What we learned about mothers during a pandemic

A woman and children stand at a desk.
Michelle Rodriguez and her children stop by Hastings Middle School to pick up Chromebooks for distance learning in Hastings, Minn., in September 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

The past year was particularly hard on mothers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, massive disruptions in school and child care threw more burdens onto women raising children.

Moms and others primarily responsible for caregiving were more likely to take on additional responsibilities at home, including supervising distance learning. Mothers with young children were more likely to leave their jobs altogether during the height of the pandemic and have been far less likely to return to work.

What’s been the experience of mothers and mother figures over the past year? What did they learn about themselves? What was hard, and were there any positive aspects that mothers want to hold onto as we move beyond the pandemic?

As we headed into Mother’s Day weekend, host Angela Davis talked to two mothers whose jobs involve supporting other moms.

Elizabeth LaRusso, a psychiatrist who works with the Mother Baby Center at Allina Health, said the past year made visible much of the “invisible labor” mothers had already been performing before the pandemic: “A lot of work, and a lot of self-sacrifice, and a lot of being all things — all the time.”

Some mothers called in during the show to talk about how they valued the extra family time the pandemic had given them. But as mothers took on new roles and responsibilities at home, they also experienced stress and exhaustion.

“What are the societal expectations of moms?” LaRusso asked. “And then at what cost?”

Christina Haddad Gonzalez, the director of student support services for Richfield Public Schools, reminded mothers to set limits and be gentle with themselves.

Gonzalez said mothers should try to remember: “I’m doing the best that I can with what I have.”

At a time when many have found it difficult to stay in touch with loved ones, LaRusso emphasized mothers need to rely on their support networks as well.

“You don’t need to be it all for your children,” LaRusso said. “You have this wonderful collective of people who can provide nurturing and love.”

Davis and her guests also listened to children’s tributes to their mothers, honored mothers who passed away this year and those dealing with grief, and celebrated all mother figures and chosen families for the love they give.

“Just look around. This is a shared experience. Thank you for being brave,” Gonzalez said.

Guests:

  • Christina Haddad Gonzalez is the director of student support services for Richfield Public Schools.

  • Elizabeth LaRusso is a psychiatrist with a focus on women's well-being. She works with the Mother Baby Center at Allina Health.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

Subscribe to the MPR News with Angela Davis podcast on: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or RSS.


We asked the mothers and mother figures in our audience to write in about their experiences over the past year — the good and the bad — and we asked everyone else to share the feats they’ve seen the moms in their lives perform during the pandemic. Here’s what you had to say:

“In the uncertain period of the early lockdown a year ago, my mother lost her husband, my father, to cancer. He died the day after the murder of George Floyd, and our mourning became entangled with the ensuing unrest. In the months following, she traveled back to her homeland of Denmark to be with her ailing mother as she died. I'm so proud of my mom as she navigated these life-changing events, gave love to her adult children and those around her and kept it together under the oppressive nature of a global pandemic. She is a shining example of the subtle strength of mothers.”

— Jais in Brooten, Minn.

“I went from being a creative professional in a large architecture firm with a parking spot in the North Loop to starting a company out of my home after my job was reduced to part-time. I balanced work with connecting my two daughters to hybrid learning at their schools and driving them to activities which they would have been bussed to before. And I supported my husband’s need to fully concentrate on his career while also working from home. I have gone from business suites to leggings and sandals, waiting in my car at the student pick-up line. But I am hopeful that this opportunity will make me a stronger business leader and mom in the coming years. I do get a bit misty when I reflect on the shocking changes.”

— Heather in Minnetonka, Minn.

“This past year my mom had the patience to talk to me on the phone every single day. I'm single, live alone and work freelance, so I’m often working alone. Sometimes my mom is the only person I talk to for days, even if there's not much to say. And for that I am grateful!” 

— Libby in Minneapolis 

“I thought I had a ‘modern’ partnership of shared parenting and household responsibilities. It turns out that’s far from true. Before the pandemic, my husband and I were both working full-time, and the kids went to school and daycare. When everything shut down because of COVID, I started working from home, my husband lost his restaurant manager job, and we were all at home together. I was doing most of the cooking, cleaning, parenting and distance-learning assistance, while my husband spent his unemployment time working on home-improvement projects and excessive lawn maintenance. I quickly became overloaded. The pandemic forced us to confront our ingrained gender roles in the home. We had to actually write out all the household duties and make assignments to maintain my sanity. It's still a struggle, and I sometimes feel like a 1950s housewife who also works full time.”

— Anna in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

“My wife and I are both educators, and she is also a researcher. At the start of the pandemic, we were both teaching from home and able to share responsibility for our two sons, who are six and nine. However, my job required me to return to work, while hers offered her the flexibility to remain teaching from home. She became responsible for supporting our sons in distance learning as well as teaching her students and researching writing for publication. I know this has been a difficult year for her. I would like to acknowledge and thank her deeply for the effort that she has put in when I have been unable to offer the support she needs on a day-to-day basis. She is a passionate teacher, engaging researcher and loving mother and spouse, and she has gone above and beyond this year.” 

— Matthew in St. Paul

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