Gillian Anderson, Sylvie Lafrenière, and Whitney Wood
It’s a sunny August 2020 morning on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. A Wednesday morning. CBC On the Island, the local morning news radio show, profiles our research project on the burden of care women are experiencing during the pandemic, especially the impact COVID-19 is having on mothers. Not an hour after the segment airs, a single mother caring for a special needs child reaches out to us. Struggling to balance paid and unpaid labour responsibilities given the economic precariousness and financial repercussions of pandemic mothering and limited back to school options for her child, she shares her appreciation for folks “recognizing and speaking out about the unpaid load mothers carry and how this is exacerbated during the pandemic.”
Forgoing her own career goals and missing work opportunities, she writes, “We do the job of many for our children…. and often struggle to keep a job…We have sacrificed much to give our children a quality of life. And we have also saved the government millions of dollars by performing jobs/tasks (caregiver, driver, social coordinator, advocate, nurse, social worker etc.) for our children that would be paid if done by someone other than mothers.” She further notes, “Prior to the pandemic there were very little supports (care and financial) and now it is even worse… My daughter will not be returning to school in the fall as she is very high risk with many underlying health concerns. As a consequence, I will be providing full time care and will not be able to work. Our future is very uncertain and the worry is overwhelming.” This mother’s personal narrative of pandemic caregiving is one punctuated with struggle, worry and feelings of being overwhelmed. And she is not alone. Many Island mothers surveyed as part of our research on mothers’ caregiving labour during COVID-19 (N=758) have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic as additional disruptions, responsibilities and upheavals are added to the longstanding double burden of paid and domestic labour already shouldered by many mothers.
Now, almost a year later, as the pandemic lingers on, the financial and economic impacts on mothers’ caregiving labour are increasingly being exacerbated by the socio-emotional toll pandemic caregiving is exacting on maternal well-being. While the pandemic has rendered issues related to mothers’ mental health more visible — and therefore, perhaps, more universal — it has at the same time brought into sharper relief the deeply gendered and historically-rooted neglect and dismissal of maternal mental health concerns, issues that continue to receive inequitable attention.
Situated among the work of other researchers, artists and activists, we take up the words of this mother and other Island mothers as part of a broader call to action on maternal caregiving and well-being embraced within this issue. Our research aims to both acknowledge the enormous amount of unpaid caring labour mothers perform and the intensification of motherwork amid the current pandemic moment that further contributes to maternal feelings of what Keyes (2002) characterizes as “languishing”. We add our voices to the growing collective call to take up issues of maternal mental well-being in part to draw attention to what some have termed the “shadow pandemic” but also to disrupt the dismissive narratives surrounding mothers’ caregiving work, and to ensure necessary maternal mental health supports. Many of these supports, clearly long overdue, need to be in place to help mothers shoulder shifts and changes to their caregiving as a result of COVID-19 — these measures are essential not only for mothers, children and families, but for society as a whole in the face of future waves and the move toward recovery.
Languishing, Caregiving Responsibilities and Maternal Well-Being: Past and Present
The concept of “languishing” has recently experienced a resurgence. Coined by sociologist Corey Keyes (2002), mainstream media has revived popular attention to the concept, particularly in relation to current conversations centered on mental health. Keyes’ (2002) model of mental health operationalizes mental well-being along the lines of a continuum. Located at one end of the continuum are those who are flourishing; at the opposite end are individuals experiencing mental illness, a major depression for example (2002:217). Languishing, which Keyes refers to as the “absence of mental health” falls somewhere in between these ends. “To be flourishing, then, is to be filled with positive emotion and to be functioning well psychologically and socially. Adults with incomplete mental health are languishing in life with low well-being (see Cushman 1990; Keyes forthcoming; Levy 1984; Singer 1977)” (Keyes 2002:210). Keyes’ research found “12.1% of adults” were languishing (2002:213). Whereas flourishing may be a stress reliever and assist with mental resilience, he argues languishing may be a precursor to poor mental health outcomes (2002:218). This possibility gives us pause if we consider how such feelings may shape maternal mental health issues moving through and beyond the pandemic.
Scholars and news media alike have referenced Keyes’ idea of languishing and some have drawn on the concept in reports of the so-called “shadow [mental health] pandemic” occurring alongside COVID-19 (1). In one of the most widely circulated articles, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing,” that appeared in the New York Times, author Adam Grent (2021) highlights the importance of naming this feeling. Languishing, Grent suggests, “is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either.” He writes:
Languishing is not merely in our heads —it’s in our circumstances. You can’t heal a sick culture with personal bandages. We still live in a world that normalizes physical health challenges but stigmatizes mental health challenges. As we head into a new post-pandemic reality, it’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being. “Not depressed” doesn’t mean you’re not struggling. “Not burned out” doesn’t mean you’re fired up. By acknowledging that so many of us are languishing, we can start giving voice to quiet despair and lighting a path out of the void.
