During Mental Health Awareness Month we’re diving into “The State of Our Mental Health” by exploring the common challenges many of us are experiencing amidst the pandemic. Check back each week in May as we continue the conversation and share your own videos @talkspace using #TheStateofMyMentalHealth.
“At night it would hit me,” Marika Lindholm said. Two decades ago, Lindholm was an adjunct sociology professor, and a newly divorced mom of two small kids. “I was teaching issues of the feminization of poverty. I had a nice analytical approach to it, but I didn’t really get it,” Lindholm said of her academic work. When her research on women and economic instability became reality, “I was humbled by the actual experience.”
Lindholm longed for a place to go when the late-night doubts crept in. So, nearly two decades later, she started one: Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere (ESME), a social network for women parenting solo. Now, in those long evening hours when her own doubts used to surface, Lindholm checks up on moms in the group.
Two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, those check-ins have grown increasingly grim. “A lot of moms are scared,” Lindholm said. “Solo moms in general have a fear about leaving their kids, getting sick, and dying. Suddenly those theoretical concerns become super concrete.”
Solo moms are more likely than any other U.S. parental group to experience poverty. They’re also more likely to hold the kinds of low-paid essential jobs that involve the highest risk right now. But these risks aren’t unique to women parenting solo. Instead, said Lindholm, the experiences of the mothers in ESME’s community are a microcosm of the deepening social and economic instability affecting the majority of American families. “It’s really exposing all the weaknesses of our safety net,” Lindholm said.
Family Bonds And a Fraying Safety Net
With the pandemic making work risky, if not impossible, many families face a double bind. While workers in vital industries like healthcare can still provide, many are so afraid of infecting their loved ones, they have had to isolate themselves, or quit. Meanwhile, work-from-home parents and those newly unemployed are doing triple duty as caretakers, teachers, and as employees or job-seekers.
This is a particularly heavy burden for women, who already spend double the time on housework as men, and are more likely to lose their paid jobs due to the pandemic. “The reality of women and work is that we’re always expected to be parenting like we don’t have jobs, and go to our jobs like we don’t have kids,” said Lindholm.
The pandemic has pushed some women into severe poverty. Lindholm recalls the story of one mother in her community who desperately needed formula for her infant, but had little money left. She didn’t want to take public transportation to the store because she was afraid of getting sick, so she used some of her last remaining money on a cab. When the mother arrived at the store, however, “the shelves were empty,” Lindholm said.
With few resources and little support, many caretakers struggle with social pressure to parent “perfectly.” Thirty-eight percent of mothers who work full-time report feeling guilty about working too much, even prior to the coronavirus outbreak. And judging from comments on ESME’s message boards, the pandemic has only exacerbated these feelings. “The mom-guilt is really intense,” Lindholm said.
The Kids Are Alright
But, then, for second grader Micah and fifth grader Phoebe, life is just fine.
I met Micah and Phoebe on a sunny Saturday in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, where they were picnicking, at a safe social distance, with their mom, dad, and dog. Phoebe is ten and her little brother Micah is seven. But Micah, indignant, wanted to correct the record: “[We’re] turning eleven and eight,” he said.
Quarantine life has come with some ups and downs. When Micah first found out they wouldn’t be going to school, he felt sad. For Phoebe, it was akin to a snow day — that is, until the novelty of video-call classes began to wear off. “At first it was good, and after we started it wasn’t as fun,” Phoebe said. They’ve been going out to play with masks on, but since the playground across the street from their house closed in March, that hasn’t been as fun, either.
Still, there are upsides. The family has been enjoying more time together, has watched all seven seasons of Brooklyn 99, and the kids have had plenty of playdates via video chat. For Micah, the benefits of time inside can be summed up in two words: Animal Crossing. “It’s a Nintendo game,” he told me, clearly pitying my grown-up ignorance. “Before this, we normally were allowed on weekends, and now we’re allowed all the time,” Phoebe clarified.
The kids’ delight echoes Lindholm’s message to the caretakers holding everything together: you do not have to maintain impossible standards during a pandemic. Do what you need to do. “Sometimes we want to put our kids in front of the TV with junky food,” Lindholm says. The parents may struggle with guilt, but the kids are happy to play Animal Crossing.
Micah, for one, has taken a philosophical approach to the crisis. “Say what you said in the car last week,” Micah’s mom reminded him. “Oh yeah,” Micah said. “Our lives are so long that it’s just a small, tiny part.”
Life is long. But the stark fact of a pandemic is that for many, life is ending — and families have been left to contend with deep grief, without many of our most comforting rituals.
As of May 18, 89,504 people have died in the United States. In New York City alone, 20,214 people — one in 418 residents — have died. The devastation is too vast to contemplate, and yet we try: we imagine each scatterplot dot as a person who mattered, who lived a full and irreducible life, and who has now left a community — and family — in mourning.
The nature of social distancing means that large family funerals, and even intimate deathbed visits, are now out of reach. Families have had to find new ways to mourn those lost during lockdown. For therapist and professor Gretchen Blycker, this has meant the creation of new rituals.
When I spoke to Blycker for the first piece in this series, her mother was in the end stages of Alzheimer’s. For weeks, fear of spreading the coronavirus had prevented Blycker, who lived a mere fifteen minutes away from her mother and her mother’s husband, from visiting their house. “This is a strange crisis, that out of love for others, we’re not being with them,” Blycker said.
But when we spoke, Blycker had just had some good news. She’d completed a month in quarantine, and was finally able to visit her mom. She wanted to create a space of sacredness around her mother’s passing, even if the normal ritual of bedside visits had to be partially curtailed. She lit candles by her mother’s bedside, brought a flower, and played songs.
“Even there. Even with death,” she said. “It’s possible to create space inside one’s heart for tenderness.”
A few days after our interview, Blycker emailed to say that her mom had passed.
And Saying Hello
“I’m not all gloom and doom every single day,” Marika Lindholm, the solo mom’s advocate, said. “I’m trying to get people to understand that there’s a lot of diversity [among] solo moms and there’s a lot of strength.”
Moms who parent alone are often the targets of unfair stereotypes. Yet the well-being of our most vulnerable families is the well-being of our society as a whole. With government aid slow to come — and woefully inadequate for most families’ needs — communities have taken it upon themselves to care for one another, even when they have little to share.
Take the mom who needed baby formula, whom Lindholm told me about. She took the Uber to the store with some of her last cash, only to find the shelves empty. But she didn’t just return home in defeat: she had a child to feed. So, she posted about her experience in Lindholm’s Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere group. One of the moms in the group saw the post and brought formula to her home.
Lindholm says families need more than charity or even solidarity: they need substantive action in the form of paid family leave, universal healthcare, and other supportive policies. But in the meantime, there is strength in simply listening. “That’s a story that doesn’t get heard enough,” Lindholm said. “They’re people on the margin and they’re still trying to reach a hand out.”
From the Desk of Dr. Rachel O’Neill, LPCC-S
Family-Related Journal Prompts
- In what ways has the pandemic positively impacted your family?
- What do you value as a family? Do different members value different things?
- Has your family been able to do things together you normally wouldn’t?
- What new traditions or rituals would you continue as a family even after the pandemic is over?
- What creative ways could spend time with family, even if you’re not physically together?