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Katherine Takpannie near her home by the Ottawa River on May 1, 2021. One of the biggest stressors in her life has been the death of her younger brother by suicide.Ashley Fraser/The Globe and Mail

When the country went into lockdown last March, Abigail Rubiales kept her children occupied by baking cookies, doing crafts and making slime. But by this May, after more than a year of juggling their care with household chores and her work in the hospitality and food industry, the Toronto resident felt depleted.

Her children, 3 and 6, were spending more time on an iPad than Ms. Rubiales would have previously allowed. She conceded defeat when they ate a granola bar for lunch. The family’s laundry was piling up.

“I’m just tapped out,” Ms. Rubiales said, sighing. “There was just a day, I just felt like – just hitting a wall, like I can’t be the family cheerleader anymore, you know?”

Ms. Rubiales’s feelings of burnout and exhaustion are reflected in the numbers. According to a study published in March in the Lancet Psychiatry, mental-health problems among Canadian mothers sharply rose during the first wave of the pandemic, with rates of anxiety and depression nearly double what they were pre-COVID. An Ontario parent survey conducted around the same period by researchers at McMaster University and the Offord Centre for Child Studies found nearly 60 per cent of respondents – almost all of them women – reported symptoms that met the criteria for depression. And more recent survey data, released in May by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, revealed 37 per cent of women (compared with 24 per cent of men) with young children reported having moderate to severe anxiety.

The pandemic has been hard on many Canadians, but mounting evidence indicates that mothers, in particular, whom many families have been relying on through the past year, are buckling under the strain. And some experts worry these women will be vulnerable to what they predict will be the next wave of the pandemic, one of poor mental health.

“When there’s increased stress in their environment, when stressors mount and the availability of resources or ways to decrease that stress become less available, mental health [problems] or mental illness is a likely outcome,” said Sheri Madigan, the senior author of the Lancet Psychiatry study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Calgary.

For many women, this has been precisely what has happened during the pandemic. Their stressors, including losses of employment and income and overseeing their children’s online schooling, have stacked up. At the same time, resources to cope with stress, including community and child-care support in the form of friends and extended family members, and in certain jurisdictions, daycares and in-school learning, have been cut off to them.

As the Ontario parent survey revealed, roughly half of respondents reported they had moderate to severe concern about managing different aspects of their family life – their children’s remote learning, their children’s screen time, household routines and meals, and their children’s stress and anxiety. (Nearly 94 per cent of the 7,434 parents and caregivers surveyed were women.)

In subsequent analyses of these Ontario survey data, which have yet to be published, researcher Andrea Gonzalez and her team found that high levels of concern among parents about these issues, along with concern about work-life balance, were associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms and anxiety.

It’s important to recognize that many are resilient and will eventually bounce back, but not everyone will, said Dr. Gonzalez, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“There’s a certain proportion who continue to struggle, and those are the ones that I think we need to be most aware of and most concerned about, and need the support of professionals,” she said.

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For Ms. Takpannie, her son, two-year-old William Randall, is part of her life that brings her pure joy. Ashley Fraser/Globe and MailAshley Fraser/The Globe and Mail

It’s not just mothers themselves who suffer when their mental health declines. Their distress can have a spill-over effect on the rest of the family. Children are reliant on their parents, not just for their basic needs, but also for relational needs – that is, needs that are met through interactions like play time and reading stories, Dr. Madigan said. And when parents are struggling with mental illness, they tend to be less able or motivated to engage in some of the caregiving tasks that are critical to children’s ability to thrive, she said. As a result, children’s development, well-being and mental health can suffer as well.

Indeed, according to Dr. Gonzalez’s research, a third of parents said they raised their voice or yelled more when their children misbehaved, and nearly half reported a high level of conflict with their partner or spouse. Moreover, 40 per cent said their children’s mood or behaviour had deteriorated.

In Ottawa, Katherine Takpannie has been worrying about how her own mental health issues are affecting her two-year-old son. She has struggled to laugh and play with him, while she’s been drowning in depression and grief over the death of her brother in September. Her child’s concerned hugs, in attempt to soothe her sorrow, amplify her heartache.

“It made me feel like a bad mother because here I am getting comforted by my son when I’m supposed to be the strong one,” Ms. Takpannie said. “I’m supposed to be the glue for the family or work and cook and clean and care for the child.”

Ms. Takpannie, who is Inuk, said social inequities that have been magnified during the pandemic have added to her stress of raising a child in a society that treats racialized people unfairly. For example, she said, policies that disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and people of colour, such as Ontario’s earlier move to allow police to randomly stop people during the current lockdown, have contributed to her own anguish. (The Lancet Psychiatry study showed First Nations, Inuit and Métis mothers had higher mean depression scores than all other mothers.)

