This morning I was listening to news reports about the rollout of the initial doses of the coronavirus vaccine and started to feel some hope that we will be back to “normal” in a year or so. I cannot wait to get back into the classroom and teach in a place that is not in front of a computer. But I’m also looking forward to what shifting back to regular school and workplace structures will mean for my own spirituality. I was recently going over my notes from Lawrence S. Cunningham & Keith J. Egan’s Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (Paulist Press, 1996) and I was struck by chapter 8, titled “Solitude in Community.” The chapter begins by talking about how solitude is a “necessary component” of community (p. 143). I read my notes on this and thought immediately that this is exactly why the pandemic is so difficult for families!
My own experience during the pandemic has been – I assume – fairly common for working moms. First, I have my academic job. This semester I taught four classes with three preps. Although only one of those classes was brand new, the requirements of the hyflex class mode – namely, that all course material be accessible online – required basically building all new course structures. So, it’s been a lot of work. In all this I am working from home which means that I have my husband (when he’s not working) and my son constantly around. Prior to the pandemic, I, of course, worked at home at times, but much of my work was done in my office. I had a ~30-minute commute, during which I would have time to myself even if I had to wrangle my son out the door and to school in the morning prior to that. It allowed some time to relax and reset to get ready for my day. Now, there have been some benefits to no longer commuting, but I have lost that time for solitude that would allow for a mental and spiritual shift from my role as mother to my role as teacher. Nowadays, those roles interrupt each other constantly, especially when my son has a question about his remote schoolwork while I am trying to teach.
My son’s school this year started fully remote, then went hybrid (where he would go to school twice a week for only four hours), and now has started to flip between these as the superintendent tries to figure out what to do with the rising cases of the virus in our area. My son is in first grade and as any parents of young children know in this pandemic, the managing of his schoolwork has been an overall increase on my workload. Each day I try to check in with my son, go over the PowerPoint slides that his teacher has posted, and make sure that he has completed all his work. Sometimes I have had to remove my son from his remote class if I’m the only parent at home and I have to teach and on those days I am not only reviewing the material, but teaching it to him for the first time—something that, as someone who teaches post-secondary school, I am not qualified to do. This at times has led to yelling and crying… mostly about math. And, again, prior to the pandemic I would do some extra work with my son, but generally only on the weekends. I have some grade-appropriate workbooks we’d go through together and I’ve been working on a bit of French with him as well. But having to go through his work each day is more than I was doing with him before the pandemic. So again, my son’s school has put pressure on any time for solitude that I might have.
There have been a multitude of articles that talk about the mental health issues that are facing working mothers during the pandemic and it seems that this lack of solitude as a space to develop one’s spiritual life is part of it. I’ve been reading them since the pandemic began but I do not have the mental space to even keep track of everything I’ve read in this area. I almost feel like just listing the titles that come up when I did a google search to find some of the articles I have read will more or less sum up everything you need to know. Here are some gems in chronological order:
- Perelman, Deb. “In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.” New York Times. 2 July 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/02/business/covid-economy-parents-kids-career-homeschooling.html
- Pearson, Catherine. “The Relentless Despair Of Being A Working Mom In 2020.” Huffington Post. 17 September 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/despair-working-mothers-coronavirus-covid-19_l_5f5ec0bcc5b67602f606f041
- Hsu, Andrea. “‘This Is Too Much’: Working Moms Are Reaching The Breaking Point During The Pandemic.” NPR. 29 September 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/29/918127776/this-is-too-much-working-moms-are-reaching-the-breaking-point-during-the-pandemi
- Joyce, Amy & Ellen McCarthy. “Working moms are not okay.” The Washington Post. 30 October 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/on-parenting/working-moms-covid-pandemic-jobs/2020/10/29/e76a5ee0-0ef5-11eb-8a35-237ef1eb2ef7_story.html
In July as we were talking about plans to reopen (or not) schools and working parents were freaking out about the requirements our jobs were going to put on us vs. the non-existent childcare options that were materializing (or not), Perelman basically expressed all the pressure we were already feeling before the fall semester began. She was raising the point that this was going to be impossible for working parents, but also that people were not making enough of a fuss about it. As she explained, “The consensus is that everyone agrees this is a catastrophe, but we are too bone-tired to raise our voices above a groan, let alone scream through a megaphone. Every single person confesses burnout, despair, feeling like they are losing their minds, knowing in their guts that this is untenable.”