We agree with Grent that indeed many are struggling, that the pandemic has contributed to feelings of languishing, and that naming and acknowledging such feelings is key to destigmatizing and navigating mental health and wellness. That said, though increasingly shared, exacerbated, and made both more visible and more universal amid the pandemic, these same struggles may be unevenly experienced and addressed. Moreover, in addition to living in what Grent aptly characterizes as a “sick culture,” we also suggest that we continue to live in a culture rooted in patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy that predates and will no doubt extend beyond the current pandemic moment. In this context, the realities of women’s diverse lived experiences, and the significance of women’s emotional and mental health, have long been overlooked. These gendered dismissals are rooted in historical attitudes towards women’s mental health throughout the life course, but particularly in relation to domesticity, the home, and family life
Historians, sociologists, and scholars across disciplines have identified the unique and shifting temporal patterns of motherhood, especially in terms of the care of infants and young children. As Sarah Knott writes in her recent book, Mother Is a Verb, if “the good bits” of motherhood can be described as an experience of “swinging buoyancy, the bad bits are staccato chaos.” Interruptions, often documented in the historical record only in passing, constitute a core part of “rhythms of the daily round” for mothers (Knott 2019: 115-116). Since the mid-twentieth century, shifting “rhythms of motherwork” have seen mothers take on a more intensive childrearing role, as the emotional demands and normative expectations placed on parents – and especially mothers – have generally increased throughout North America (Luxton 1980). Though women responded to these shifts in different ways, popular representations of motherhood in the postwar decades reflected both a glorification of the white, middle-class ideal, and the growing sense of dissatisfaction a particular group of women felt concerning their domestic roles.
Published in 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique drew new attention to what Friedan referred to as “the problem that has no name” – the widespread discontent and unhappiness associated with housework, marriage, and childrearing felt by many American women (Friedan 1963). Pushing back against the idea that women were “naturally” content in these roles, Friedan found that many of the housewives she interviewed were incredibly busy with domestic tasks, yet remained unfulfilled. “The problem that has no name”, Friedan argued, left women feeling empty, tired, and incomplete – feelings that call to mind the focus on “languishing” in our current pandemic moment. Though historians have since concluded that representations of idyllic motherhood were not as monolithic as Friedan made them out to be (Joanne Meyerowitz, for example, argued that “domestic ideals” always “coexisted in ongoing tensions with an ethos of individual achievement that celebrated nondomestic activity”). Friedan’s critique of the “feminine mystique” struck a chord with many white, middle-class women throughout North America as it reworked many of the cultural tropes that, for decades, had been a persistent feature in popular media (Meyerowitz 1993: 1458). The concept of a unique and identifiable “housewife syndrome” also resonated north of the border, as Canadian physicians argued that the desire of the so-called “intelligent” woman to escape the “diaper prison” was often “at the root of symptoms which bring her as a patient to the doctor’s office” (Lattey 1964: 717).
Friedan’s claims were part of a much longer history linking women’s mental illness to a lack of fulfillment in the domestic sphere (Haggett 2012). In the closing decade of the nineteenth-century, Charlotte Perkins Stetson’s (later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman) narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” was prescribed a “rest cure” in response to the onset of nervous depression following the birth of her baby (Stetson 1892). Half a century later, Friedan posited that postwar middle-class housewives and mothers sought to “blot out” feelings of emptiness and ennui by turning to prescription drugs, with “many suburban housewives… taking tranquilizers like cough drops” (Friedan 1963: 31). Originally marketed to men as a medical aid that would enable them to cope with the pressures of work and public life, by the late 1960s, middle-class mothers were widely identified as the group most likely to use tranquilizers, with individual advertisements prominently featuring wedding rings as visual markers of a uniquely feminine affliction (Metzl 2003; Tone 2009). Cultural and medical discourses routinely positioned “the banality of domestic life” as “pathogenic”, and a key factor contributing to women’s experiences of mental illness (Haggett 2012). Women’s voices, however, were largely silent in these top-down representations throughout the postwar period.
Recent decades, however, have seen greater attention to women’s mental health, centring individual stories and the role of gender in shaping subjective experiences. And, in our current pandemic moment, this shift continues. Studies on the impact of the pandemic on mothers’ mental health have started to garner attention, and much of the reporting emphasizes (and for good reason) the negative impact COVID-19 has had on mothers (Davenport et. al 2020; Goyal 2021; Simba and Ngcbo 2020; Zamarro and Prados 2021). A Canadian study by University of Calgary researchers, focused on maternal mental health (Racine et al. 2021) finds an uptick in anxiety and depression among mothers faced with “the lion’s share of extra stressors in the home, related to domestic tasks, home schooling and childcare responsibilities.” “These responsibilities have been spread out a little more amongst moms and dads over the course of pandemic . . . but women are still shouldering the majority of that burden and this likely contributes to rising mental health difficulties” (Racine as cited by McCoy, 2021).
Our research considers how the ‘burdens of care’ shouldered by mothers during the pandemic exact a toll on mothers’ mental health and well-being. The thematic focus in this article centres on emergent narratives voiced by Island mothers who may be feeling as though they are “languishing” as the pandemic lingers on. Our results lend support to existing studies but take a new approach in highlighting the impacts the pandemic has had on the mental well-being of mothers who may be neither “flourishing” nor clinically depressed, but whose feelings about their caregiving responsibilities may be situated in a liminal or in between space, knowing the potential of a downward spiral exists and is cause for concern. In short, our data suggests mothers’ perceptions of their caregiving responsibilities during COVID evoke feelings we liken to “languishing”. Situated in the context of historical and ongoing dismissals of these gendered experiences, these findings represent an opportunity to take individual stories and complaints of “languishing” seriously as they are rendered more visible and universal due to the pandemic, and address potential vulnerabilities associated with maternal health and well-being as we move towards a post-pandemic moment.