“It definitely does take another added on toll onto the already despairing situation we’re in,” Ms. Takpannie said.

Gender inequities in how child care, employment and domestic work are divvied up contribute to mothers’ stress, too. As Dr. Madigan explained, mothers have been taking on “the lion’s share” of their families’ burdens during the pandemic. But this isn’t always visible to others.

A Statistics Canada report in December found even though men reported that they shared parental tasks equally with their partners – tasks like staying home with children and homeschooling or helping with homework – most women reported they largely performed these tasks themselves. The report noted this finding was consistent with previous studies that showed men tend to overestimate how much time they spend on unpaid family work.

A subsequent report from Statistics Canada in February found household tasks like laundry and meal preparation were more likely to be done by women than by men. And in households with children, the housework was half as likely to be done mostly by men than in households with no children.

To understand why mothers are taking on a disproportionately larger share of the work at home in the first place, Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, asked mothers how they came to this arrangement.

Women in heterosexual relationships who earned less than their spouses were often the ones sacrificing their careers to take care of children during the pandemic, since their families relied less on their income. But it appears there’s no winning; women who had higher levels of education than their partners were more likely to have jobs that allowed them to work from home. Thus when their partners left for work in fields like construction or health care, women were stuck managing both their careers and child care at home.

Moreover, Dr. Calarco found, fathers were less likely to have taken extended parental leave or have previously stepped back from the workforce to care for their children. And so for many fathers during the pandemic, “the push to do more in terms of parenting was a huge shock to the system” – one that frequently left them frustrated and angry with their children, she said. As a result, mothers often stepped in to protect their children from frustrated and angry dads.

Mothers also face heightened societal expectations, she said. They’re expected to be the primary caregivers, and to sacrifice their own needs and wants for their children’s and family’s well-being. What’s more, “you’re not supposed to complain about it,” she added.

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Susan Young and her 8-year-old son Sebastian, who has ADHD and autism, at their home in Vancouver on May 30, 2021.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

Combined with workplace expectations to be productive, it’s no wonder many feel as though they’re failing on multiple fronts.

“When absolutely everything is your responsibility, there’s no way to feel like you’re doing all of it well,” said Susan Young, a single mother running her own business in Vancouver while caring for her eight-year-old son, who has autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “To be honest, most of the time there’s the feeling of doing none of it well at all.”

So what are mothers to do? Dr. Madigan and others say the solutions lie in reframing the question.

“Do they need to juggle all this? Do we do we want them to juggle?” she said. “I actually think that we shouldn’t ask moms to do more. I think we need to ask the people around moms to step up.”

In other parts of the world, mothers have experienced the pandemic very differently when those around them have done just that, according to Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

For example, she pointed out, countries like Denmark prioritized school and daycare openings, recognizing parents’ – and particularly mothers’ – employment depended on child-care provisions. By contrast, in the U.S., bars and gyms were allowed to open in certain jurisdictions, while schools and daycares remained closed. Denmark also instituted sweeping economic rescue measures that essentially paid employers to keep their staff during lockdowns, she said. For parents, that meant not having to worry about their jobs on top of everything else.

These types of policies, which have helped mitigate stressors and provided resources for parents to cope with their stress during the pandemic, tend to reflect a country’s values, Dr. Collins said. In North America, she said, “We often talk about kids like we talk about pets: Don’t have them if you can’t care for them by yourself, right? We don’t have our neighbor pay for our dog food. Why would we ask the same for kids?”

By contrast, countries like Denmark that have strong policies aimed at supporting families tend to think of children as future citizens, workers, taxpayers and community members, and thus, it is in people’s collective best interest that children be raised well, she said.

At an individual level, coping strategies like getting outside and getting more physical activity can help, said Dr. Gonzalez at McMaster University.

But if you ask Canadian mothers themselves what they need to help them out of their current crisis, their demands tend to be broader in scope. They include having access to quality affordable mental health services, widespread recognition of the value of caregiving and the encouragement to speak frankly about their struggles, without fear of blame or judgment.

In Toronto, first-time mother Molly DeHaan found herself crying every day for the first six months of her son’s life, daunted by the uncertainties of bringing up a baby amid a pandemic. Seeing her doctor for anti-depressants made a huge difference, she said, as it helped her “go with the flow.” She also quit comparing herself to other mothers and societal expectations of a perfect mother.

With her son now nearly 15 months old, she recognizes she became a mother under an exceptional circumstance. She’s confident she’s a good mom, she said, and she’s doing her best.

“Mothers need to talk about this because that’s really where it starts – not putting up a facade of being able to do it all,” she said.

“Admitting that it’s impossible is really the first step.”

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