Parenting: ‘The mom shame is so real’: There’s no way to win in the pandemic

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Marta Leon felt like throwing up at her desk.

Sitting in her office at the courthouse in Hopewell, Va., where she has reported for work almost every day throughout the pandemic, Leon stared at the Facebook post in the Henrico County moms’ group: Richmond public schools would be fully virtual this fall. It seemed likely that bordering Henrico, where Leon lives, would make the same decision.

Leon’s two kids—ages 5 and 11—were at home with a high schooler who would soon start school herself. Who else would watch them for $150 a week? As a single mom on a paralegal salary, that is all Leon can afford.

In the Facebook group, some moms were already praising the decision.

A child “can always make up whatever education he falls behind on,” one mom wrote, “but not if he catches the virus and dies. I want [my daughter] in school too but I want her alive more.”

Leon hasn’t had time to make many real friends since she moved to the area a year ago. She joined nine different Facebook groups for local moms, hoping they’d provide the kind of guidance she was missing, like where her daughter should get her ears pierced or where to take her son for swim lessons.

On the issue of school reopenings, Leon said, the prevailing opinion seemed clear: If you want your kids to go back to school, you don’t care about their health. Good moms put the health of their kids first.

As schools across the country announce their plans for the fall, working parents are forced to choose from an array of bad options: Send your kids back to school, if it’s open, and risk coronavirus exposure—or keep them home with little or no supervision as you try to simultaneously parent, do your job and monitor your child’s online schooling. With no social safety net, some U.S. parents are devising other solutions, which come with their own set of problems: Find a nanny or au pair; hire a teacher and form a home-schooling pod with a few other families; or bring in a grandparent and constantly worry that your family might inadvertently put them in the hospital.

“It doesn’t matter what decision you make,” said Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist who studies gender and families at Washington University in St. Louis. “You will feel like a failure.”

It’s easy to believe that other families are doing a better job. Even in non-pandemic times, parents—but mostly mothers, and especially working mothers—have to contend with an onslaught of opinions about their parenting decisions, said Collins. People feel empowered to weigh in on this issue, Collins said, far more than they do on other aspects of a woman’s life, telling her what she’s doing wrong and how she can do better.

This judgment is particularly prevalent for working moms, Collins says, because they defy a deeply rooted cultural assumption: A woman’s children should be her primary responsibility. While women of color have long been expected to work outside the home, in addition to caring for their own kids, they still face similar judgment, said Christina Cross, a sociology lecturer at Harvard who focuses on families and social inequality.

This shaming seems to have intensified during the pandemic, according to interviews with 10 working mothers who say they’ve felt judged for their parenting decisions. Many said they’d be hesitant to post about their child care online or talk about their choices with people outside their closest networks: If you say the wrong thing, one said, people will “make you feel terrible about yourself.” Even if they hadn’t experienced explicit shaming, many said they anticipated the judgment, and judged themselves.

“The mom shame is so real,” said Joy Rush, a yoga studio owner and mother to a 9-year-old son, who lives in Short Pump, Va. When Rush posted a picture of her son’s birthday party—held entirely outside, with four of his friends—she received a message on Instagram from a mother she hardly knows. The woman asked if Rush and her son had been practicing proper social distancing.

Fathers aren’t experiencing the same kind of judgment, said Collins. In heterosexual partnerships, mothers are still overwhelmingly expected to take the lead on child care, she said. They are often the ones “losing sleep” over these choices. If something bad happens—if someone gets sick, Collins said, or a child falls behind in school—mothers will be blamed for making the wrong decision.

After she heard about the Richmond schools, Leon looked into joining a home-schooling pod. On the Facebook groups, many moms—mostly White women—were cheerfully swapping contact information, connecting with other potential pod members. A quick scan of these exchanges confirmed what Leon had already expected: It was too expensive.

Some pods cost as much as 25 dollars per student, per hour, she said. That’s more than she makes herself.

When Shruti Gupta would come home around 8 or 9 p.m. in March and April, several hours later than usual, her 9-year-old son would be waiting for her at the kitchen table. He knew enough about coronavirus to understand that his parents, both physicians at the hospital where they lived in Stamford, Conn., were at risk. Gupta works directly with coronavirus patients.

No one questioned Gupta’s decision to keep going into the hospital, exposing herself—and potentially her family—to the virus. Her friends seem to understand that she had no choice. But people eagerly offered opinions on the family’s child care solution: A babysitter, who went home to her own family at the end of every day.

Gupta’s friends would ask if she was sure the babysitter was a good idea: Hadn’t she considered that the sitter could pick up the virus somewhere else? What if she wasn’t social distancing? When Gupta posted about her situation on Facebook, one mother told her that bringing in a babysitter “was like a death sentence,” Gupta said. (The mom eventually deleted the comment, she said, after other mothers jumped to Gupta’s defense.)