Data and Methodology: More than Expected
Data for our study was collected through an online survey aimed at mothers living on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada during the height of the second wave of COVID-19 (November 2020 to February 2021). Participants were recruited through social media, TV, radio and print media reports highlighting our project and via word of mouth. Given our timeline in the field, the response to our survey was much greater than we initially anticipated. A total of 805 mothers from all over Canada completed the survey, resulting in a convenience sample of 758 Island mothers, many of whom embody race and class privilege. Eighty-four percent (84%) of Island mothers stated they were married or living in a common-law relationship (70% and 14%, respectively) and 76% were employed at the time of the survey. Our sample consists mostly of educated (73% had completed a postsecondary degree, diploma or certificate), white (87%) women. Almost sixty percent (58.8%) of mothers are situated in dual earner households, most of whom (46.1%) earn between $100-$120K per year. Families range in size and include anywhere between 1 to 7 children, and their ages vary between less than 1 year to 37 years. A third of Island mothers (32.8%) are between 36 and 40 years of age and 46.6% are mothering two children under 19 years old. Almost all mothers are the children’s birth mother (98.9%), but there are also step-mothers (2.5%), adoptive mothers (0.8%), family members (0.7%) and foster parents (0.3%) (2). Table 1 presents more of the respondents’ characteristics. Though not representative of the population, the final sample size is impressive which speaks both to the importance and timeliness of the research topic.
Table 1: Survey respondent characteristics
|Single, never married||6.7|
|18 to 25||1.3|
|26 to 30||12.9|
|31 to 35||27.7|
|36 to 40||32.8|
|41 to 45||17.0|
|Mothers of colour (includes Black, Filipino, Latina, Asian, Biracial, Multi)||6.2|
|High school or less||8.9|
|Some postsecondary (not completed)||18.5|
|Contract or seasonal||2.9|
|Partner/spouse in hhld, dual earners||58.8|
|Partner/spouse in hhld, single earner||24.4|
|Single parent, employed||12.9|
|Single parent, unemployed||2.4|
|Partner/spouse in hhld, both unemployed||1.6|
|CHILDREN UNDER 19 IN HHLD|
|3 or more||16.5|
The survey asked mothers about their mothering experiences and feelings towards caregiving responsibilities, coping strategies and overall satisfaction of work-family balance. A number of quantitative and qualitative questions, 33 in total, were designed to capture a range of traditional caregiving responsibilities characteristic of the processes of social reproduction. These included physical aspects of care (i.e. preparing meals, doing groceries and laundry, caring for sick children), mental time and energy expended on decision making and organizational tasks (i.e. organizing the household’s social life and child care) and socioemotional oriented tasks (i.e. remembering birthdays and anniversaries, attending to needs of others including neighbors and or seniors). We also included additional COVID-related caregiving responsibilities (i.e. managing the family “bubble”, communicating with schools and daycare, educating children about health issues, school and safety protocols etc.). These questions all asked, “Who in your household is primarily responsible for…?”. Response options were as follows: “Mostly you; mostly your partner; Shared equally; One/some of the children; Other”. Alongside the responsibility questions, we asked several open-ended questions about how mothers felt in relation to their caregiving responsibilities. This allowed for a more in-depth exploration of a range of positive emotions including the expression of relief, closeness to children and family, and feelings of social support, as well as negative emotions, such as worry or anxiousness, overwhelm, and resentment.
Our central focus is on Island mothers whose responses may be read and or interpreted as neither fully positive, nor entirely negative, but rather as indicative of a liminal space situated somewhere in between “flourishing” or “thriving” and “the absence of mental health” (Keyes 2002: 208). In short, those mothers whose feelings about their caregiving tasks and responsibilities thematically convey a mood of “languishing”.
The Burdens of Care: “It’s everything ALL the damn time. It’s an all consuming vortex.”
Our results overwhelmingly demonstrate mothers are predominantly responsible for household chores and caregiving. For example, close to 75% or more of mothers indicated they are responsible for tasks such as caring for sick children (79% vs 19% “shared equally with partner”), doing housework (76% vs 18%), doing laundry (74% vs 18%), and or bathing and diapering a child or dependent (63% vs 33%). These findings mirror prior studies that show that women and mothers, especially in nuclear families, are most often responsible for daily aspects of social reproduction including the most feminized, routinized, repetitive aspects of unpaid caregiving labour (Collins 2019; Luxton 2017; Statistics Canada 2020). Coltrane (2000) identifies five “indoor” chores repeatedly being shown to be the most “mundane”, “repetitive” and time-consuming household tasks. These include cooking or meal preparation; meal clean up, including dish washing; cleaning house; grocery and household goods shopping; and various laundry related tasks such as washing and ironing clothes (Coltrane 2000:1210). These tasks require the greatest time input and are often characterized as “less optional” and are less easily “postponed” when compared to “more time flexible”, “occasional” and “discretionary” household tasks such as gardening, driving, bill payment or home repairs (Coltrane 2000:1210). Similarly, mothers in our survey reported that they are the ones mostly responsible for 100% of the typical, unpaid domestic tasks we asked about(3).
These findings are not unexpected. Gender ideologies and inequalities continue to stereotypically position women, particularly mothers, as primary caregivers. Research shows a gendered division of labour persists in Canadian families, whereby women continue to bear the brunt of social reproduction and perform more hours of unpaid labour than their male counterparts. Although the gender gap related to unpaid housework has decreased over the last 30 years, there are still more women than men who participate in housework. When men do participate in housework, they spend less time at it than women (Moyser and Burlock 2018). While there has been a move towards the sharing of housework among opposite sex couples in Canada, data from the General Social Survey (2017) reflect a continued pattern of the gendered division of household labour. Women remain primarily responsible for tasks such as laundry and meal preparation, while men typically perform household repairs and outdoor tasks (Statistics Canada 2020).
