In the space of a few months last year, Margaret O’Shea went from being excited to scared to mentally exhausted.
O’Shea was the mother of a toddler and six months pregnant with her second child when COVID-19 shut the world down in March of 2020. She had no idea what the virus might do to her or her baby, or even whether her husband would be allowed in the delivery room. Once she gave birth – to a boy named Colin in June – every trip out of the house with him was fraught with apprehension.
“It was scary not knowing how it affected pregnant women. Toward the end of the pregnancy, when usually you’re getting excited, we were just worried about so many things,” said O’Shea, 35, of Cape Elizabeth. “After he was born I was constantly assessing risk. Every time I brought him for a doctor’s appointment, I worried. It was mentally exhausting.”
Mothers bore the brunt of some of the most daunting challenges brought on by the pandemic, local therapists and national researchers say. New mothers like O’Shea had to face medical uncertainties and then care for their newborns in lockdown, with little help from anyone outside their households. Many moms of older children found themselves dividing their time and efforts between child care, remote learning, their own full-time jobs and household chores. They worried about their family’s emotional and physical health in a time of fear and isolation. Some lost their jobs or had to quit or take lesser-paying ones to make time for child care. Fathers also have had increased stress and extra responsibilities during the pandemic, but several surveys and studies show that moms took on more duties and were more emotionally affected by them.
So, this year, many moms have a different Mother’s Day wish, based on all they’ve been through. O’Shea would have loved to have a big party with family and friends, if the pandemic was over. But she’ll gladly settle for time alone to do anything, even chores. Shannon Bennett, a South Portland mom who supervised her 7-year-old daughter’s remote learning last year while working as a pharmaceutical research analyst, would love some time to work alone in her garden. Stephanie Jackson of Biddeford, who works in special education and has 10-year-old son with autism and a 7-year-old daughter, plans to sleep all day Sunday while her two children are with their father.
“We know from previous research that women did more in terms of taking care of children before the pandemic, so even with fathers at home, mothers ended up doing a lot more, without any of the normal support they’d have from school or family members,” said Gema Zammarro, an economist and professor at the University of Arkansas who co-authored a University of Southern California study on gender differences in the impacts of COVID-19.
The USC study included a survey of 3,100 people nationwide living with a spouse or partner. About 45 percent of working mothers who responded last fall said they had sole responsibility for child care and help with schoolwork, compared to about 9 percent of fathers. The study also found that, by November of last year, more than 30 percent of mothers were experiencing “psychological distress” from added pandemic challenges, compared to less than 20 percent of men living with children.
Felicity Colangelo, a psychotherapist who practices in Portland and Brunswick, said mothers have historically taken more responsibility for the well-being of their families, partially because they have been socialized to do so.
“We’re not that far from the generation where there was one worker in a lot of homes and the women took care of the family. So it becomes subconscious, she believes it’s her duty,” said Colangelo, who works with many pregnant women and new mothers. Colangelo said the responsibility felt by mothers isn’t just about physical tasks involved with taking care of kids, it’s about all the decisions mothers make about the physical and emotional well-being of their families. “That’s a pretty emotionally challenging thing to do, more so now.”
WORKING AND SCHOOLING
When schools closed last March, Lauren Austin of Falmouth at first relied on her 11-year-old daughter to help watch her 6-year-old daughter – whose preschool had closed – while Austin worked. She’s a director in benefit operations at Unum in Portland, and she had company employees to supervise and help adjust to the sudden jolt of everyone working from home.
But as Falmouth schools got their remote learning program in place, Austin’s older daughter had her own schoolwork to tend to. Austin found herself helping both children with school while she worked full time. She admits that her older daughter’s last few months of fourth grade were “a little bit of a disaster.”
“Two weeks into working from home, I thought, ‘I need to make sure she does fourth grade too? ‘ I needed to work full time, and she needed more support,” said Austin. “It was really a roller coaster.”
Things got better when her children started going to school in person this fall. But Austin says the pandemic has taught her something about the importance of everyone in a family taking responsibility for themselves. So her Mother’s Day wishes include that her children can learn to manage more of their daily routines, and that society at large realizes – based on what the pandemic has revealed – that there needs to more support for mothers and families.
“‘There’s a lack of child care. Mothers are leaving the workplace at an alarming rate, and I think the government needs to do more,” said Austin, 39.
Jing Ye of Phippsburg is a counselor at Colby College in Waterville, so she spent a lot of time last year helping students there deal with the sudden closing down of campus life and the transition to online learning. At the same time, she dealt with worry about her grown daughter, May Ye, a 26-year-old graduate student at a rabbinical college in Philadelphia.
