It’s Friday, April 17, day 24 of the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order in Michigan, where we live just outside the city limits of Detroit. Our sons haven’t been to school in 35 days, engaging instead in “remote learning.” My parents and in-laws haven’t left their homes nearby in weeks. I haven’t prepared a lecture, done any research or worked on any of my current writing projects today, but I’m tired.
In fact, all my friends who are mothers tell me they’re exhausted. They’re anxious, of course, about their loved ones’ health and the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. But the greatest strain comes from the heightened emotional and housekeeping demands — the traditional mother’s work — that falls so heavily on them while families are told to shelter in place indefinitely.
Today I spent three and a half hours buying groceries for my family and my in-laws. That includes the 53 minutes I stood in the snow outside Trader Joe’s — six feet apart from everyone else in line. They had rice for the first time in weeks, but not everything on the lists. So I stopped at another grocery store where I actually found a packet of yeast, a minor victory these days. Then I drove to my in-laws’, put their bags on their front porch, rang the doorbell and stood a good 10 feet away from the house to say hello.
At home, I cleaned all frequently touched objects and washed the homemade facemasks that I wore to the store in hot water. I prepared three meals for my family, two of which we ate together. And I cajoled my sons into going outside despite the weather.
In between, I spoke on the phone, exchanged emails and texted with friends across the U.S. and in Europe. I chatted with my neighbor over the fence at our daily 7:30 meeting. He’s an administrator at a big Detroit hospital and lives alone, so he needs a few minutes outside every day talking to people who are not on the front lines. I consulted two other ninth-grade mothers about the best way to host a virtual get-together for the moms in the class. And I continued my ongoing debate about the best way to make cloth facemasks with a friend in Canada and one who lives up the street but might as well live in another country.
I should call my widowed aunt, write in the pandemic diary that I’ve started out of a sense of obligation to future historians and figure out how to replace my son’s tennis shoes while the shops are closed, but I’m worn out.
Before women gained their rightful access to education and employment in the 20th century, ordinary families had a clear idea of the roles of “mother” and “father.” “Father” specialized in income and protection. “Mother” took care of feeding, cleaning and clothing the household, the family’s emotional needs and their social connections.
As women have moved into the workforce and the divorce rate has soared over the last 50 years or so, families have outsourced much of the work traditionally assigned to the mother. I have friends who literally do not know how to cook, but they make enough money to rely on restaurants or frozen meals to feed their families. Only artists weave and sew their own clothing anymore; the rest of us buy it off the rack.
Less obviously, much of parenting has been outsourced to teachers, coaches and the adults who run the myriad after-school activities many kids rush between. But the coronavirus pandemic has pitched the old-fashioned job description of “mother” out of semi-retirement and straight into the trenches at the height of an attack.
Suddenly, families are intensely together, all the time. And it’s not just families with young children. Many of my friends have brought home children in their 20s from college and jobs despite the young adults’ reluctance to leave the independent lives they’ve been building.
Most adults aren’t leaving home for work. The kids aren’t going to school or playing sports or practicing for school plays. Friends of any age who do not live in the same household are not supposed to gather. No one is allowed to eat out at a restaurant. Most of the places families might go together — movie theaters, bowling alleys, campgrounds, the home decorating aisles of large retailers — are closed in Michigan. In the Detroit archdiocese, we’re not even allowed to go to Mass.
We’re reduced to livestreaming and Zooming, virtually interacting with the world through screens. It’s better than nothing but does not replace physical proximity. Emotions find their most intense expression in the presence of other people. All the grief, anger, fear, anxiety, frustration and boredom bubbles out into the family home. Joy’s an option too, of course, but harder to find if you keep abreast of the news these days.
And who’s keeping everyone’s spirits up and talking through each person’s anxieties? Who’s doing all that home cooking? Who’s checking up on friends and relations and doing the shopping for elderly family members? Who, for heaven’s sake, is sewing the homemade facemasks out of torn up sheets? Very often, it’s mothers, their traditional responsibilities resurfacing and intensifying in a time of crisis.
There’s absolutely no reason that a man can’t do any or all of those tasks, and in the most enlightened families the parents share them. In an ideal world my teenage sons would be doing the cooking in our house. In the real world, most of this is falling on women.
But no matter who is doing all the extra hand-holding, cooking, sewing and general nurturing, one thing is sure. This pandemic has reminded us all that despite the many conveniences and services our economy has developed to keep households running, every family still needs someone who will take on the job of being the “mother.”
Megan Koreman is a historian and author of The Expectation of Justice: France, 1944-1946 (Duke University Press, 1999) and The Escape Line: How the Ordinary Heroes of Dutch-Paris Resisted the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe (Oxford University Press, 2018). More at dutchparisblog.com.