After the Pandemic, We'll Finally Have to Address the Impossible State of Motherhood

Quarantine living has forced many moms to accept a bumpy ride in a time machine toward a cramped past. Along the way, we've found that the generations-old issues our mothers faced never actually went away.

After the Pandemic, We’ll Finally Have to Address the Impossible State of Motherhood
Photo: Aleea Rae Campbell

In 1963, a woman described her morning to Betty Friedan as follows:

"I wash the dishes, rush the older children off to school, dash out in the yard to cultivate the chrysthanthemums, run back in to make a phone call about a committee meeting, help the youngest child build a blockhouse, spend fifteen minutes skimming the newspapers so I can be well-informed, then scamper down to the washing machines where my thrice-weekly laundry includes enough clothes to keep a primitive village going for an entire year. By noon I'm ready for a padded cell."

To moms in 2020, this passage will likely feel uncannily familiar. Swap out the phone call for a Zoom meeting, the newspapers for Twitter, and school for whatever screen time might pass as remotely educational, and this woman's morning is nearly identical to most of mine. The pandemic has forced many mothers to accept a bumpy ride in a time machine toward a cramped past where our identities are whittled down to stale gender norms, where we become subsumed by domestic output and carework. It's become uncomfortably clear that the fundamental drivers of the way our society devalues mothers never really went away — modern life just got better at covering them up.

The burden of unpaid labor in the home has always fallen disproportionately on mothers, but the pandemic has shone a glaring, neon light onto a situation that has always been impossible. Motherhood has already prevented us from achieving fair pay or equal opportunities, and the pandemic will likely force many mothers to suffer career setbacks without the childcare provided by schools. Our society is built upon the backs of caregivers, both paid and unpaid, and when this ends, mothers will continue to be shortchanged unless all of that caregiving labor is valued in meaningful ways; unless we not only make changes to the rule book, but we start playing a new game entirely.

Esther Vivas, journalist and author of the Mamá desobediente: Una mirada feminista a la maternidad [Disobedient Mom: a Feminist View of Motherhood], first became interested in motherhood and feminist activism when she became a mom herself in 2015. "I realized how invisible this experience was within society, but also within those social movements, such as the feminist movement, that aspire to change the system."

Vivas notes that the inequalities mothers face are not confined to sexism, but also classism and racism, and that "the problem is not motherhood but the employment model, which is incompatible with mothering and parenting." This is no shock to anyone who has sat in a windowless closet touting itself as a "lactation room" listening to the relentless sucking of a breast pump while hurriedly gobbling lunch, or anyone who's been told she's "so lucky" to have cobbled together a measly few months of maternity leave by using up vacation, unpaid time, and sick days, or the new mother who has been up all night with a collicky newborn while her partner slept because "he had to work in the morning." Vivas argues for extending paid leave to six months, pointing out that while most pediatricians recommend breastfeeding for the first six months, our employment model doesn't make this easy.

Black women and single mothers are particularly vulnerable right now, says Nefertiti Austin, author of Motherhood So White. Austin points out that many Black mothers and single mothers are low-wage caretakers and at risk of exposure to COVID-19. "Single women, especially those who work as babysitters, waitresses, are paid in cash or dependent on the gig economy, got slammed in every direction. Lack of internet access immediately undermined their child's access to education, jobs dried up overnight, and housing became precarious. Many single mothers experienced high degrees of loneliness, because playdates were canceled, effectively cutting women off from their social outlets. Even as the country slowly re-opens, the damage to Black mothers and single mothers will be felt for years to come." Noting the recent surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Austin thinks white people seem to finally "get it."

"Hopefully, acknowledging our shared humanity and leaning into painful conversations around motherhood, race, and privilege will last beyond a few weeks. This is the work of Black Lives Matter and a concrete opportunity to improve conditions for Black mothers."

Congresswoman Katie Porter is a single mother and serves on the informal "Moms in the House" caucus. She reminds us that Congress is still only 24% women, and tells InStyle via email that "the problems mothers face are ultimately about power. When you have a bunch of older, wealthy, white men governing, that is a pretty darn good deal for them. But it creates structural disadvantage and it impoverishes our policy debate by silencing moms' perspectives on what would help."

Among the legislative changes Porter is fighting for are: bringing down the cost of childcare (which has bipartisan support), ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, being open to mothers "changing work patterns across child rearing," and expanding paid family leave. She says "representation matters," and more mothers need to run for political office. We also, I might add, need to vote for them.

