The encounters with motherhood that have come to the fore during the current global pandemic stand in stark contrast to the idealizing and prescriptive maternal narratives promulgated by twenty-first culture with which we are more familiar. While it is true that Covid-19 has exposed numerous fault-lines and fissures across multiple layers of society, motherhood has been particularly subject to trauma throughout this unprecedented health crisis. Mothers right across the maternal spectrum are suffering as the work of both becoming and being a mother has sharply intensified and reached almost unmanageable proportions for some.
As powerfully conveyed by ‘Mel’, the opening episode of ITV’s commissioned bite-size series of isolation stories both filmed and set during Covid-19 lockdown, while pregnancy in ordinary times is often fraught with anxiety and ambivalence, pregnancy during imposed quarantine is even more daunting. Expectant mothers during Coronavirus face the real probability of having to give birth alone as well as a significant withdrawal of the usual (admittedly inadequate) support services for perinatal and postnatal depression. In addition to this are accounts of new mothers who, having tested positive for Covid-19, are deprived of the immediate opportunity to bond with their newborn, forced to forgo skin-to-skin and/or breastfeeding for fear of transmitting the infection. For other women, it is the very experience of motherhood itself that is denied to them as a result of the pandemic, with the majority of assisted fertility treatments having been paused and those who have opted for surrogacy prohibited from travelling to meet their much longed for baby for the first time.
Where established mothers are concerned, the already burdensome motherload has now expanded to include homeschooling, entertainment, emotional therapy, and personal training! The division between public and private has never been more stark, except that now there is barely any access to the public for mothers who, exhausted and overwhelmed, appear to have been returned to the nightmarish captivity of the home so scrupulously critiqued by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963). That mother-work largely goes unnoticed and unrecompensed by society stems from the ingrained cultural belief that maternal labour is ‘instinctual’, an act of love, thereby depoliticizing it and rendering it invisible. In a photo essay for The Globe and Mail (9th May 2020), visual and installation artist, Cindy Blažević, reflects on the pitfalls and pressures of mothering 24/7 during this protracted period of confinement in the home. Exacerbating the sheer amount of extra chores and responsibilities faced by mothers during self-isolation, is the expectation that, amidst the chaos and uncertainty, they transform the home into a sanctuary where the family can feel calm and safe – that is, everyone except for the mother whose ‘me time’ has become practically non-existent.
One particular group of mothers who have been negatively impacted by the global pandemic is, without a doubt, single mothers. We are aware of the plight of many single mothers who were refused entry to supermarkets due to being accompanied by a child/children, even though they had no choice in the matter. Studies also reveal a stark asymmetry of labour between separated parents, with single mothers bearing the brunt of the caring (if not exclusively) in contrast to non-resident fathers. Furthermore, this inequitable experiential gap is normalized because, as previously stated, it is assumed that mothers ‘naturally’ want to position themselves as the primary caregiver and are ‘innately’ self-sacrificial when it comes to raising children.
Unfortunately, however, the gender inequalities do not end here with mothers in professional employment more likely to either be furloughed or asked to take unpaid leave than fathers and considerably more vulnerable to redundancy in the post-pandemic climate than their male counterparts. In relation to academia, the sector that directly concerns my own personal experience of mothering during a global health crisis, as outlined in a recent report published by The Guardian (12th May 2020), research from women/mothers has been plummeting since the Covid-19 outbreak as they struggle to combine the extra domestic chores with writing while the number of article submissions from men/fathers has actually risen. Subsequently, women/mothers in academia are confronted with the risk of falling behind in the highly competitive publishing and funding environment and later being disadvantaged in terms of career progression if their individual circumstances are not taken into consideration. The examples cited above constitute only a small sample of the long list of factors rendering the navigation of motherhood during Coronavirus increasingly challenging and, in some instances, impossible. Other issues that come to mind are the stresses of mothering during a period of mounting economic precarity, helping a child living with a disability to survive lockdown, nursing a sick or terminally ill child who may no longer have the same access to hospital as a result of the virus, and, perhaps most unthinkable of all, having to deal with the death of a child at a time when normal funeral and grieving rites are suspended. Regrettably, in the background to this atmosphere of acute disequilibrium, the spectre of the ‘good’ mother (predominantly via social media) still hovers at large. Mothers’ decisions regarding their children are harshly judged (too much screen-time, not enough exercise, too much junk food, not enough home-baking, and so on) and the ‘Mom Wars’ continue, pitting women against one another in the bitter struggle to emerge as the best mother possible from this global crisis when they could, in fact, more usefully function as a source of maternal solidarity. As we enter into the exit phase of the pandemic, the time for reflection on the ‘new normal’ approaches, that is, a rethinking of the structures and behavioural modes of our society. While many of the traces left behind by the virus will, of course, be painful, perhaps one of the positive outcomes will be the revalorization of those whose societal role has been grossly undervalued. Our understanding of a ‘key worker’ and their immense contribution to our daily lives has evolved for the better. Perhaps then, there is scope in the aftermath of the pandemic, for a renewed interrogation and appreciation of the challenges of mother-work.