Our survey results exemplify this finding. When asked who is responsible for doing outside work, like home repairs, 18% of mothers said it was “mostly me” while 65% said it was “mostly my partner”. Taking out the garbage and recycling revealed similar results: 26% of mothers were responsible for these tasks compared to 37% of partners. These tasks differ in terms of frequency. Taking out the garbage for example may be a weekly or bi-weekly task and outdoor work is often seasonal, whereas meal prep and cleanup happens on a daily basis and is more constrained in that it cannot be easily put off or for too long. Recycling can wait a day or two and pile up. Ignoring a hungry child or a dirty diaper is not so easy.
A married Mid-Island mom of a 9-year-old daughter who is employed full time explains her frustration with the gendered division of labour in her household and the exhaustion stemming from the constant multitasking associated with meeting the daily demands of social reproduction including being responsible for everything from grocery shopping and meal planning to finding a doctor and a piano teacher. Welcoming the opportunity to stop for a moment and take stock of all that she feels she is responsible for coordinating and the impact it was having on her mental well-being was eye opening. She reflects:
I think it is called emotional labour. I am working full time, but I have to organize how the house is run. Playdates, activities, which jobs are to be done next. Grocery lists, getting my child to participate in work around the house, figuring out how to navigate this world of global warming, pandemics and electronics. Getting her exercise, what is read, what is viewed […] I find this absolutely exhausting. I am unsure why I am doing this all the time. Ok stop the rant! Thanks for asking. Overwhelmed, guilty, lost, not realizing that my compass was lost, but having problems coming up with these words and recognizing the impact on my emotional health.
These findings also challenge a mainstream progressive redistributive discourse that suggests men as husbands and fathers are doing more household labour than say a generation or ago. While they may be doing more than in the past, according to our data, they are not necessarily reportedly bearing the burden of responsibility for caregiving labour at least from their spouses’ or partners’ perspectives in the current moment. What’s more, there appears to be blurring between the physical and mental labour that existed before March 2020, but that since has taken on new meaning during the pandemic.For example, decisions regarding childcare or participation in sports take on additional significance when people are asked to stay home and public facilities like libraries, parks, pools and playgrounds are closed. Monitoring screen time is different when children are attending classes from home given the necessary assistance and management of remote learning. These shifts lead to emergence of additional and or pandemic specific tasks. As a married, Indigenous mother of two children aged 2 and 5 notes, “I am constantly trying to navigate the new orders, new things to make the children’s life special and enforcing in our home the way we need to behave in the new normal. My husband has not participated in seeking out any information to make this easier for us.”
“There is a lot more time needed for mental health care/emotional needs and less time for things like cooking healthy meals and keeping the house clean. It is overwhelming.”
Our data show that it is predominantly women as mothers who have taken on these novel tasks, further increasing their burdens of care. Table 2, below, provides results regarding the distribution of caregiving responsibilities related specifically to COVID-19, between mothers and their partners (4).
Table 2: Caregiving responsibilities specific to COVID
Caregiving responsibilities specific to COVID
|Mostly moms (%)||Shared equally with partner (%)||Mostly partner (%)||Other (ie. children, other adult) (%)|
|Who is responsible for explaining the pandemic to children||52||46||1||1|
|Who spends most time thinking about or keeping track of:|
|Reviewing & responding to communications from school/daycare||88||11||2||0.3|
|School/daycare protocols for healthy return||84||15||1||0.3|
|Keeping contact, checking-in on family/friends not in household||72||25||3||0|
|Comforting kids as they deal with loss of contact with friends||71||29||1||0.3|
|Coordinating household use of internet for school and work||70||19||10||0.4|
|Comforting kids over pandemic uncertainties||67||32||1||1|
|Educating kids about health issues (hand washing, social distancing, masks)||63||36||1||1|
|Monitoring kids’ screen time||61||37||2||1|
|Who is responsible for decision-making related to:|
|Arranging childcare to accommodate work or any other reason||87||11||1||0.3|
|Kids returning to school/daycare||75||24||1||0.2|
|Considering available options for returning to school/daycare||74||25||0.1||0.3|
|Kids’ extracurricular activities||70||28||1||1|
|Whether or not kids can go to community pool (with friends or for lessons)||60||38||1||1|
|Maintaining physical activity for kids||57||39||4||1|
|Whether or not kids play sports||55||42||3||1|
|Who is in your kids’ bubble||46||52||0.1||3|
Data related to the sharing of responsibilities regarding social reproduction show women are still shouldering the brunt of the burden for the “new” tasks that are related specifically to dealing with the pandemic. Although there is some evidence of partners sharing the load, the responsibility still falls mostly on mothers: they either carry it alone or they have to share it. Though respondents were given the option of noting whether such tasks were “shared equally”, the idea of sharing has been problematized in the existing literature. While “shared equally” implies an equitable or a 50/50 split, some studies liken an egalitarian division to a 35-65% split where women still carry a greater load (Risman 1998 as cited by Carson, Miller and Rudd 2020). Moreover, our findings show the highest percentage for “Mostly partner” is just 10%, and it is for coordinating the household use of the internet for school and work which likely stems from the need to coordinate usage enabling some of these partners to work remotely from home amid the lockdown. As women take on a disproportionate amount of new COVID-related household tasks — organizing childcare, ensuring family safety, children’s education, new duties of household management — these forms of feminized labour are not only rendered even less visible given orders to “stay home,” but extended periods of restrictions and lockdown also run the risk of acting as a wedge, continuing to widen the gap in household divisions of labour.
