Mama Knows Best: Pandemic Pain and Hope
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we honor our mothers each and every day for their love, support and sacrifice.
By Isabelle Lee and Kate Bartlett
It’s been a hard year, especially for women and moms. Many faced life-altering career decisions to tend to at-home care and schooling, while others confronted difficult health circumstances in a world on hold and shut down. This Mother’s Day, we’re bringing you a special edition of OZY’s Sunday Magazine, sharing the personal stories of 11 women across five continents and how they’ve dealt with motherhood and unprecedented challenges amid the pandemic. From America to Africa to Asia, from single moms to adoptive moms to moms-to-be to grandmothers, here’s the mother of all Mother’s Day reads.
Richa Jain, 36, Bangalore, India
With the near-constant sound of ambulance sirens from the street ringing in my ears, I pick up my phone and check my Facebook group of breastfeeding mothers. Over the past year, I’ve found tips, answers to questions and relief in moments of doubt, all in that group. But in recent days, that platform — like every other channel of communication in India today — has offered little comfort. Instead, it has served as a chilling reminder of what it means to be a mother during the worst pandemic in a century.
I’ve read story after story of young families devastated by the deadly second COVID-19 wave that’s raging through India: one parent dead, the other critical and in hospital, their baby alone at home. The child could be a potential carrier, so neighbors don’t want to risk taking care of it — like it’s an infant grenade that could explode with virus droplets deadlier than shrapnel.
So yes, there have been days when I’ve wondered: What if my husband and I aren’t around anymore? The terror that every Indian is living through today is vastly different from the optimism of February when my daughter was born. At the time, India’s caseload was low, vaccines were about to arrive, and 2021 promised to be better than 2020. Three months later, those expectations have evaporated in the fumes from smoldering funeral pyres that dot the country’s cities. Barely a day passes without news of the virus claiming one more person we knew well.
Still, I’m lucky and I’m grateful that my husband and I are together and are healthy, and my parents are with me. Most importantly, my daughter is in my arms, forcing me to focus on the life we want to give her, even amid the shadow of death all around us.
Cecilia Aipira, 45, Malawi/Kenya
I have lived in six cities across four continents in the past decade. It has been one big adventure. So, if you had told me two years ago that I would now be anchored down in Nairobi, raising 10-year-old twin girls in the middle of a pandemic, I would have laughed in your face. But here I am, a clueless single mum trying to guide my two kids on how to navigate our mean, wondrous world.
When the plight of twin girls in my home country of Malawi came to my attention in 2020, I decided I would “save” them. Then COVID-19 hit. Taking advice from my lawyer, I decided to relocate to Malawi to speed up the adoption process. With airports closed, I packed my car and decided the time was right for that one big road trip that I had always wanted to do. So, for three days I traversed the Kenyan and Tanzanian savannas before wearily crossing into Malawi.
The adoption process was straightforward, and by the end of December 2020, I was legally a mum. But it takes time to process these new realities, and there have been moments when I have harbored serious doubts about my parenting abilities. Immediately after the adoption was granted but before taking custody of the kids, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since primary school. She asked me how many kids I had, and without batting an eyelid, I told her I didn’t have any. It wasn’t until that night that I woke with a start and thought: “What the hell is wrong with you?!! You have two kids now!” In January 2021, after the adoption and travel paperwork were done, it was time to return to Nairobi.
You are probably wondering how we have fared so far. Well, the twins are still alive and quickly assimilating into typical big-city girls. They are speaking English, demanding to eat out, going on playdates and enjoying safaris. We play, laugh and have farting competitions. But it has been distressing watching two 10-year-olds struggle to read due to their lack of education in early life. And yes, there are infuriating moments when I just want my old life back. But I am in total awe of their resilience. We had been on asisi (big sister) basis. But two months ago, they started calling me “Mum”! What a delightfully scary name to bear!! I gaze into their sweet, innocent faces that trust me so completely and wonder just who has saved whom.
Daniela Pinheiro, 48, Brazil/Portugal
In December 2019, my mother, 9-year-old daughter, 10-year-old son and I embarked on what was meant to be a great adventure: I had won a journalism scholarship at Oxford University, and we would spend the next six months living a quaint, new English life.
We left Brazil excited, but less than three months later, when the kids were still adjusting to their new school, the four of us found ourselves locked down in a two-bedroom flat for the next three months. The experience was tough. The lack of privacy and space, and the different demands and expectations brought us all into conflict often. The kids were bored at home, and they missed their dad and the rest of the family in Brazil.