Congresswoman Porter also points to work being done by the Black Maternal Health Caucus, led by Senator Kamala Harris, Rep. Lauren Underwood, and Rep. Alma Adams, which includes key policies to reduce the Black maternal mortality rate. Rep. Robin Kelly also introduced the MOMMA's Act, which would extend Medicaid coverage for a full year postpartum and establish a grant program that would address "implicit bias and cultural competency in patient-provider interaction education." This focuses on maternal mortality specifically, she says, but she has also introduced the Medical Education for a Diverse America Act together with Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, which "focuses on culturally competent care more broadly."

Dr. Amber E. Kinser researches maternal identity and says the U.S. is "utterly dependent on care work, especially unpaid care work, and that this dependence is coupled with an enduring disdain for care work as the labor of the lower social status groups." We love to wax poetic about how important teachers are, for example, but we pay the actual superhumans — who not only maintain order in a classroom of 22 seven-year-olds but also teach these seven-year-olds how to read laughable salaries. The salaries of teachers, like daycare workers, like social workers, hardly reflect their social status as essential.

I felt this cultural disrespect for care work in my bones pre-pandemic when asked "what I do." I was always quick to say "I'm a writer," even though writing probably only made up 25% of my actual workload. When I said, "I'm a stay-at-home-mom," though, eyes glazed over and polite smiles masked indifference. Now, without childcare, I am forced to reckon with the fact that while I may be a writer, I can't be one without first doing the work of mothering. My husband earns more and his job provides health insurance, so I am the home-schooler, the alpha parent, the one who yells too much. I am a mother who occasionally writes.

Porter stresses the importance of demanding equal pay and opportunity for women in the workplace, to allow "both parents to share responsibility for caring for children, aging parents, and non-work responsibilities." Equal opportunities should go hand-in-hand with increased respect for care work, and Kinser says that, "making the playing field fair begins with reconceptualizing care work and who does it." In other words, we will respect care work (and pay for it accordingly) when more men do it.

As a girl, it was ironed into my brain that there was no loftier goal than motherhood. As a result, I didn't figure out my professional life until after kids (and the accompanying crisis of identity). Had I grown up in a culture that was honest about the work of motherhood, that didn't idolize maternal ideals, I can only imagine I would have made more informed choices about both motherhood and career. Perhaps I wouldn't have suffered such nasty shock when I realized that having a baby did not magically make me whole, perhaps I wouldn't feel so much anger and resentment now as I write this article during pitiful little one-hour chunks.

VIDEO: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Pregnancy And Childbirth in America

The general consensus is that a complete upheaval of our society would be necessary to effect real change. Kinser specifies that "human equity" would need to be prioritized, and "that without human equity our ideas, accomplishments, discoveries, art, science, religion are comparatively impoverished." But mothers, like all oppressed groups, need to actively fight against the oppressors, because those who benefit from the devaluation of care work will most likely resist big structural shifts. Vivas doubts the powers-that-be (mostly white, mostly male) will work to facilitate change once the pandemic ends, and believes forward motion depends on activism, "especially from the women's movement." And Austin says white mothers need to remove some of the burden of anti-racist education off of Black mothers' shoulders. "For too long," Austin says, "Black mothers have learned [white] thoughts and opinions on childcare, maternity leave, discipline, and healthy diets. We also have suggestions and advice about these same topics that we'd be willing to share, if only we are asked."

Once a year on Mother's Day, we celebrate mothers with trite mugs proclaiming motherhood as the hardest, most important job (wink, wink). But in reality, mothering is not respected as "real work." It figures in our collective imagination not as labor, but as something warm and fuzzy and supposedly "natural." Maternal love and self-sacrifice are put on a pedestal by white patriarchy, but maternal work, the lifeblood of literally everything, is still invisible. At the very least, this pandemic should've made it less so.

After this is all over, instead of confining our grievances about the unjust state of motherhood to vent sessions with our friends, we need to run for office, vote for mothers, think critically about motherhood, write about motherhood, demand paid family leave, challenge gender disparities in the home, demand compensation for care work, advocate for mothers separated from their children, listen to mothers who have lost children to violence, support Black mothers and LGBTQ mothers.

We need to, as the editors of this anthology which celebrates "mothering on the front lines" note in their prescient title, "revolutionize mothering."

Sara Petersen is a writer living in New Hampshire. She's currently working on a book about mother worship and killing the Victorian angel of the house. Find her on Twitter, @slouisepetersen.

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