Languishing: “My days feel so monotonous, every day is the same and there’s nothing I can do about it. Feel major guilt that my daughter is missing out… It’s really, really hard.”
The evidence indicating that extended caregiving responsibilities have fallen to mothers during this global health crisis leads us to question their well-being and their feelings about caregiving responsibilities. There is evidence to suggest that some Island mothers may be “flourishing” or “thriving.” Some of our respondents reported feeling “grateful” (72%) and/or “closer to children and family” (77%). For example, a married mom of four easily made the transition to working from home and quickly established a family routine in large part due to the flexibility afforded to her by her job and an amazingly supportive, hands-on spouse. Fully embracing her mothering identity, she expresses a sense of gratitude and how “lucky” she feels to connect with her children and community. She recalls:
My kids spent most of the lockdown out […] with a little pack of other children. We established a safe community bubble quickly. This enabled all the parents to keep an eye out and the kids had a great time […]. In short, more time at home and a few more things to watch out for, but it is all very easy to manage in our household. […] Because my work allows me lots of flexibility, I have been able to hang out more with my kids when they have been home. […]. I have an awesome partner, my husband is amazing and loves his stay-at-home Dad role.
In this case, it is worth noting that this mother readily acknowledges the privileges of safety, space, family, community, and employer support that have positively shaped the pandemic experience for her and her family.
In stark contrast, our findings reveal that most mothers have experienced a much more difficult time, suggesting that not all mothers, even those relatively privileged by race and class have enjoyed these same types of supports. They point to experiences of “incomplete” mental health or the “absence of well-being” among mothers. Only 10% of mothers surveyed indicated feeling “an increased level of social support”, 12% felt “relaxed” and 14% felt “relieved”. Furthermore, for many mothers, caregiving responsibilities caused them to feel “depressed” (62%), “resentful” (63%), “sleep-deprived” (70%), lonely or isolated” (83%), “short tempered and irritable” (87%), “overwhelmed” (91%), “worried or anxious” (91%) and/or “tired” (97%).
“It’s hard to promote hope in my kids when there are so many challenges that make me feel overwhelmed”
Narratives of overwhelm predominate. A single mother of 3 from Central Vancouver Island stated she was “overwhelmed before COVID” and that her caregiving responsibilities have only increased with her having “less help from friends and family.” This mother writes: “I am doing everything. I am the only breadwinner and I do all the chores to take care of children and the house. I am doing what my mom and dad did between the two of them.” For her, the effects of overwork include “really bad morning anxiety. Waking up sick to my stomach around four in the morning every morning”, and a perpetual lack of sleep further contribute to her feeling that she does not have “enough time for everything.” While some of the responsibilities mothers are often burdened with may have been alleviated by the shutdown, such as children’s participation in sports, dance or other extracurricular activities, pandemic mothering is often marked by the arrival of new anxiety-inducing activities. In this sense, mothers’ decision making, mental energy and time spent thinking about or keeping track of caregiving tasks does not appear to decrease or disappear as a result of lockdowns and restrictions. Nor do these alleviate feelings of anxiety: they may in fact, contribute to feelings of the opposite, and in some cases result in new tasks and decisions (i.e. buying sanitizer, toilet paper, school attendance and masking protocols), all of which require additional attention, often in the absence of mothers’ go-to social support mechanisms, or what some referred to as their “village”, “tribe”, community, or extended family.
In order to better identify mothers who may be “languishing”, we constructed a summated scale (Vogt and Burke Johnson 2015) based on the 13 indicators mentioned above by reverse coding positive responses to negative statements using SPSS-26. Responses regarding feelings associated with caregiving responsibilities were added together. A “yes” response to a negative statement, or a “no” response to a positive statement, received a score of 1. A “no” response to a negative statement or a “yes” response to a positive statement, received a score of 0. The highest possible score was 13, where mothers would have responded negatively to all statements, and the lowest possible score was 0, where they would have responded positively to all negative statements. For example, if mothers reported “yes” to the statement that they felt “Worried or anxious”, they would get a score of 1. If they responded “yes” to the statement that they felt “relieved”, they would get a score of 0. The higher the score, the more negative a mother’s responses towards their caregiving responsibilities since March 2020. None of the mothers responded positively to all the statements, whereas 7% received a score of 13, having responded negatively to all the statements. The mean for all of the responding Island mothers is 9.6 (st. dev.=2.4), which is telling given the fact that it falls between the “languishing” and “flourishing” categories. In our continued effort to identify the mothers who are languishing, we combined the responses into three discrete categories as shown in Table 3 below.
Table 3: Level of Negative Feelings
|Score||% of respondents|
|“Flourishing” or low negativity||4 or less||4.5|
|“Languishing” (“Meh…”) or medium negativity||5 to 9||35.9|
|“Struggling” or high negativity||10 to 13||59.5|
Here we find very few mothers are “flourishing”. In fact, more than half (60%) are struggling, and more than a third, we suggest, are “languishing” (36%). This pattern is also evident when we look into the expressed satisfaction of work-life balance among working mothers. Chart 1 below, highlights yet again how, while working mothers may not be “struggling” or experiencing pronounced feelings of dissatisfaction, close to one-third of mothers (28%) are also not “flourishing” or satisfied with the work-life balance in their lives.
