms, including fatigue, cynicism, lack of motivation, headaches, chest tightness, stomachaches, nausea, hair loss, and crying.
So here we are, pushed to our limit, weary and impatient, wondering when we’ll get the elusive vaccine. We don’t know when schools will open, whether new COVID-19 strains will prolong lockdowns, or how long we can stay strong for our families. Many of us have heard, and even heeded, advice from experts to manage our expectations, stay flexible, get enough sleep, practice self-care, and ask for help. We’ve been there for our children, partners, and parents (sometimes from afar). How do we get through the homestretch?
First, a reminder: You’re a pandemic hero and deserve to feel like one! You’ve supported the nation through your work, effort, and care for future generations. And our nation owes you a great debt of gratitude. Ideally, you would be rewarded through policies that support your efforts at home and work through child care legislation, equal pay, and family leave. But until that day comes, I suggest that you try to adopt a mindset that goes beyond simply hanging on, but rather involves developing a self-conscious strategy to recognize how incredible and inspiring you are.
Chuck Your Guilt. If there’s one thing that all moms share, it’s guilt. We always feel that there’s more we could do for our children and feel guilty when things go wrong. All the losses and challenges our children are facing during the pandemic only heighten our guilt. Keep in mind that what we’ve been through is unprecedented, and it’s natural to worry about remote schooling, loss of sports and other activities, or too much screen time. Guilt and shame, however, are unhealthy components in any relationship, and they’re not a joyful place to parent from. Moreover, the situations we feel guilty about are often out of our control. Instead, aim to accept that who you are and how you are coping is good enough. Forgive yourself for your tired, cranky, or even angry moments. In your relationship with yourself, offer the acceptance and forgiveness that you extend to others. By tossing the guilt, you will feel lighter and more prepared to endure the remainder of the pandemic.
Connect With Others. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day juggling act and forget to connect with nonfamily members. Family zoom calls are lovely, but they don’t usually allow you to blow off steam or maintain perspective. During lockdown, tensions can build, and problems feel insurmountable. Connecting safely with people outside your pod gives you the chance to vent, relax, and hear alternative points of view. For example, if you’re parenting a child with special needs during the pandemic, the stressors you’re facing are enormous. Joining parents online who are experiencing similar challenges can feel very liberating. You may find that you’re not alone as you express your frustrations and perhaps reap some helpful advice. This type of connection is invaluable as our ability to connect physically remains limited to our family.
Count Your Blessings. In his book The Hope Circuit, influential psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman makes the case that hope and gratitude are essential to our mental health. It might feel odd to use this difficult moment to appreciate what you have, but optimism and gratitude are practices with a long history of results. Focusing on what makes life worth living can have a profoundly positive impact on our mental health. In fact, a Harvard University study of 70,000 women found that an optimistic outlook improves health and well-being—and even lengthens life expectancy. Yes, parenting in a pandemic is hard, but look at your children and the family you’ve sustained, and be grateful for their health and love. Adopting a ritual of gratitude is linked to reduced anxiety, optimism, and an ability to endure difficult times. A ritual could be as simple as lying on the floor, closing your eyes, and taking deep, purposeful breaths to count your blessings. Consider your journey, the progress you’ve made, and your happy hopes for the future.
Celebrate Your Wins. Now that you’ve chucked the guilt, connected with others, and counted your blessings, it’s time to celebrate! Writing about self-love, Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., urges us to “take each day one at a time and as you move through it, pat yourself on the back for small and large accomplishments.” We don’t get gold stars or trophies for ushering a child through a tough time, cooking low-cost, healthy meals, or making holidays special despite social distancing, but we should! To recognize your self-worth and power, focus on the many ways that you’ve done right by your children. This past year, we moms have stepped up, solved problems, and shown resilience. Despite the grim reality and ongoing struggles, there are reasons to celebrate. Own your strengths and celebrate all the amazing feats, large and small, that come with the Herculean effort of being a mom during the pandemic!