Mothering through a pandemic: COVID-19 and the evolving role of mothers

Self-isolation, physical distancing, stay-at-home directives – the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed our way of life. Family dynamics are re-calibrating, under unprecedented stress and anxiety, to adapt to a rapidly evolving “new normal.”

Adjusting to being home all day with their children, many parents are also maneuvering to balance working remotely, childminding, running a household and, for those with school-aged children, taking on the role of primary educator – all with access to significantly less resources.

Studies suggest that women are still the top contributors in a family – which raises questions, and concerns, on how mothers will cope with these new expectations and destabilizing restraints.

Andrea O'Reilly

Andrea O'Reilly

Andrea O’Reilly, a professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at York University and founder and director of The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement, has been studying mothering for more than 30 years. She says generally, statistically, women still do far more than men.

“Actual hands-on work? That has not changed. Mothers are still doing 60 to 70 per cent of the ‘grunt’ work on top of paid employment,” she said. (When O'Reilly uses the term “mothers,” she refers to any individual who engages in motherwork, thus the term is not limited to biological mothers but applies anyone who does the work of mothering as a central part of their life.)

And, although research over the last few decades points to a decreasing gap in division of labour in the home, it doesn't necessarily translate to more equitable labour in the home.

What it means, says O'Reilly, is that mothers are taking on less by "outsourcing" some of their load. Instead of cooking every night, they might get takeout, or they may hire help with domestic duties like cleaning the house or tutoring the children.

“What I’m interested in though, in my research," says O'Reilly, "is what I call the ‘third shift’ which is emotional labour. This is all the organizing and remembering and planning that mothers take on for the family.”

Things like knowing a child’s shoe size, making dentist appointments, organizing play dates or carpools, knowing how hot or cold they like their soup, remembering homework due dates, assessing their children’s triggers for fatigue, health, boredom, anxiety and so on – these are examples of the emotional load mothers carry all day, every day.

“It’s this type of work that has not been downloaded, and this is the real labour,” said O’Reilly, who has concerns about the physical, mental and emotional health of mothers during the pandemic.

In a pandemic microenvironment, Professor Andrea O'Reilly says we can expect to see the pressures on mothers rise exponentially with added work, stress and anxiety

When there is no separation between work, family, home – what toll will it take on mothers? What are the implications of being a mother in a stay-at-home family during a pandemic?

These homes, says O'Reilly, don't run themselves. She says the real issue is that mothering is invisibilized; nobody sees this as work, and it’s just something mothers are expected to do. And, under a pandemic microenvironment, we can expect to see the pressures rise exponentially with added work, stress and anxiety.

“There is more pressure on mothers now. We’re expecting mothers to be educators. There is more on the to-do list and we are hearing messages on how to stimulate your child at home, and not to let them fall behind academically, and to use this new time to do something new like learn to play an instrument. The standards are going up when they should be completely relaxed,” said O’Reilly.

What we have to remember, she says, is that "Mothers are frontline workers too."

Rightly, frontline workers in the public sphere have been praised – and O’Reilly agrees emphatically that this is an important recognition – but she also feels that people are forgetting what mothers are facing, and accomplishing, in the home and under unimaginable circumstances.

“We are looking at what’s happening in the public sphere, which we should be, I’m not mitigating that for a minute, but I think the longer this continues, the more we are going to have to look at how people are coping in their own homes, in particular the people who are running those homes – mothers,” she said. “I think a lot of women are in crisis mode right now and we are only really maybe into our second or third week (of socially restrictive pandemic safety protocol)."

Add into that other circumstances, such as income or employment loss, financial or housing instability, single parenting, new immigrants, mothers in abusive situations, and the stress is amplified.

“We are only a few weeks in, but I’m surprised we are not hearing more people saying ‘What can we do for families? How are the mothers coping?’ I have not heard a single person saying ‘Wow, can you imagine what mothers are going through right now?’”

So how can we provide help for mothers? The first thing is to ask, says O’Reilly. Create a safe space where mothers can talk about what they are experiencing. Whether it's on the phone, through video chat or social media, we should be open to hearing mothers' stories.

For scholars like O'Reilly, having a record of what the mother experience is like during a global pandemic will be valuable to look back on, and to learn from.

Image shows two girls doing school work

Homeschooling is one of the added pressures for parents during the COVID-19 pandemic

She also feels strongly that the longer the isolation continues, the more unsustainable it becomes and the more pressure there is to create social policy to help mothers and families. What that might look like, however, is not clear. O'Reilly suggests that policy may need to reframe the definition of "family" for single mothers who need reprieve, or revisit isolation measures for families "trapped" in small apartments with no access to outdoor space – all while respecting and abiding by  protocols so that safety isn't compromised.

If families remain isolated in way that's dangerous to their mental health, however, she suggests that over time there will be an increase in non-compliance with pandemic protocols to self-isolate and stay at home.

Her message to mothers for now, is to lower expectations where possible.

"Mothers, now more than ever, need to cut themselves some slack," she said. "I think for now people are trying to make the best of it, but I wonder about two or three more weeks in, what all this is going to look like.

"I think we should be honouring mother work, and, mothers are deserving of a purple heart for the heroic work they are doing for all us during this pandemic."

O’Reilly is currently developing an edited collection on Mothers, and Mothering and the COVID 19 Pandemic for Demeter Press and is working on a grant application to study mothers' experiences during the pandemic as conveyed in social media with the aim of developing social policy to better support mothers and the essential work they are performing. She has created the hashtag #mothersarefrontlineworkers for sharing of information and supporting mothers on social media during the pandemic.

By Ashley Goodfellow Craig, deputy editor, YFile

Do you have a story to share about how you are coping, or what you are doing differently, during the COVID-19 pandemic? Email us at yfile@yorku.ca.

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