Chart 1: Employed Mothers Satisfaction with Work-Life Balance
When discussing the balance between paid work and domestic labour, Island mothers indicated being distracted, lacking concentration, feeling pulled in two different directions. Like many, a married South Asian mother of a five-year-old wishes she “had more flexibility with work hours, to balance work and home life” while a Filipino mother raising a two- and five-year-old struggling with work and family issues expresses her feelings of inadequacy on both fronts, namely “feeling inadequate compared to co-workers who do not have small children. Feeling inadequate in raising my children the way I want them to be raised.” A married, Indigenous mother of a ten-year-old struggles “trying to find a balance between parenting and working so that my child’s needs are being met as well as my work is being complete. Balancing guilt over my child having too much screen time and snacks and guilt over taking time away from work to care for my child”. And a married Latina mother of a three- and six-year-old says “it is very stressful when I need to go to work in the morning in the case I can’t find any childcare. Because I haven’t find any good match. I haven’t find any reasonable, affordable and good place or person.” A Chinese Canadian mother of two children aged 8 and 12 notes her work as a nurse is “demanding” and that when she comes home to her family she does “not participate in the same way as pre-COVID.” She says she “falls asleep reading” and has “difficulty concentrating.”
A married mom of three from the Central Island indicates she spends a lot of time trying to keep up with household chores but has noticed since the pandemic that the increased hours spent every week attending to her children’s emotional needs can be both anxiety-producing and overwhelming. While paid work is something she enjoys, she finds it difficult to maintain her concentration when working from home and struggles to stay upbeat with few opportunities for self-care. With respect to how she feels about her work and caregiving labour she writes:
I spend a lot of time keeping up with household chores. However, since the pandemic, I am spending hours every week attending to my children’s emotional needs. Things were manageable, though I feel that I am the one who cares the most about how the household is run and keeping things going. There is a lot more time needed for mental health care/emotional needs and less time for things like cooking healthy meals and keeping the house clean. It is overwhelming… I deal with more anxiety. I feel like I have to stay strong and positive for my kids, but don’t have much time to care for my own emotions. When I work from home, there are often interruptions from my children that can make it difficult to concentrate. It feels good to do something outside of the home and connect with other people. Being a mother is a 24/7 job and it’s not just the time required, but the emotional toll of caring for kids in an uncertain world. It’s hard to promote hope in my kids when there are so many challenges that make me feel overwhelmed.
Likewise, a single mom with an 8-year-old son from the capital region in the South Island commented on the challenges of managing household chores, home life, and having to be on 24/7. She too felt “overwhelmed”, and noted, “Being a single parent is hard but I do my best. I had to stay home from March to September as I had no childcare. I couldn’t work.” A self-described extrovert, the loneliness, lack of adult company, physical touch or hugs “has been extremely hard.” “With [my] mental health being a struggle and not sleeping good, work is hard to get through and then I’m tired when we get home…I do like my job and we need the extra money so I can pay for things we need…I have depression and anxiety which is magnified by the pandemic and the loneliness of not seeing family or friends or getting any breaks. It’s been really hard.”
Prior to the onset of COVID-19, a married woman also from the capital region in the South Island mothering a 15-month-old noted that she felt good when she was able to be out and about at libraries and for playdates and was not constantly worried about getting sick. Like other moms, she wrote that she is feeling the pinch of more work with less support in the absence of socializing opportunities and access to public spaces which makes for tiring, repetitive days and contributes to feelings of worry, guilt, helplessness and anxiousness. She stated her mental health has been negatively impacted as a result:
I do feel like I’m doing more now, it’s exhausting. I feel like it’s more work because I have less options of things to do. I feel bad because my daughter is missing out on fun stuff. There’s guilt associated with that, feel like I don’t do enough…My mental health got worse and I had to take more medications than before. My days feel so monotonous, every day is the same and there’s nothing I can do about it. Feel major guilt that my daughter is missing out…It’s really, really hard. I feel so isolated and lost most of my friends. Constantly questioning and anxious. I’m so tired and feel bad for taking time for myself.
Echoing, but perhaps more faintly, the experiences of those mothers who explicitly described struggling and experiencing low well-being, a number of respondents described feelings that we suggest can be characterized as “languishing,” experienced by roughly 36% of mothers based on our newly constructed scale. Clearly COVID-19 was a major disruption to many other mothers’ daily lives and the mental toll exacted by the burden of carrying the majority of caregiving tasks and responsibilities is evident in their collective responses. Taken together, these mothers’ narrative examples seem to only scratch the surface in terms of capturing the feelings of languishing expressed by Island mothers across the capital, South, Central and Mid-Island regions. Still inequities persist. A more nuanced reading of the mothers’ personal narratives sensitive to how similar feelings might be articulated let alone unevenly experienced, acknowledged and understood raises a number of persistent questions for us as feminist researchers. We offer some preliminary observations below.