So we moved again to Lisbon, Portugal, now with a certain savoir faire about confinement and lockdowns. Things were almost back to normal there COVID-wise, and the children were very happy at their new school, making new friends, when another lockdown hit in October. This time, I decided to act differently: Homeschooling was no longer going to be a daily struggle; I was going to demand they do their chores, but I wasn’t going to make it a daily battle. I relaxed my rationing of the time they could spend on their electronic devices, and I no longer fought when they asked me for junk food or skipped meals. I even stopped fighting if they didn’t take a shower for a day. Life was already too hard for daily fruitless arguments. It was another two and a half months of enclosure. Not less traumatic, but much less confrontational.
I think that this opening and closing of life will continue for some time yet. And what I have learned is that we have to treat each other well, forget routines that once seemed important. What matters now — what I want my children who are anxious about their future — to remember is the delight they feel when they taste a sea salt caramel ice cream, not their mother shouting for them to come and have vegetable soup. Life is already too hard.
Anita Powell, 40, Texas/South Africa
As far as the world knows, I’m a serious foreign correspondent based in Johannesburg. Or at least I was, until I started having to do all my interviews from home with a very opinionated preschooler wedged more or less permanently into my armpit. When the pandemic began and we were all freaked out and locked down, my final interview question to sources on phone/Zoom/etc. was, “How will the pandemic change everything?” But, as I mentioned, my girl has opinions. And so predictably, she said, “Mommy, that question is BORING. Ask them what a unicorn’s favorite pizza is.”
Interviews are an art form, complicated by the fact that we’re now doing them over vast distances while being unsure that the other person is wearing pants. This is a weird new world. So I thought, you know what, let’s embrace the weird. I made this my new soundcheck question. The answers I get are revealing, fun and sort of . . . disturbing sometimes. (What kind of maniac puts almonds and olives on a unicorn’s pizza? I wish I could tell you, but I have to protect my sources.)
So yeah, Pandemic Working Mom Life is a lot. The hours are weird because everything is virtual, so you work all the time. We are all “BBC Dad” now, trying to look like we have it together when we obviously, sometimes hilariously, do not. But every time I get overwhelmed, I stop and think of the delights. Like the luxury of that sweet-smelling hair in my face, or that very hard head nuzzling my body while I’m trying to write. Or the thump-thump-thump of feet during the day. Or the occasional, increasingly long patches of suspicious silence, when I go look for her . . . and find her sitting in her room, reading a book, and my heart wants to explode, but I have to be cool because I’m Busy and Important-Mommy and I have a call in five minutes. Thanks, kiddo.
Gabby Mesiti, 35, Adelaide, Australia
Local council closures of public playgrounds in the early days of lockdown drove many Adelaide parents to the edge. I felt guilty that my rental included a large backyard and swimming pool, so that by the end of each day, my toddlers had thoroughly drained their batteries.
My 4-year-old accepted that the “coronavirus” was the reason he couldn’t see his friends, as readily as he accepted any other rule in his little world. He made do with the company of his 1-year-old brother. They learned to cough into the crook of their elbows. I didn’t fear for their mental well-being, but I think it must have been a different story for parents with teens.
My husband, a medical worker, continued to work throughout lockdown. I stayed home with the toddlers and felt my domestic equality slipping away. Am I living the life of a 1950s housewife, I wondered? Australia’s strict international border control meant that COVID’s tendrils never really came close to touching our family. Border closures between states that had prevented us from visiting grandparents eventually lifted. I felt safe enough from COVID to get pregnant once again: My third son is due in July.
Hattie Farrell, 31, Atlanta, Georgia
I didn’t expect new parenthood to be easy, but I thought I would have my mom here to help. My mom has raised seven kids of her own — both biological and adopted — and cared for more than a dozen newborns in the foster care system. In 2019, when I first announced my pregnancy, the distance between us was a two-and-a-half-hour flight, a minor inconvenience at worst. In 2020, when the global pandemic descended, that two-and-a-half-hour flight became an insurmountable obstacle.
My mom is a cancer survivor just two years post-chemotherapy, and I received a mid-pregnancy diagnosis that puts me in a high-risk category for lung disease. While we were both heartbroken by the situation, the potential consequences of her traveling to meet her only granddaughter were too great, so — to date — I have undertaken the first 10 months of parenthood without her by my side.
Now that the skies are beginning to clear, my fully vaccinated mother finally has her plane ticket. Her bags are packed, her mask is ready, and I’m waiting tensely to find out if I’ve become a mother that she is proud of.
Winnie Tang, 38, Singapore
I work for a global strategic advisory firm and the general expectation before COVID was for executives to be in the office 9-to-5, five days a week, when we were not on the road. I have a 3-year-old daughter, Amelia, and working full time meant that I only got to see her for a few hours a day. The Singapore government implemented a strict lockdown starting in April 2020. All of a sudden, I found myself spending a lot more time with Amelia during the day, and ended up doing a lot more of my work in the evenings once she was asleep. In some ways, this has made me happier and more productive.
