Forget Soccer Moms and Tiger Moms. Behold the COVID mom.
According to the New York Times’ gender editor Jessica Bennett, she is the beleaguered woman toiling under the strictures of patriarchy while also struggling to keep her household going amid a pandemic. Sure, moms and dads are both living through this crisis (and men are more likely to die from the virus than women), but, Bennett argues, “Many moms face an added stressor: They remain the chief operating officers of their households, even when they have full-time jobs,” and the pandemic has “emphasized the often lopsided division of labor in the home.” As one mom complained to the Times, “I feel like I have five jobs: mom, teacher, C.C.O., house cleaner, chef.”
Polls show that women are more likely to worry about the impact of virus-related disruptions than men, and women on average do perform more unpaid labor in the home than men. Feminist critics of the division of domestic labor often describe this “second shift” as a form of “invisible work” that is an artifact of patriarchy.
But the rush to blame the patriarchy for increased anxiety among women at this particular moment seems both ill-timed and overwrought. “I don’t think that these data suggests that the dads are slacking, necessarily,” Liz Hamel, who led the Kaiser’s poll of attitudes about the pandemic told the Times. She did notice differences between men and women in their feelings about the pandemic: “I think women overall are feeling this more acutely,” she said.
Judging by the remarks of many of the mothers in the Times story, however, women seem more wry and resilient than downtrodden. They acknowledge the challenge of juggling work with caregiving while everyone is at home (at least for those fortunate enough to still be employed). “I think we’ve all joked now about, like, what is the mortality rate for marriages in this virus,” one mother said. Another mother suggested, “You have to find a sense of humor in it.”
That’s a good approach to take, albeit one that is entirely absent in another woe-is-women opinion piece in the Times written by Jessica Grose. The pandemic, Grose claims, has “exposed the great lie of modern motherhood.” What is this terrible lie? “That mothers have been unfairly blamed for their children’s illnesses, even in the face of public health crises, for decades.” Mothers, Grose says, “are held responsible for every detail—large and small—of their children’s well-being.”
According to Ms. Grose, mothers had a far easier emotional burden to bear in earlier centuries because women didn’t blame themselves when their children died from, for example, diphtheria and smallpox. “Though the child mortality rate was high,” Grose writes, “mothers did not feel a sense of personal responsibility for their children’s deaths. They felt it was God’s hand.”
How to free the world’s mothers from their punishing feelings of guilt? Grose issues a vague rallying cry for “institutions” to keep us all “accountable.” “Instead of worrying about the micro-decisions in our individual well-heeled families, we—dads included—should be putting our energies and efforts into keeping institutions accountable for everyone’s well-being,” she writes. Like many left-leaning activists, Grose sees the current pandemic as an opportunity to enact a longed-for transformative agenda. It “gives us the opportunity to make lasting moves away from the ethos of individual responsibility for children’s health and toward community support. We should take it.”
Such sweeping generalizations about motherhood are only possible because both Bennet and Grose willfully ignore some salient aspects of contemporary parenthood. Plenty of women (particularly the educated, upper-middle-class readers of the Times) are more than happy to treat their children like demigods who should be alternatively worshipped and protected as they climb the meritocratic ladder of success. As people have fewer children and spend more resources on them while also placing greater expectations on them, is it any surprise that parents also experience a greater emotional and mental load? There is a reason that “helicopter parenting” and “snowplow parenting” became shorthand for a certain style of elite child-rearing.
You can always opt out of this parenting style (and some parents do, either by economic necessity or choice). But you can’t have it both ways. If you care about little Trevor being at the top of his class at the expensive progressive kindergarten you spent hours wheedling your way into on his behalf, then don’t complain about the mental burden you’ve imposed on yourself by embracing that parenting style. Similarly, no one is forcing women to be the “chief operating officers” of their households; those who take on that role do so of their own free will (or, if they are single parents because there are no other options). To suggest otherwise is to impute mass false consciousness on some of the freest and most successful women on the planet.
Hyperbole aside, parenting in a pandemic is challenging enough—most acutely for people who lack the luxury of being able to complain about it because they are too busy trying to make ends meet or care for the sick. Do we really need to ignite a gender chore war in the midst of it? As much as feminist ideologues enjoy engaging in such forensic accounting in the domestic sphere, these wars have their own casualties, particularly during stressful times. Most parents are doing the best they can, making the best choices possible under the circumstances.
If you’re comparing your contemporary experience of motherhood unfavorably to generations of women who battled constant disease and privation and buried many of their children not as a rare occurrence during a pandemic but as part of their everyday lives, then you’re suffering from a level of ingratitude far more harmful than any patriarchal oppression you perceive yourself to be the victim of.