Amanda Watson is a lecturer in sociology and anthropology at Simon Fraser University and the author of The Juggling Mother: Coming Undone in the Age of Anxiety.
From behind our cars and above our masks in the preschool parking lot, we lock pupils. No words are needed. The whites of our eyes betray our shared panic. Our heads sometimes cock back to signal a sigh, or we shrug. We nod to each other to wish each other good luck. Here’s hoping to seeing you again tomorrow.
These are the rituals of mothers in a pandemic, a dance of equal parts relief and terror. We’re worried about COVID-19, but we are perhaps just as afraid of what it will mean when our kids inevitably run a temperature in the fight against any number of more prosaic childhood ailments, because we know our child-care plans could fall through at any moment. As I write this, my two-year-old daughter is sliming my jeans with symptoms of her sickness as she feverishly rolls her head around on my leg. She tested negative for COVID-19 – but if these sniffles advance into a cough, it could be weeks until she is back to her child-care centre.
We mothers have been forced to get used to this. Without hesitation, many of us have been juggling our labours to pick up the slack left by murky policy and gaps in care and income. Sure, the dads are juggling more than usual, too, but studies have shown how the pandemic is disproportionately affecting women, their slate of work obligations and their financial unsustainability. Oxfam Canada found that 70 per cent of women were experiencing increased anxiety, depression, fatigue and isolation because of growing care work during the pandemic; economist Armine Yalnizyan found that, in this COVID-19-caused “she-cession,” Canadian women experienced more of the initial job losses than men and have been slower to be employed when the economy reopened. Unsurprisingly, the women hit hardest were single moms of young kids and the ones already earning lower wages in precarious work.
But unlike in the Before Times, today’s juggling mother is too burnt out to hide her struggle. In parking lots, in the long COVID-19 testing lineups, on Zoom calls, at work, and the constantly shifting state of play, we are no longer able to just reply, with a tight smile, that we’re “doing good.”
One night, while I was working away as my kids chattered to sleep, author Nora Roberts’s thoughts about balancing work and kids came to my mind: that the key is understanding that some of the balls you’re juggling are made of plastic and some are made of glass. Some kid stuff is glass and some is plastic; some work stuff is glass, other work stuff plastic. In the end, you are going to drop balls – so just try to make sure they’re the plastic ones.
In my exhausted state, this simple analogy even started to make sense. What a genius way to think about this unwieldy set of labours!
But it turns out juggling in real life isn’t so neat and pat.
In my research into the way that mothers are represented in the media, I found that – aside from a few essays that cluster around Mother’s Day – motherhood is most often represented in terms of how women “balance” work and family obligations. We’re apparently endlessly curious about how working moms, especially the ones with fancy jobs, manage to win that promotion and tuck their kids in at night. Our fascination makes sense in the context of women making up nearly half of the pre-COVID labour force in Canada and childcare amounting to a luxury good in most urban centres. It’s clear that society has come to expect us to be able to juggle – as if we all had the time, on top of everything else, to go to circus school.
The ability to juggle has become a measure of a mother’s very worth. And why not? Rather than pointing to failed policies or tackling ambitious projects such as universal child care and adequate parental leave, it’s far easier to just praise mothers for their heroics – finding solutions for social problems such as care labour shortages, inadequate investment in public schools and food insecurity by doing smart things in the right order. But done frequently and thoughtlessly, this curdles into assumptions about what mothers should be doing, and then into vicious blame when one misstep causes the wrong ball to shatter against the hard concrete of reality.
During the pandemic, we’re asking mothers who were already overworked and had already strained to reconcile the irreconcilable to understand that things might just be fine if they can hone a whole new skill – not just juggling, but the ability to carefully identify and assess balls as they arc in the air.
I don’t doubt that mothers, while living in the flatness of burnout, will continue to lobby for more accessible child care, better and more accessible COVID-19 testing for kids, and sick policies that prevent the coronavirus’s spread while allowing for the common colds that young kids typically catch. In the end, it’s not only what society has come to expect of mothers; it is what we expect of ourselves now, too.
I know this full well. I study this precise phenomenon and yet I still find myself hitching my own good feelings to achieving successes against impossible expectations of productivity at home and at work, even when the kids are hanging off my ankles. I catch myself thinking that the metric of my worth isn’t career success or my ability to manage a household and children – it’s all of that, at a minimum.
And unnervingly, the other night, I found myself calming the voices in my head to get ready for sleep not by counting sheep, but by sorting my competing tasks for the following morning into glass or plastic – even though I knew full well, in my rational mind, that the expectation game is all trash in the end.
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