“I feel like I’m struggling to stay positive in this new world. I long for days that I can go for a hike on my own and not have mom guilt”
How, for example, has the pandemic moment shaped mothers’ experiences of languishing? A married mom from the capital region in the South Island with three children aged 3, 6 and 8 shared that there is a lot more on her plate now and less time for herself. Her feelings on pandemic mothering encompass a sense of gratitude, but also highlight feelings of sadness and loneliness. She notes, “It’s been a surprisingly beautiful time since March for our family. A lot more time together, family meals, board games etc. We have been extremely grateful for it. On the flip side, I’ve never felt so overwhelmed, lonely, sad at times. I feel like I’m struggling to stay positive in this new world. I long for days that I can go for a hike on my own and not have mom guilt.”
Further, how are mothers’ experiences of languishing shaped by race and class relations? And what might such experiences reveal in terms of the persistence of broader intersectional social inequalities? Whose languishing is most visible, and which groups of mothers, for instance, have historically and continue to be “allowed” to languish? And what implications do these realities present for racialized and or marginalized mothers in an aforementioned “sick culture” (Grent 2021), given the historical and ongoing disparities between those mothers who have been applauded for (or at the very least culturally permitted in) embracing a maternal identity (Marks, Little, Gaucher, Noddings 2016), and those who, particularly in the Canadian context, have consistently had their roles and rights as mothers contested, denigrated, and demonized (Stevenson 2020)? While we are just beginning to fully unpack the ways in which gender, race, and class inform our data, the examples that follow begin to reveal how mothers’ lived experiences and personal narratives of languishing are nuanced and uniquely shaped by material realities and intersectional maternal identities.
To this point, the narrative of an Indigenous, single mother of a 12-year-old daughter is revealing. She recalls moving to the Central Island mid-pandemic and laments their lack of connection with friends and family, the realities of managing household chores with full time paid work, navigating remote schooling, and monitoring internet and social media use. “There are more chores to do, more cooking and cleaning…It’s harder to focus deeply because my child is home most days online learning” she says and even though they are home together most of the time, she doesn’t consider it as spending quality time with her child. The intersection of COVID-19 with the opioid crisis, particularly pronounced in British Columbia (Smolina et al. 2016), and the persistence of anti-Indigenous racism, amplifies her caregiving labour as a racialized mother in this particular historical moment:
We are living in a triple pandemic – COVID, opioids and racism. Caregiving also involves teaching my child about systemic discrimination in all its forms, and sometimes involves helping my child destress, my child is not white but can kind of pass…but I can’t and I have been stopped by police and been followed in stores and all that stuff and in the context of George Floyd’s death and the protests, my child would get nervous if I was late coming home, she would worry I had been stopped by the police again, and it scares her. So talking about racism and social justice and antiracism in the context of a child’s anxiety is something I do for my child…I work hard to instill values of justice, courage and non-discrimination in my child because we still have so far to go. It’s exhausting sometimes, but the next generation has to carry it on, so it is also an important parental obligation.
Expressing mixed feelings about combining paid and unpaid caring labour, she notes the flexibility of paid work and the income and benefits a full-time position provides have been instrumental in their family economically surviving the pandemic, but the added layers of responsibility have taken a socio-emotional toll. On one hand she says, “I am fortunate to be able to work from home. My neighbours have to work and their kids (some) spend their days alone. I am in the house and she studies at home, but I am also so busy working that I feel guilty that I am not really there for her. I have no idea how she is doing in school – what she is learning or not – so we are together but I am in some ways an absent parent and sometimes impatient because I have to focus on work when she wants to chat.” On the other hand, she suggests, this flexibility is also curtailed by interruption, distraction, a lack of focus and an overall intensification of her paid work:
Since my hours are flexible, I can take time when needed to run her to appointments or balance household caregiving, but then I work at night and on weekends often to make up… so it feels like I am always working…I am grateful to be employed and to be able to work flexibly from home. I feel I have one of the best situations one can ask for but it is still hard sometimes. My child also has ADHD so there are days when she is less focused and interrupts me constantly, and has a need to talk a lot! This is hard when I am working… My work has also increased since late September and the people I work with have more anxieties and several are experiencing mental health challenges exacerbated by COVID, so I do spend more time also caregiving and supporting others in everyday work.
Moreover, faced with both the expectation of providing paid caregiving labour at work, and the brunt of unpaid caring labour in their household evokes feelings of worry, stress and exhaustion, coupled with love and gratitude. She reflects:
On the positive side, I am grateful because my child and I love each other very deeply, we get along really well, and while it’s so weird to be just the two of us in the main bubble with small exceptions, I think we are managing and coping well – what has helped is having FTE [full-time employment] and not having lost my benefits, things would be very different if I had lost my employment and salary.
“Everything that was tricky about mothering and working before has been amplified by the pandemic.”
Lastly, we consider how these subjective maternal identities affect how mothers’ mental health complaints are perceived and whether or not they are taken seriously at both an individual and a societal level. A partnered, Mid-Island mother with a four-year-old son articulates the daily grind of the pandemic routine and the physical and emotional toll it has taken on both her identity and internal family dynamics. The stress involved in attempting to balance paid work, being primarily responsible for organizing and attending to childcare responsibilities in her family and the ensuing strain has, in her case, been exacerbated by an unsympathetic employer. She recalls:
I was very stressed because at work you have to act like you do not have a dependent and when you are parenting you have to act like you do not have a job. I was always tired and never felt like I measured up in either environment. It is harder because there is no relief… My kid’s routine is preschool-home-bed and it’s boring and that boredom leads to grouchiness and fights […] But after I have worked a full day, I start very early to get my full day of work in, AND ALSO made a healthy meal that everyone will eat AND ALSO was proactive about skill development I am effing done. I am in bed by eight thirty most nights. I am sleeping the year away. […] Everything that was tricky about mothering and working before has been amplified by the pandemic.