No one ever asked her husband who was caring for their kids, Gupta said.

“Men are expected to be working,” she said. “So people just assume [the mother] must be figuring it out.”

These kinds of public criticisms from mothers, on the choices made by other mothers, aren’t surprising, said Collins, the sociologist. Child care decisions during the coronavirus can feel like “a matter of life and death,” she said. And if you feel like you’ve failed as a mom, at a time when the stakes are this high, Collins said, it’s natural to default to disparaging others.

“The performative aspect has to do with boosting oneself. You’re implicitly saying, ‘I am a better mom than you are.'”

Sometimes it feels like you’re not allowed to care about your kid’s mental health, said Rush, the yoga studio owner: Their physical health—and potential exposure to coronavirus—has to take priority above all else, or you’re not a good mother. But Rush felt that her son urgently needed some socialization. He’d been cooped up inside with her for too long, she said.

She signed him up for in-person taekwondo, a class held with a few other kids.

“I made the mistake of telling my older family members,” said Rush. They wanted to know all the details, she said: Were masks required? Would there be social distancing?

It was frustrating, Rush said, because she’d already considered all of this. Of course she had. The studio took every child’s temperature before they entered the building and required them to stand in their own space throughout the class.

“I was like, you’re asking all the questions you know I’m already asking as a mom,” she said. “You know me well enough to know that I’m very protective of this kid.”

Moms who choose to keep their kids at home say they are judged, too. Adriana Herrera is a single mom in Burke, Va., with an 8-year-old daughter in public school. When she heard that her district would hold in-person classes at least two days a week in the fall, with the option to do full-time virtual learning, she asked her daughter what she wanted to do. Together, they decided that she would stay home with Herrera. Herrera, who works as a paralegal, is able to work from home with flexible hours, freeing her up to guide her daughter’s school work during the day.

Herrera’s friends quickly weighed in. She met most of them years ago, before she got divorced and when her daughter went to private school. The private school moms have been pressuring Herrera to switch back to private education, where the class sizes are smaller and social distancing is easier to achieve. One friend sent her a brochure for a local private school with an open spot, without Herrera asking for it. Another asked to set up a Zoom meeting for Herrera, Herrera’s daughter and one of her daughter’s former private schoolteachers.

Herrera knows these friends mean well, she said, but she wishes they’d stop.

“I think they think they have to save me. Like, oh you poor single mom, you need help,” Herrera said. “I don’t want to be seen that way.”

It’s hard to completely ignore their comments, Herrera says. She doesn’t always feel confident in her decisions, especially since she became a single parent. She wishes there was someone around to give her a gut check.

“I have this fear: Am I making the right decisions for my kids?”

Especially when the stakes are this high, she says, she worries she has it all wrong.

Nanika Coor, a parental therapist in Brooklyn, N.Y., works with many parents who feel the same way. She encourages her clients to “sit with their shame”—to be curious about these feelings and non-judgmentally explore why they have them.

“There is no such thing as a perfect parent,” says Coor. Especially now—when her clients are making parenting choices that they probably wouldn’t, outside of a pandemic—she emphasizes the importance of “accepting yourself as you are.”

She finds herself repeating the same thing, again and again.

“You are doing fine,” she says. “You are doing your best.”

Jennifer Brunet, who lives in Fairfield, Conn., started a virtual pod after the school year ended in June. Along with four other families, she hired her daughter’s teacher to provide support through the summer. They all pitch in $25 for each 30-minute session, three times a week.

Brunet always looks forward to the class. She scours the house to make sure that Sylvie, age 5, has everything she needs: her tablet, pieces of paper, crayons in every color of the rainbow. Sylvie needs something different each day, Brunet says, depending on what the teacher has planned. They might play a game of trivia, or paint a picture. One day they learned sign language.

At a time when she’s doubting almost every parenting decision she makes, Brunet says, “this makes me feel like I’m doing something right.”

Brunet and the other families plan to do something similar in person this fall. Sylvie is due to start kindergarten and while the Fairfield school district will hold some in-person classes, Brunet will keep her at home. Brunet’s mother—who is 68 and has a severe lung condition—lives with the family.

Forming a pod is clearly the best solution for her family, Brunet says. But she feels ashamed, afraid to share her decision too widely. Brunet works for a global health and development nonprofit, passionate about her work helping marginalized communities. If well-off families form pods as a solution to their current child care situation, she says, she knows existing inequalities will only deepen. It’s “shameful,” Brunet says, to pay for a teacher, when most families can’t. She has thought about opening the pod to several students from lower-income homes, who wouldn’t need to pay.

[ We talked to an employment lawyer about ‘mom bias.’ Here’s what she wants you to know.]

