Written by Jessica Grose
In early September, as the school year inched closer, a group of mothers in New Jersey decided they would gather in a park, at a safe social distance, and scream their lungs out. For months, as the pandemic disrupted work and home life, these moms, like so many parents, had been stretched thin — acting as caregivers, teachers and earners at once. They were breaking.
As are mothers all over the United States.
By now, you have read the headlines, repeating like a depressing drumbeat:
“Working moms are not OK.” “Pandemic Triples Anxiety And Depression Symptoms In New Mothers.” “Working Moms Are Reaching The Breaking Point.”
You can also see the problem in numbers: Almost 1 million mothers have left the workforce — with Black mothers, Hispanic mothers and single mothers among the hardest hit. Almost 1 in 4 children experienced food insecurity in 2020, which is intimately related to the loss of maternal income. And more than three-quarters of parents with children ages 8 to 12 say the uncertainty around the current school year is causing them stress.
Despite these alarm bells clanging, signaling a financial and emotional disaster among America’s mothers, who are doing most of the increased amount of child care and domestic work during this pandemic, the cultural and policy response enacted at this point has been nearly nonexistent.
The pandemic has touched every group of Americans, and millions are suffering, hungry and grieving. But many mothers in particular get no space or time to recover.
The impact is not just about mothers’ fate as workers, though the economic fallout of these pandemic years might have lifelong consequences. The pandemic is also a mental health crisis for mothers that fervently needs to be addressed or at the very least acknowledged.
“Just before the pandemic hit, for the first time ever, for a couple months, we had more women employed than men,” said Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress. “And now we are back to late 1980s levels of women in the labor force.” The long-term ramifications for mothers leaving work entirely or cutting back on work during this time include: a broken pipeline for higher-level jobs and a loss of Social Security and other potential retirement income.
“COVID took a crowbar into gender gaps and pried them open,” said Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the University of Michigan. Her long-term concerns are even more fundamental: Will watching a generation of mothers go through this difficult time with little support turn the next generation of women off from parenthood altogether?
The economic disaster of the pandemic is directly related to maternal stress levels, and by extension, the stress levels of American children. Philip Fisher, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon who runs an ongoing nationally representative survey on the effect of the pandemic on families with young children, points out that the stressors on mothers are magnified by a number of intersecting issues, including poverty, race, having special needs children and being a single parent.
“People are having a hard time making ends meet, that’s making parents stressed out, and that’s causing kids to be stressed out,” Fisher said. This buildup can lead to toxic stress, “And we know from all the science, that level of stress has a lasting impact on brain development, learning and physical health.” Almost 70% of mothers say that worry and stress from the pandemic have damaged their health.
The statistics on stress levels are shocking, but they are sterile; they don’t begin to expose the frayed lives of American mothers and their children during this pandemic. A young mother who self-identified as American Indian/Alaska Native summed up her situation in response to Fisher’s survey: “We are requesting government help for food. Relationship between partner and I are tense. I am personally struggling more now with depression and anxiety. My toddler has become more anxious as well and shown aggressive behaviour. She seems overwhelmed most of the time.”
Times editor-at-large Jessica Bennett spent months communicating with three women, who kept detailed diaries of their days, for a look at just how much American mothers are doing every waking second.
“With everything going on, I just don’t have time to take care of my mental health right now. I have to keep it together for everyone else,” said Dekeda Brown, 41, one of the three mothers featured in Bennett’s piece. “I feel like a ticking time bomb that is constantly being pushed to the breaking point, but then I am able to defuse myself. Goodness, this is taxing.”
We wanted to give mothers across the country the opportunity to scream it out like the moms in New Jersey, so we set up a phone line. Hundreds responded with shouts, cries, guttural yells, and lots and lots of expletives. “I don’t know how to feel sane again. I’m just stuck in this position for God knows how much longer,” said Elise Kelner, 30, a mother of two kids under 4, when she called in from Gilbert, Arizona.
We hope this series serves as a primal scream for America’s mothers, a visual representation of their struggles. We’re showing all the messy, heartbreaking moments of everyday fear and chaos, and the rays of joy that can sometimes shine through. If nothing else, we want moms to know that someone is listening.