When COVID-19 cases were spiking in Philadelphia, Ye worried about her daughter’s safety, including on public transportation. She also worried about the transition to remote learning, because May has a learning difference that makes it more difficult for her to learn from online text or books than from classroom lectures or discussion.
“I bought masks and sent them to her, but I felt like there was not much I could do,” said Ye, 58. “There was just so much unpredictability.”
Ye’s wish for Mother’s Day is to see her daughter in person. But that won’t happen, as her daughter is not able to leave Philadelphia right now for various reasons. Ye has not seen May since June.
Jackson, from Biddeford, was working as a special education teacher for Biddeford High School when COVID-19 closed all schools. She found herself at home with her daughter Eleanor, 7, and her son Whit, 10, who has autism. Not only was she working at home and supervising her own children’s schooling, but she had to deal with Whit losing most of his support system, at school and from visits to other providers. Just being home all the time was a real challenge for him, Jackson said.
“For him, everything fun we did was outside, going to a farm, things like that. Unlimited screen time indoors doesn’t do it for him. Plus, both my kids missed their buds,” said Jackson, 50.
Jackson said that, by late this winter, the stress of her full-time job – including all the prep and home time teachers put in – became too much to handle while also having to help her own children. So, for her mental health and to better take care of her family, she took an education technician job with more predictable hours at a much lower salary. Her ex-husband happens to have the children on Mother’s Day, so Jackson said she’s looking forward to sleeping much of the day.
Bennett, of South Portland, got a little teary-eyed talking about this past year. Her daughter, Lula, was in first grade when schools closed in March, and Bennett found it difficult to watch her daughter’s life upended. She worked at home full time, with her daughter, while her husband continued to work outside the home for a sign company.
“It was her first real year of school, of elementary school, and she was just loving her friends and her teachers and then everything was shut down. Being an only child, it was hard on her. Nobody was doing playdates. She and her friends tried to play Barbies on FaceTime. It was a lot trying to manage her happiness with everything else,” Bennett said.
But she thinks the tough times brought her and her daughter closer together, and helped her become a better mom.
“I began to understand, if she had a tantrum, it wasn’t because of the one little thing in front of us, it was everything going on,” said Bennett, 50. For Mother’s Day, Bennett would love to have some time to work in her garden, but instead she’ll be doing something for her own mother, traveling with her to Philadelphia to see an ill relative.
BECOMING A MOM
Shannon Yoder of Portland gave birth to her first son, Max, in February of 2020, about a month before COVID-19 cases started to appear. She said she decided early on to follow her instincts and try to live her life the way she had been planning. So she looked for ways to get out of the house with her baby. To help her do that, she connected with seven other new mothers, from birth and parenting classes they had taken together, and formed a support group.
“My coping mechanism, entering motherhood at such a strange time, was to be careful not to self-isolate and to try to find a tribe of people with a similar mindset,” said Yoder, 36. “I wanted to be able to forge on and live life.”
The new moms group started meeting once a week, or every other week, at parks and other outdoor spots. The mothers would talk and the babies would socialize, both at a safe distance. But Yoder said she missed being able to just go out in public with her baby and have people smile or ask the baby’s name – the kind of things that new parents normally experience.
Instead, she felt like she was being judged for taking her baby in public in a pandemic. She remembers having Max in a carrier she was wearing in a store. She was sleep-deprived and says she was reprimanded by another person for not being 6 feet away.
But instead of being discouraged by some of the challenges of raising a baby during a pandemic, Yoder and her husband decided to have another one. The baby is due in October. Yoder and her husband may be outliers, as predictions are pointing to pandemic baby bust – a big decrease in births this year – because of economic and medical uncertainties. It’s still a little too early to tell for sure, because the first babies conceived during the pandemic would have been born in late December.
Maine births for December and the first three months this year did not change much from the previous year, according to a tally of births provided by the state. Maine births in January went up by one – 882 compared to 881 in 2020 – while the number of births in December, February and March decreased by less than 1 percent. But, in April, births in Maine fell more than 14 percent – 773 compared to 906 the year before, according to state records. If that trend continues, the baby bust predictions may prove right.
Yoder says that for Mother’s Day this year, she’d like some simple recognition of her motherhood and of her baby, something she felt was missing this year when everyone was masked and isolated.
“I think just a simple ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ just somebody saying, ‘Hey, you’re a mother,’ ” said Yoder. “I don’t need anything else. I’m very grateful for my little family.”