“I said to my husband, ‘We talk the talk, but are we walking the walk?'”

It feels like a test, Brunet says: Is she willing to live out her values and forgo the option of a pod altogether, even when it would hurt her own family? Without the pod, Sylvie’s education would suffer. Brunet would have far less time to work and care for her other child, a 2-year-old.

“All of a sudden the idea of podding is somehow taboo,” said Katherine Goldstein, journalist and creator of the Double Shift, a podcast about women and work. In several recent pieces, including ones published by The Washington Post, the media has focused on how pods will undoubtedly widen the achievement gap, Goldstein said, especially those that hire teaching professionals. This narrative, she says, seems to blame working moms who are desperately trying to make it through coronavirus with their job and their kids intact. The media should shift its line of fire, Goldstein said, and demand more government support for families.

“Most people who are forming pods are not paying public school teachers 100,000 dollars to leave their jobs,” Goldstein said. “This is about banding together with your neighbors, figuring out small-scale collective solutions.”

It’s not just pods. Multiple moms said they’ve been shamed for hiring nannies, private tutors or au pairs to solve their coronavirus child care problems.

When her maternity leave ended in May, Grace Maxwell hired a nanny to take care of her 3-month old son. That was never the plan. Maxwell and her husband had picked out a small day care where they live in Richmond. But a few weeks into coronavirus, the day care closed permanently.

Maxwell is a mortgage banker, and spring is her busy season. Her husband also works full time, going into his office throughout coronavirus. For a few weeks, Maxwell juggled work and the baby, taking calls while he cried in the background. While she’s grateful to have the nanny now, she said, she doesn’t feel like she can talk about it. When she told a few of her mom friends, she said, they made offhand comments that felt like jabs. “Oh, it must be so nice to be able to afford that,” she remembers one saying.

Maxwell feels intensely guilty about how much money they are spending on child care. She sees it as a kind of personal failure, she said, to need to bring in outside help, especially at a time when so many people are financially struggling.

Her husband doesn’t understand why she feels this way, Maxwell said.

“I always feel guilty, spending money on things that I see as for me, not for the family,” Maxwell said. Asked why she doesn’t see the nanny as someone who is for her family—benefiting her, her husband and the baby—Maxwell paused.

“Now isn’t that interesting?”

None of the 10 women interviewed for this story have quit their jobs. The last four and a half months have been deeply unpleasant, they said: Trying to be both a full-time caregiver and a full-time employee, they say, they feel like they’re constantly failing at both. But they’ve continued. Even women who could afford to quit, with high-earning partners, have chosen to stay in the paid workforce.

That could change soon, Collins said.

“If women are constantly feeling ashamed and guilty about [their choices], I think we will see women leaving the paid labor force in droves.”

[ ‘I had to choose being a mother’: With no child care or summer camps, women are being edged out of the workforce]

People have been telling Bethany Sobczak to quit her job for years. Her husband makes more than enough to support their family, Sobczak’s mother and grandmother would point out: Why is she still working? When she gets older, they always say, she’ll wish she’d spent more time with her three kids, now ages 7, 5, and 1.

Until now, these comments have been easy to ignore. Based in Fairfax, Va., Sobczak is a senior human resources representative at a major company: She loves her job and is proud that she makes good money. When she got pregnant in college and had to leave school, she never thought she’d work her way up to such a high position.

“When I dropped out, a lot of my friends and family said I’d never amount to anything,” Sobczak said. “I became something, in spite of it all.”

The pressure to quit has intensified during coronavirus, Sobczak says, with her mother and grandmother pointing out—again and again—how much the kids would benefit from their mother’s full attention.

A senior-level manager at her company gave her the same advice, Sobczak says.

“She said she doesn’t understand why I do it,” said Sobczak. The manager knows her husband has a high-paying job. “If she was in my position, she said she absolutely wouldn’t.”

In the hardest moments—when she’s on a work call and the kids are screaming and fighting in the background—Sobczak thinks about quitting. Her husband has had to work in-person overnight shifts throughout the coronavirus, sleeping during much of the day. The family has no outside help.

“I get to the point where I’m like, ‘Okay, why am I doing this?” Sobczak says. She worries about her kids falling behind, struggling to concentrate on teachers from behind a screen.

Sobczak drafted her resignation letter a few weeks ago, but she never turned it in. If she quits now, she says, she knows she’ll never go back. This is her dream job. There is nothing else she would rather be doing. If this isn’t enough to keep her in the paid workforce, she says, what would be?

Sobczak has never considered the possibility that her husband might scale back at work or quit.

“Oh my goodness,” she says, laughing. “I could never ask him to do that.”

And you can be sure, she said: No one else ever would, either.


This story by Caroline Kitchener appears in The Washington Post’s The Lily blog.


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