In 2020, over the course of a few days, the terms of motherhood changed. All the careful scaffolding we had erected to make space for a life of our own came crashing down. Whether our children were in day care, school or had a nanny or babysitter, everything collapsed — and we found ourselves full-time, stay-at-home parents for the foreseeable future.
No one consulted us about these new terms. They were foisted upon us overnight. Day cares shut down and school transformed from a dependable place to send your children to remote for a few weeks, then for the rest of the school year, then indefinitely. Sure, the level of challenge this created in your household depended on the ages and temperaments of your children. But no matter their ages, your children were suddenly under your care for 24 hours every single day.
To be clear, the terms of motherhood have never been great; it’s always felt like an impossible job. And yet this year took impossible to another level. Although some mothers choose to home-school their children, I was in that cohort who said: I would never. And yet we were all forced into it.
It isn’t as if we had the tools or time to dedicate ourselves to this home schooling. Many of us were still trying to perform full-time jobs.
That’s largely what led me to become one of the 3.5 million mothers who opted out of the workforce when the pandemic hit. The decision came after spending three months writing someone else’s book manuscript as I traded off supervising remote school with my husband.
But that word “opt” makes it sound as if there were other options. It didn’t feel like there were. Trying to manage two careers with two elementary school kids at home all the time was an exercise in insanity. When we finally turned the book in to the publisher, I took a pandemic maternity leave.
I recognize that I was fortunate to be able to take that step back, that my family could pay our bills on my husband’s income alone. But I didn’t expect to experience so much anger as my leave dragged on longer than anticipated. Many of us who hit pause on work thought it would last a couple of months, maybe the summer, and then a new school year would start and we could resume life as usual.
Then the pandemic got worse in the summer, not better, and it became clear the new school year would begin remote. Our district released new schedules: Ours was four Zooms a day, which ended at 35 past the hour, ensuring a 15-minute screen break for the students. That meant that, like clockwork, my kids came streaming out of their rooms, in search of snacks or distraction, interrupting any work I might be trying to accomplish. It soon became clear it wasn’t even worth it to try; better to just wait for them to need something from me.
I felt trapped in a situation I never signed up for. This was like maternity leave on steroids. You couldn’t even get out of the house, hire babysitters, drop the kids off at grandma’s.
My frustration was fueled by the fact that I had just crossed the finish line of early motherhood in August 2019, when my youngest started kindergarten. I thought I had made it: My days of scrambling for child care were over. So when March 2020 hit, and my hours without my children disappeared for good, I felt like the universe was mocking me. Ha-ha, you think you can have a life of your own? No! Your needs will always come second. Don’t you know what it means to be a mother?
But if this is what it meant to be a mother, I wanted out. I was tired of sacrificing myself and my career on the altar of motherhood. I wanted a different solution, a way for women to become mothers without losing the right to have a life of their own.
The world is not set up for this. Our society functions because women have been conditioned to believe that it is our job to accommodate, to step in when someone is needed, to put others first. We get this messaging from society: Selfless mothers are praised while “bad” moms are shamed, and our role as mother is assumed to be our primary identity. Even more, we receive it from the internal pressure we feel to be the ones solving the problem and ensuring our needs aren’t inconveniencing the family — an inner patriarchy many of us aren’t even aware of.
As I begrudgingly put the writer I wanted to become up on a shelf because of the pandemic, I realized the sacrifice I made this year is exactly what I did when I first became a mother. I quit my full-time job, downshifting to freelance work to better accommodate my children. And here I was again. Nine years later. Doing the exact same thing.
To be clear, I would not have told you I was unhappy during those nine years. I had convinced myself fully that I was making a necessary sacrifice for my children. It wouldn’t be that long until they were both in elementary school; I could hold on until then. In the meantime, I cobbled together part-time child care but often took on a full-time workload. I was so incredibly focused during the hours that someone else was with my children that I said it was fine, that the short hours helped me be more productive.
The truth is, I didn’t feel like I could ask for more. I felt that I should want to mother more than I should want to work. But that wasn’t really the case.
As mothers, we’ve learned to deny our needs, quiet our desires, keep our work lives contained. I’m not surprised mothers were the ones to give up their careers this year. Fathers have not been conditioned to feel guilty about working. In fact, they get accolades if they even take a two-week paternity leave.
Now, though, we have a chance to not simply return to the way things were. Workplaces are rethinking what face time in the office truly means. More of us will have the opportunity to work from home indefinitely. What if we also renegotiated the terms of modern motherhood? What could happen if we stopped accommodating all the time?
My hope is that it would force our spouses, our workplaces and our government to create more structures to support mothers, otherwise more and more women will just forgo it.
I know it won’t happen overnight, that to empty the altar will require changes that are societal, structural, sometimes even subconscious. But there must come a point when we say no more.
I would never want to relive the pandemic, but I recognize that it provided a crucial awakening. Without it, I would have cruised across that finish line as my youngest went to kindergarten convinced that I had done what needed to be done — that I had rightly sacrificed for my family, but thank God it was over.
I don’t see it that way anymore. I realize I let my inner patriarchy trap me into a prison of my own making. I forfeited my own right to happiness for years, out of duty, out of what I thought was required. I placed unrealistic demands on myself to be the mother I thought my children needed when what they truly needed was a role model of a woman doing what she needs for her own sanity and self.
That is the strange gift of the pandemic for me. I realized that I was trapped, but there was a door, and it unlocked from the inside.
I’m never going back.