At the same time, the pandemic in some ways has not only prompted a re-evaluation and affirmation of her own mothering skills and abilities, but a desire to connect and uplift other mothers experiencing similar struggles. She replies:
Honestly, I had no idea I had so much grit. That is kind of nice to know. I am not a natural mother, and I have struggled from day one. I am glad my kid is as old as he is, and as bright and healthy as he is. Him being him makes this not just bearable, but makes it ok, and sometimes even great. I am aware that I have been giving [sic] this incredible blessing where I get to be with him so much more than I would have, had life just gone on the way it was. I know there are other women like me who have struggled being mothers, and who have more challenges. My heart breaks for them. I wish there was a way we could all connect and we could tell each other it’s going to be ok.
With COVID-19, the rhythms of motherhood and domestic life, already framed as a source of mental distress for many women, have shifted again. Alongside the increasing disruptions – and growing interruptions, linked to upheavals in family routines, childcare, education, socialization, and safety – and persistent inequities in household divisions of labour, women are disproportionately languishing. Women’s varied mental health complaints, however, if not outright dismissed, remain neglected, hidden, and inequitably addressed.
Concluding Thoughts: Pandemic Paradoxes
The COVID-19 pandemic has, without question, been deadly and disruptive in a myriad of ways. Many social commentators are quick to position these types of global upheavals as sociocultural turning points, moments of rapid change and reflection that result in significant social, cultural, and political transformations. We conclude, however, by recommending a more cautious approach.
Looking at household and caregiving labour, some have suggested that the pandemic represents a moment of promise and possibility with “unexpected upsides”, as men as partners and fathers have “discovered housework” and are picking up more in the face of additional challenges (Schulte and Swenson 2021). Taking a closer look at the experiences of 758 Island mothers, we find that this optimism, unfortunately, appears to be misplaced. When it comes to domestic work, COVID has not represented a watershed moment precipitating a “new normal”; in fact, the opposite is true, as the pandemic has accentuated rather than disrupted historical patterns of inequitable divisions of labour. As women continue to take on the disproportionate burden of additional pandemic caregiving and household management tasks, such divisions become further entrenched, to the continued detriment of maternal well-being. If the balance of caregiving responsibilities is a key attribute of maternal mental health, the pandemic’s effect of removing balance, and creating new and further imbalances, is a pressing cause for concern.
Paradoxically, however the pandemic does represent a historical moment when increasingly visible experiences of languishing have come to the fore. There is an opportunity, then, for greater attention to women’s uniquely gendered experiences of mental health. When women, particularly from privileged backgrounds, voice their concerns with the burdens of care created and exacerbated by the pandemic, their experiences are often met with silence, disregard, resistance, and backlash. Overcoming these ongoing dismissals will be an integral part of renewed efforts from policy makers to address the mental health of “vulnerable populations”, including women and those with children at home (see for example CAMH 2020, WHO).
Our future research will explore how mothers have described coping mechanisms and strategies in their narratives of caregiving during the pandemic, and we remain mindful of the need to disrupt dominant narratives of “self-care” which emphasize personal, individual, and feminized efforts (i.e. arts and crafts, yoga, physical exercise, drug and alcohol consumption, media and television) to maintain mental health. Experiences of languishing and low well-being are not solely a mother’s or a women’s issue, and are instead societal issues, demanding collective solutions. Both social change and political will are necessary to ensure adequate structural supports are in place for families, workplaces, governments, and education and health care systems, to foster maternal well-being for mothers during and beyond the pandemic.
1.Recent examples include: “Life delayed: Why ‘languishing’ is a pandemic thing, and what you can do to get out of that rut | CTV News (May 18, 2021 https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/life-delayed-why-languishing-is-a-pandemic-thing-and-what-you-can-do-to-get-out-of-that-rut-1.5432926); “Languishing Is the Mood of 2021, How to Identify It and How to Cope” (Fielding, April 30, 2021 https://www.verywellmind.com/languishing-is-the-mood-of-2021-5180999); and The Guardian’s tongue in cheek “Not depressed or flourishing? How languishing defines modern life (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/apr/20/not-depressed-or-flourishing-how-languishing-defines-modern-life London (UK) [London (UK)]21 Apr 2021: 3).
2. Total does not add up to 100% because of multiple responses.
3. Bathing or diapering a child or dependent family member was the one task that was reportedly shared the most equally but even then, only by 38% of mothers.
4. It should be noted that, although we did not ask the respondents to indicate if they are in a heterosexual relationship, we did ask them to indicate their sexual orientation. Of those who are currently living with a partner, 91% identified as “straight”. The remaining 9% self-identified, in an open-ended question, as bisexual (6%), demisexual (0.5%), pansexual (1.1%), lesbian (0.4%), queer (0.5%), or fluid (0.2%). We do not know if people who do not identify as “straight” are living with a same-sex partner. We do not know, but can only assume, that not all “partners” are men. Also, the table presents numbers for all mothers, those with partners in the household (N=85%). and those who indicated being single-parents (N=15%). For some of the single mothers, partners still seem to be involved. This does indicate that some of the single mothers in our sample are getting support from a partner, who may or may not be the child(ren)’s other parent.
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