I wanted to find out how my experience over the past year compared to other working mothers, so I set out on a qualitative research project. My question "How has the Covid-19 Pandemic impacted working mothers?" Here is what I learned.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has made working mothers feel overwhelmed and more stressed than before the Pandemic, and they are in desperate need of a break. The fear of getting Covid-19 has loomed over them for a year, and the precautions necessary to avoid it have added to their mental workload. Feelings of fear and worry about the virus and the overwhelming stress of meeting their professional responsibilities while taking care of everyone in their households are the most prominent emotions identified by the women I interviewed. With their lives at risk, their routines upended, and their children's education made virtual, working mothers of school-aged children have changed their priorities, made new sacrifices, and cope in near-ceaseless survival mode.
Amongst the sacrifices they are making, self-care is the biggest one. Working mothers struggle to find time for self-care, and most reported putting their needs last after family and work. Many working Mothers are also sacrificing professional priorities to support their children's virtual learning or home-schooling themselves. Most women described this new responsibility as all-consuming of their time during the day. Mothers of virtual elementary and middle school students have to redirect their children to focus and accomplish their school- work throughout the day. Mothers of Pre-schoolers have had to become both parent and full-time teachers for their children. This added responsibility has made them feel like they are constantly working or schooling. To accommodate their children's education schedule and meet their professional obligations, they are working varied hours, such as early in the morning and late into the evening. This grueling schedule is exhausting and leaves little time for self-care. One woman shared, "It's made me less of a human being in a way because I'm at the service of others almost constantly. I can't get to me. I'm like way on the back burner. I don't dress nice anymore. I don't go shopping. I don't do self-maintenance. I like in the mirror, and I'm like, what's happened to me?"
Working Mothers are also missing their husbands in addition to the friends and family they cannot socialize with. Ironically, most women report having no quality time with their husbands, despite being home together more. Most couples are working opposite hours, juggling professional obligations with caring for their children and overseeing their education. While working couples may both be home, they feel less emotionally connected. As one woman put it, "We're missing 18 - 24 hours of work a week apiece. That has to be replaced early in the morning, late at night, and on weekends."
Many working mothers feel they lack quality time with their children as well. One woman shared, "It's all work and no fun with my children. They barely leave the house to go to their friends anymore, and there is no downtime. Our house is now just an area of schoolwork. It's turned me from being a fun Mom to a stressed-out Mom that does nothing but bug them about doing their school work. We don't bond anymore. Every time I am interacting with them, I have to get them to do something they don't want to do." A common coping method for working mothers has been to let the old rules slide. As one woman admitted, "We used to be fanatics about screen time. Now that's out the window." Another confessed, "There's moments of too much togetherness, where it's like, I don't care what you do. Destroy the second floor. I don't care. I'm throwing in the bag."
Guilt was another common emotion amongst working mothers, and while this emotion is not particularly new for working mothers, the Pandemic added nuanced layers to it. One Mother shared, "I feel bad. I feel like I should feel more grateful that I have had all this time with him, but I just feel so tired." Another woman, for whom the stress became too much, quit her job. She said, "I had put my work first, then my husband and kids, and myself on the very bottom. I know this will sound selfish, but right now, my priority is my mental health." A new guilt-provoking dilemma all parents faced was choosing between home-schooling, virtual learning, or in-person schooling. My children were in pre-school when the Pandemic first hit in March of 2020. My oldest daughter began Kindergarten in August of 2020, and our local public school district required parents to choose in-person vs. virtual learning three separate times during the 2020-2021 school year. Five times in one year, the threat of Covid-19 forced parents like me to choose between prioritizing our children's physical health, social-emotional well-being, and their education. Regardless of which choice you made, parents everywhere were left asking themselves, "Am I doing the right thing for my child?" "Am I making the right choice?" Whatever choice I made, I felt guilty about what we were giving up. One mother who chose to home-school her four-year child because of his auto-immune disorder shared, "I feel like I'm doing him this disservice because I don't know how to do any of this." Nearly every woman I interviewed expressed feeling guilty for complaining about their challenges and expressed gratitude for the supports they did have, citing things like having a job at all, having a flexible work schedule, and having their husbands' help.
Despite the extra work and stress, many working Mothers have loved spending more time with their children and feel like this year of pandemic life has brought them closer. One Mother shared, "It's been a beautiful time. I will take a break and put them down for a nap, or they will sit and draw next to my computer." Another Mother shared, "I think my son and I are closer. He actually sees what I do every day. He has a better understanding of what Mommy does."
One of the most important priorities to working mothers across the board has been to make life as normal as possible for their children during this abnormal time. They have been more acutely attentive to their children's mental health. They have tried hard to keep their kids in activities, albeit virtually. They have cultivated social bubbles and organized virtual playdates.
Living closer to family and friends also became a higher priority for several working Mothers during the Pandemic. The desire to be closer and see each other more often, the need for help caring for their young children, and caring for elderly parents were all factors.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has burdened working mothers with the additional responsibility of educating their children and protecting them from a life-threatening illness, forcing them to rearrange their lives and adjust their priorities. A year into this Pandemic, working mothers are longing for their old routines and work schedules, for their kids to return to in-person school, and for quality time with their husbands. Most importantly, they are longing for a sense of safety and normalcy and a long overdue respite of quiet solitude and self-care.
While these findings may not surprise you, I hope you find comfort in knowing you are not alone. I wonder what makes women so inclined to care for themselves last and put their needs below everyone else's. I imagine it has to do with how we have been socialized, but I am curious exactly what behaviors and messages indoctrinate us with such self-neglect. What is wrong with prioritizing your own physical and mental well-being? Aren't we better mothers and employees when we do? Perhaps this will be my next research project.
To all the working mothers out there, you deserve to prioritize your own needs and well-being. It has been an exceptionally challenging year for you. Take some time to reflect on all you have accomplished and withstood over the past year. Then give yourself a well-deserved break.