I wake up to the sound of crying just as the sun is peeking through the curtain. I was up three times in the night for different reasons: one kid wet the bed, another had a nightmare, followed by my now predictable 2 a.m. bout of anxiety. After comforting multiple children, I deal with yesterday's dirty laundry, find a toy sword in the toilet, pull T-shirts over little heads, and pour cereal—the breakfast of champions. I used to rarely buy cereal, but I have discovered that cereal is a survival tool.
We spend the rest of the day surviving. I abandon my morning coffee after the second time in the microwave. Between my own Zoom meetings and project requests, I support my daughter with distance learning, break up arguments between her little brothers, and wipe sticky fingers while on a conference call praying that I don't accidentally hit unmute. I sit down to work on reading with my daughter, who is behind and uncharacteristically unmotivated to learn, while the boys "mom, mom, moooommm," plead for the eighth snack of the day by 3 p.m. My daughter begs to play with a friend; when no one in our small bubble is available, she retreats to her room upset, same as yesterday. I finally put on a movie to hold their attention so I can be presentable for an important 4 p.m. Zoom. We need child care but can't afford it. By bedtime I am exhausted, depleted, and have lost my patience in a sea of overwhelm more than once.
I am barely OK. And I am not alone.
"I tried to do it all, it's just not possible."
"Nothing works, every scenario feels like failing."
"I hate it."
"Between kids, work, and worry, I barely sleep anymore."
"As a mom, I don't feel supported by our society."
"I always tell people, 'I'm not OK,' but people act like that's just how it is."
"I've become curmudgeonly."
"I had to pause going back to school and my new job to stay home."
"I miss who I used to be."
These are your neighbors' stories, the mothers you see at the grocery store, the truths of mothering during COIVID-19.
But are we listening?
With kids out of school and the cost of child care out of reach for many, mothers everywhere are juggling their time between work and kids, while others have been forced to leave the workforce entirely. Mothers are forging ahead, adapting, picking up the pieces, and holding it all together, as women have always done. And our systems and structures have continued to lean on the unpaid labor of women. A tale as old as time.
Despite the warning signs from America's mothers, signaling an emotional and financial collapse, the needed policy response and system shift has been noticeably missing. Help has not arrived. For nearly a year, COVID-19 has widened the gap between rich and poor, white people and people of color, men and women.
The pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in our cultural, social and political systems, shining a bright light on pre-existing inequalities in America. Sixty-nine percent of mothers say they have experienced adverse health effects due to worry and stress during the pandemic. More than 2.3 million women have left the workforce in the past year, compared to 1.8 million men, and women's labor force participation is the lowest it's been since 1988. Much of this is attributed to the increased need for child care at home.
It's not just women who suffer. Fewer women working has a ripple effect. When women get paid less and work less, the whole economy suffers. Once out of the workforce, women have a harder time getting back in. Losing years of progress women have gained and forcing them to make choices no one should have to make is a betrayal at the hands of a system stacked against them, a system that we tolerate and continue to uphold.
Mothers need support now more than ever, through government policy, workplace culture changes, child care affordability, and equity in partnerships at home. It is a systemic, systematic problem, one that no self-care routine can cure.
It's time for the federal government to take swift and meaningful action on gender inequality and relief for families, and put into place the policies and practices we needed long before the pandemic. It's time to adopt universal child care, universal health care, and paid family leave, and time to provide robust and inclusive financial relief. It's time to ensure these changes become the social and cultural norm women have long fought for.
Local and state governments have an essential role to play through immediate and long-term action shaping budget and policy on recovery, business, housing, climate, and public health and safety through the lens of equity.
And businesses, organizations, and social groups must confront deeply ingrained systems of discrimination and think creatively about ways to offer child care support, flexible hours, continued virtual work, and progressive hiring practices.
If we are going to come out of this time with a new story that builds a better future, it is imperative that we work together at every level to advance gender equity and build an economy that finally works for women. Δ
Quinn Brady is a community advocate and organizer and mother of three on the Central Coast. Send a response for publication to firstname.lastname@example.org.