This piece was originally written for and published by SFU Public Square on March 17, 2021.
Like most mothers, it’s difficult for me to solidly land on one emotion as I reflect upon the pandemic-induced blur of the last 12 months.
I feel tired. Content. Proud. Fucking angry. Grateful. Shame.
Most scholarly meanderings that I have come across on the subject of “family dynamics during COVID-19” have largely been centred on “young” nuclear families—two “working” spouses (usually different sexed) with children under the age of 12 living in one household. I depart from this typology in many ways: I am a (white) single mother of two children (aged 19 and 16) and a full-time PhD student who relied upon 30 years of accumulated resources and privilege to see me through the financial, physical and emotional hardships of the pandemic.
On International Women’s Day (March 8), CBC’s Michelle Eliot had a COVID-centred conversation with Amanda Watson about her recent manuscript, The Juggling Mother: Coming Undone in the Age of Anxiety (2020 UBC Press). Watson’s book was written before the turbulence of the pandemic, but was timely published during the eye-of-the-COVID-storm in the fall of 2020. Watson critically examines the trope of the “juggling mother” and “the invisible and poorly understood emotional [and embodied] labour that women have a duty to take on to make things work as they juggle competing labour responsibilities” (2020: 2).
According to Watson, the pandemic has revealed the stubborn and entrenched ways in which the problem of women “doing more” [than men] has been getting worse. “The pandemic hit and suddenly ‘the juggling mother’ couldn’t do it anymore. The façade cracked. We were juggling and then someone threw an elephant into the mix and now everything is on fire.”
It’s been a hard time for mothers, and I am no exception.
At the onset of COVID, my children’s father made the unilateral decision to terminate court-ordered financial support for almost six months, resuming only after enforcement action was taken by BC’s Family Maintenance Enforcement Program. He is the owner of a financially sound business that quickly re-stabilized, yet he showed no care or kindness. There were no notes or calls keeping me apprised of the situation. He offered no assurances of his intention to honour financial commitments. He opportunistically knew I would pick up the financial slack—which I did.
Additionally, although my children’s father lives a four-minute drive from my home and we are “co-parents” who share “custodial time,” he washed his hands of all the physical and emotional care of our children at the onset of COVID. He opted out of parental responsibilities, knowing full well that I would pick up the slack—which I did.
I must confess, it feels uncomfortable writing my pain for public consumption (I am curious, does it feel uncomfortable to read?). Airing these matters is a transgression of private/public sensibilities that are deeply ingrained in the (white) middle-class imaginary. Women don’t talk about “private” pain because we loathe bringing “public” shame to the men we love. We resist publishing our personal stories of disappointment in “public” venues for fear of being read as vindictive, or worse—liars. We’ve already got enough on our plates, and the emotional weight of potentially becoming a lightning rod for disturbed men who aggressively troll women online is, quite frankly, a problem we would prefer to live without.
And perhaps we don’t talk about these ugly private stories for fear of revealing cracks in the shiny façades of our lives. After all, we have invested heavily in perpetuating the illusion of competence.
My children are older than the youngsters normally envisioned in these conversations, but I assure you, balancing the responsibilities and stressors of parenthood during the pandemic has left little time for me to engage with the work I love—my PhD studies.
As Watson so eloquently stated in her conversation with Eliot, what mothers have always known and what the pandemic has made abundantly clear is that “we must attend to the ways in which we assume some people [mothers] in our [heterosexual] families will pick up the slack no matter what. And that is certainly what we’ve seen. We’ve seen women pivot to unpaid work without being asked, in crisis management mode, and now we are seeing the data on their disproportionate mental health crisis.”
I am tired. It’s been a long year.
I am content. The pandemic has revealed what I have always known to be true—I am resilient and can thrive under difficult circumstances.
I am proud. I have kept my queer little family healthy and happy.
I am fucking angry. There are no socially sanctioned avenues by which mothers can scale back and/or opt out of parenting responsibilities without swift condemnation and self-imposed guilt.
I am grateful. I have many resources at my disposal: accumulated financial assets; solid friendships; paid services to access; a supportive PhD supervisory committee in a department that “gets it”; a safe home; a fridge full of food; access to medical care. The list is joyously long and cannot be exhausted.
I am shameful. Watson argues in The Juggling Mother that internalized patriarchy and misogyny compel women to carry an unequal ratio of “private” care while concurrently over-performing “public” professional competency. Yet, our collective performance of the juggling mother leaves unchallenged the structural forces that demand redress (2020: 15). These performances make women (especially privileged women, such as myself) complicit in hierarchies of power that disproportionately impact queer, trans, Indigenous, poor, racialized and geographically distanced mothers. Watson reminds us that the conditions that make privileged women “feel” as if they are “coming undone” are potentially lethal to the families of women who are most excluded from power (126).
I am part of the problem—yet I know of no way out. Beware! This makes me frightfully angry.