Before the pandemic, I was 100 percent dependent on my helper as Amelia’s primary caregiver. Whenever she was upset, she would cry for “Ayi” (Auntie in Chinese) instead of for me. That made me sad, but I accepted it as a price to pay for my career ambitions. Since I’ve started to spend more time with Amelia, we have formed a better, more healthy attachment.
Today, Singapore is no longer in lockdown, and many of my friends and colleagues have returned to the office. However, the pandemic has given me and my firm the opportunity to reset working arrangements and expectations. I think we all realized that we can be just as productive under a different, more flexible arrangement and that it is possible to achieve all my professional goals without sacrificing family life. For example, I was made a partner last year, which was a pretty amazing thing to happen in the middle of lockdown! I think Amelia seeing me working from home also influences the way she sees a woman’s role in society and the workplace. The other day, she told me: “I want to be a CEO!”
I am sure that the pandemic has been difficult for many working mothers, and I know I’m one of the lucky ones, both in where I live and in working for a company that now considers flexible working part of the norm. The pandemic has brought many challenges to many people, but in the midst of everything, I found a silver lining: the opportunity for more fulfillment in balancing two very demanding roles — as a mother and as an ambitious professional.
Amanda Lizwane, 30, Johannesburg, South Africa
I work as a live-in nanny for a family in Johannesburg and my five-year-old daughter lives with her grandmother in Mpumalanga province. Earlier this year I became pregnant for the second time, but I can already tell it’s going very differently from when I had my first child. Now with the pandemic, the clinic I’m going to every month will only see 50 people a day, so I have to go really early to be at the head of the queue and not be turned away after waiting. And of course, you have to sanitize, wear masks, get your temperature taken.
It’s scary because I already know that I have to go by myself to the hospital where I’m going to give birth. No one can be there with me. When I had my daughter, Lebu, my mum was there. But she will at least come to Joburg from the provinces after the birth despite the pandemic because when the baby arrives in our culture, you have to be with your mother or mother-in-law. Almost no one in South Africa has been vaccinated yet and the pandemic has brought nothing but fear. I don’t know if I’ll still have a job next year, and it’s so hard finding employment right now.
Kasia Robinson, 38, San Francisco, California
I was almost four months pregnant when the pandemic hit the Bay Area. Things weren’t too bad at first. My husband was working from home and I was able to see him all the time, which made me happy. I was convinced that by the time I give birth, all the madness would be over.
I wanted my mom to be with me and my husband during the birth, but Poland, where my mom lives, was under lockdown as well, and we started to accept the fact that she wouldn’t be able to come.
There was a lot of anxiety in the air. The global pandemic suddenly started to be part of our reality, America was on fire, people rightfully protesting against police brutality and racism. I was thinking about how I was going to raise my biracial daughter in this mad world that had suddenly become even madder.
For the last two OB-GYN visits, my husband wasn’t allowed to accompany me. I was dreading the prospect of him not being allowed to be with me during the birth. Fortunately, when the time came (she came two weeks early via emergency C-section), he was with me.
Afterward, I suffered from postpartum anxiety and depression. I was so scared about that precious little human; everything seemed to be dangerous. Then I lost my father. He was in Germany, so I was unable to be with him, and it’s hard knowing he will never meet his only grandchild.
It’s been nine months since my daughter was born, and I just received my second dose of the Moderna vaccine. I’m looking forward to going back to “normal” life, even though I know the world will never be the same. We’re going to have a whole generation of children who can read emotions better than ever, and we will never again take hugging the ones we love for granted.
Irma Norman, 81, New York City
The first thing that hits me is that it’s painful and very uncomfortable to be kept away from your loved ones by an invisible enemy. It reminds me of a supervisor I once had at one of the colleges where I worked who was crying one day. I asked her what was wrong, and she said she hadn’t had a hug in five years. That was one of the most profound things I had ever heard. And that’s what it’s like to not get to spend time with your grandchildren. Especially your new grandchild who you have never met. Photos just don’t do it. But I can’t imagine what an empty feeling that must have been. That’s still in my head. I can’t imagine how that would be, though I’ve been forced to.
It’s uniquely weird. And what’s even weirder is that I got a touch of COVID . . . which I believe I got during my daughter-in-law’s pregnancy (Kasia Robinson, noted above, is Irma’s daughter-in-law). I was praying to myself: Please let me make it through the nine months so I can at least see the baby. I kept saying, “Send me a picture so I could see the baby.” I was so scared that I wouldn’t live to at least see her.
Now, though, I feel great. I’m happy and hopeful, and I’m back to myself again and looking forward to my next trip so we can have another great family reunion.
