The Moms are Not Alright

The Struggles of the Working Parents and Moms, in Particular, Have Never Been More in Our Faces

America’s moms are exhausted. If you’re not aware, you either don’t know a mother of young children or you have not been online in the past month. The cover of New York Magazine reads, “This isn’t working,” over a picture of a long line of tired looking women. This past week, the New York Times ran an article titled “America’s Mothers are in Crisis,” set against a bright red background with transcriptions of calls to the Primal Scream line, a voice mailbox “where the floor is yours to yell, laugh, cry, or vent, for a solid minute.” The messages are overwhelming and deeply concerning. The users, mostly moms, call in with distraught messages like, “This pandemic has made me realize maybe I’m not meant to be a mom,” and, “I wish I had the energy to scream.”

Article after article has been written about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy, social connection, and parenting. None of what the article and the Scream line reveal is new information, but the presentation is striking and more comprehensive in its look at mothers specifically.

In March, when the first lockdowns began, my husband was working full time and I was not. I planned our day of virtual school, crafts, enrichment activities, quiet rest time, exercise. It worked for a few days. I texted my best friend, “What I have learned so far is I am not a homeschool mom.”

In the beginning, there were some really beautiful moments of society coming together to help each other, with a great focus on children. The zoo started doing daily behind the scenes tours for kids, every day at 11. Famous authors or celebrities held virtual classes or read aloud for kids to give moms a break. Mo Willems, a beloved children’s book author, hosted drawing classes every day at lunch. Even these virtual events helped. We made jokes about the times our children interrupted our work. It seemed as though a lot of grace would be extended to working parents and to parents across the board.

But as the pandemic wore on and some places opened and others stayed closed, these community supports waned. We are great at caring for each other in the short term, but even a pandemic cannot redeem our nature. Parents, especially mothers, have borne the brunt of the school lockdowns. Many moms left the workforce entirely. Women are working jobs from home: managing virtual schooling (which is a challenge for anyone), entertaining their children (who no longer have the freedom to play with their friends), and often caring for older adults (whether in the home or remotely). Mothers are exhausted.

The article itself points out that none of this is new: women often do the majority of the housework and parenting. But what is new is that “there is no hiding anymore. The struggles of the working parents and moms, in particular, have never been more in our faces. And yet, this work — the planning, the coordinating, the multitasking, the hustling — often goes unnoticed. It is largely unsung.”

It had been eight years since my last panic attack. Since then, I managed my mental health well, through counseling and medication. I spend time on stress-reducing activities like exercise and yoga, mindfulness and saying no to things that will make me too busy. But in December, after the anticipation of Advent and the buzz of Christmas, I felt my heart rate speed up. I cannot point to any sort of trigger, but I recognized my disengagement from life around me, my nausea and rapid breathing. We were packing to go to a small cabin for a few days, and I had to stop. I’m practiced enough to know when it’s coming, so I warned my husband and sat in my closet, crying. My heart was racing so fast that my Apple watch congratulated me for completing my exercise goals. The only thing I can remember thinking was that I was a terrible mom. Over and over. Eventually, it passed and I emerged from the closet, unsteady but at least able to breathe, and I continued getting ready for our trip.

To be honest, I was surprised I lasted nine months without one. I believe I was just overwhelmed. On top of a year of fear, anxiety, and dread, the pressure built within me to be a super mom. Parenting has always seemed to required more for our generation — a need to be more involved, more engaged, more present. But adding on the stress of safety, health, the awkward conversations about who we could see, where we could go, navigating different levels of comfort with gathering, parenting has become a constant state of anxiety for many. The desire to be everything for my children — I think that just became too much in that moment.

In his latest for the Atlantic, writer Jerry Useem argues that we should “Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown.” In the early 20th century, for those who could afford to have a mental collapse, it was largely just a reset, a time to rest and recover from the pressures of life. Famous, influential people, from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to Jane Addams, had nervous breakdowns and retreated from their responsibilities. Obviously, that is not possible for most of us, if my Google searches for “affordable but luxury therapeutic spas for mentally and physically exhausted moms” are any indication. Someone should really get on that. But the author did propose a mini break; for an ICU nurse, she said even a two-minute time of reflection after the death of a patient, just a moment before jumping back into work, would help her stress level. None of us can maintain this constant level of tension.

It’s also not possible for us because it goes against everything we believe about ourselves. A nervous breakdown requires us to admit that we cannot keep up with the rhythm set for us. That we cannot do it all. I believe many of us are closer to that breaking point in this pandemic. Articles about mothers’ Covid stress run parallel to advice columns cajoling us to find time for our children, our spouses, and ourselves. Even in the midst of arguably the greatest mental health crisis of our times, we are still trying to achieve our way out of it, to crush it, quarantine-style.

The only thing that I have found to bring me peace through this year is the knowledge that we can find our rest in Jesus. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. It is not that our daily tasks or chores or plans will get any easier or go away. But I can rest deeply in the knowledge that God loves my children more than I do. And he loves me more than I do. The same is true for you — he loves your children and you more than you ever could. All our failings, our panic, our resentment, our anxieties can fall on him.

I was at a retreat once where the writer Katie Fox read one of her essays. She said she felt that she was the center of her family and that, through it all, the center must hold. She must hold. But then she said something that stuck with me and has become a sort of daily slogan of mine throughout this year: “But the truth is, God is the center, and we know He will hold.” It’s not up to us to be the hub of our lives, the one who cannot fail those around us. In all the madness, the stress, the grief, and the pain, you are not the center. You do not have to hold because we have a God who is at the center. And he will hold.