Perelman’s article, unlike the others, focuses on the effects of the pandemic on all working parents. But even she nods to the issue “simmering below the surface” of questioning working parents’ need for schools to be open: “a retrograde view that maybe one parent (they mean the mom) shouldn’t be working, that doing so is bad for children, that it’s selfish to pursue financial gains (or solvency, as working parents will tell you). It is a sentiment so deeply woven into our cultural psyche that making the reasonable suggestion that one shouldn’t have to abandon a career or livelihood if offices reopen before schools, day cares and camps do is viewed as a chance to redeliberate this.” As the Washington Post article by Amy Joyce and Ellen McCarthy explains, “The pandemic has laid bare hard truths for American women. The gender gap is still wide enough for a crisis like the pandemic to pack it with explosives and light the fuse.”
The Huffington Post article by Catherine Pearson describes the effect of this cultural view of childcare and motherhood on working moms during the pandemic: “Mothers who are working from home because of the pandemic appear to be struggling more with anxiety, loneliness and depression than work-from-home dads, and rates of anxiety among new moms have jumped by as much as 40% since the pandemic began.” Pearson, writing in mid-September, emphasized the need for mothers to also prioritize their self-care, something that is very difficult given all the pressures on a mother’s time normally, let alone during the pandemic. Again, this has echoes with the point raised by Cunningham and Egan about the need for solitude to develop one’s spirituality, even when living in community and in the world. The NPR article highlights a similar point, noting that the “American exceptionalism” of being one of the only Western industrialized countries that doesn’t offer paid parental leave, universal child care, and federal standards for vacation and sick days compounds the issue on American parents. There is also the problem, that Joyce and McCarthy highlighted in their Washington Post article, that growing up many of us expected that the system in place would allow us to both work and have children. However, “despite what girls of the ’80s and ’90s were promised, women in 2020 are still expected to shoulder a majority of household duties, including taking care of children and aging parents. Without day cares and in-person education, what was previously a difficult situation has become impossible.” Many of these articles give the stories of individual women and the despair that has been caused by trying to work during the pandemic. As the Joyce and McCarthy explained, “America’s public health crisis has created a parallel mental health crisis, and working mothers may be uniquely vulnerable.”
I think a connection can be made between Valerie C. Saiving’s argument that, when it comes to sin, “the temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations of man as man” (from the selection in Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 5th Ed., Wiley, 2017, p. 386) and the struggles that women are undergoing because of the pandemic. Saiving writes that the feminine forms of sin are not related to pride, but instead “are better suggested by such items as triviality, distractability, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s own self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence; inability to respect the boundaries of privacy; sentimentality, gossipy sociability, and mistrust of reason – in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self” (ibid.). Now, several of these characteristics stand out to me as ones that would be exasperated by the pandemic. I’ve previously written about the mental load of women and this is something that becomes more of a burden with more things to keep track of. With my first-grade son in a hybrid school structure, I now have – as I mentioned previously – to check on his schoolwork daily to make sure that he has everything done. I have to remember to go online each morning he goes to school to submit the COVID form (something that I’ve forgotten twice, each time prompting a call from the school nurse). All this extra responsibility related to my son’s education is on top of my teaching – the workload of which (as previously mentioned as well) has increased because of the pandemic-related teaching structure –, research (ha!), and service. I of course also still have all my regular responsibilities around the home as well. So, yes, “distractability,” “diffuseness,” and a “lack of an organizing center or focus” basically describes my entire life these days.
I have to add that I recently finished the audiobook of the novel American Dirt (listening while I do housework – you think I have free time to read for fun???) and I can’t help but relate to Lydia’s mantra of “Don’t think; don’t think,” as she’s trying to escape the cartel violence that killed her entire family. Now, of course I’m not trying to make any sort of equivalency between her fictional story and my own life, but I have found myself needing to keep reminding myself “one thing at a time,” even just at the point of washing my face in the morning. Without it, my mind spirals off into all the things I need to do and the problem of “distractability” prevents me from focusing enough to get anything done.
To sum up, there are two aspects of life during the pandemic, in my experience at least, that prevent the development of a full spirituality and create mental health burdens, and these are especially problematic for working mothers. First, because I am working from home, the space of solitude during my commute and the separation of work from home is now gone. Second, the increased pressures on my time and mental energy virtually eliminate the time I would have for prayer. (Not to mention, of course, that virtual online church does not give my family the same prayerful and quiet space as going to church each week does for our spiritual development—in a sense, there is an aspect of solitude in going to church even as a family.) As Cunningham & Egan argue in their conclusion to their chapter, “Quiet times, some silence, some time alone is necessary for everyone who seeks sanity and holiness. Moreover, the search for God and the discernment of important decisions in life require reflection and prayer that only solitude makes possible” (p. 160). As a woman in theology, my spiritual life is connected to my research and both of these are areas that suffer from a lack of time for solitude.