Neph Wake, 37, Sydney, Australia
Parenthood is a strange journey at the best of times, and 2020 was decidedly not the best of times. In March 2020, my job shifted to remote working, which for me looked like a laptop in the living room. My wife was on maternity leave while our 6-month-old son was starting to army-crawl.
Working from home gave me an extra 15 hours a week at home with our son, which I deeply appreciated. But we missed time with extended family, who were nervous about visiting, and went months with limited family support to give us a break. The 12-month language screening with our baby was funny: My wife and I realized that he didn’t understand the word “bye,” because in his world people leaving the house was quite rare!
We are profoundly grateful to live in Sydney, where there’s world-class track-and-trace capability and where quarantine measures have meant that the pandemic has been much easier and shorter than in other parts of the world.
Motherhood by the Numbers
Baby boom or bust? Experts have predicted that there will be 300,000 fewer births in the U.S. in 2021, compared to pre-pandemic years, and a new CDC report shows that the American birth rate has fallen to its lowest-ever recorded level. Thirty-four percent of American women decided to postpone having children due to pandemic stressors and job insecurity. The inability to see doctors or going to appointments solo, or isolating from friends and family to stay safe for clinic visits was devastating for many couples. More women also chose to freeze their eggs in the last year, with the NYU Langone Fertility Center reporting a 41 percent rise in procedures.
While the pandemic has had a devastating impact on general employment rates, its effect on working mothers has been particularly brutal. Some fear it’s even set women’s rights back by decades. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, from March to April 2020, about 3.5 million mothers with school-age children left the workforce, the result of losing their job, taking a leave or quitting. Employment for mothers has been slowly rebounding but hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic rates. In January 2021, the unemployment rate of mothers with school-age children was 6 percent, compared to about 14 percent in April 2020.
Health Care and Heartbreak
In a study covering 17 countries, researchers found that stillbirths and maternal deaths during pregnancy increased by almost a third during the pandemic. They believe the rise could have resulted from hospitals being overburdened by COVID-19 patients or women being scared of contracting the virus during visits to the doctor or hospital. Notably, Black women in America already had the highest rates of maternal deaths pre-pandemic. Keeping babies alive in the NICU was another challenge that hospitals faced: Touch and the sound of parents’ voices are healing, but the consequences of infants contracting the virus can be devastating.
Equality Starts at Home
At the start of the pandemic, in households where domestic work was shared more equitably between partners, women were less likely to experience adverse employment outcomes. A study by Harvard found that in households where women were responsible for 80 percent to 100 percent of child care, at least half either had to reduce their hours or leave the workforce, fueling concerns of a return to 1950s gender stereotypes.
Best Cities for Moms
You know those surveys that rank the happiest countries in the world, usually with Scandinavian nations up top? Well, a recent survey instead ranked U.S. cities in terms of mom-friendliness — or where it’s easiest to be a mother. Looking at ease of access to OB-GYNs and amounts of paid leave for pregnancy and childbirth, among other criteria, the report found the two best cities for new moms were both in Oregon: Portland and Salem. The worst? Philadelphia and Detroit.
Celebrating Moms Worldwide
Flower shop owner Allean Austin pioneered a long-standing Southern tradition in the 1940s that churchgoers still practice on Mother’s Day: A white flower is worn to commemorate a mother who has passed away, and a red flower honors living moms. Today, corsages are an absolute prerequisite for anyone entering a church in the South. But with COVID protocols still in place in many areas, Black Southern women might be robbed of this chance to symbolically honor their mothers this year, OZY Editor-at-Large Christina Greer explains.
If you’ve lost your mother, then Mother’s Day in Nepal involves a pilgrimage to a pond, Mata Tirtha, in Kathmandu. The ritual aims to bring peace to the deceased mother’s soul by offering prayers or bathing in the waters. Legend has it that a boy once saw his deceased mother’s reflection in the pool, which inspired the pilgrimage.
Imagine sleeping peacefully in your bed when your children suddenly cast off your covers and tie you up. The only escape? Giving them presents. Sound like fun? Then maybe you should consider moving to the Balkans, where Mother’s Day is celebrated in December, and it’s the children who get the gifts. Of course, they have some leverage from the whole tying-up business.
Is there a better way to celebrate mothers than with a 10-day festival? We don’t think so! Hindus in India celebrate Durga Puja, dedicated to celebrating the lion-riding mother-goddess. The festival harkens back to the 1500s and lasts for 10 days to mark the time it took the goddess Durga to battle and beat an evil demon. For moms of toddlers, the struggle might sound eerily similar to trying to get your youngster to take a nap.
Every Day. In Every Way.
Why devote just one day to mothers? If international readers find the whole Mother’s Day tradition a bit odd, rest assured: We appreciate that the holiday is but a symbol, and we make sure to honor our mothers each and every day for their love, support and sacrifice — and we encourage readers to do the same.
Happy Mother’s Day!