Moms deserve a break.
It's not news that parenting is stressful, but health experts say the pandemic made things worse.
"Even in the best of circumstances, it's really hard to be a mother," said Natalie Slopen, an assistant professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. Parenting comes with joys as well, but over the past two years, "the pandemic has presented a host of challenges that most people hadn't imagined they would experience while parents."
In 2019, before the pandemic started in March 2020, women reported they did more when it came to chores and managing children's schedules, according to a Pew Research Center survey. By October 2020, another Pew survey showed mothers were more likely than fathers to report difficulties handling child care. And in March 2021, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found more than half of mothers with school-age children said stress and worry had affected their mental health.
The pandemic "completely changed the fabric of our lives," said Dr. Susan Cheng, a professor of cardiology at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. It made clear that meeting children's needs and your own simultaneously is "just really tough."
So, for this Mother's Day, Cheng and Slopen offered this advice for supporting moms, whether you're a child, partner, neighbor or a mom yourself.
Cheng, the mother of twin boys who are "6 going on 17," said stress has broad consequences.
"It impacts every part of how we live," she said, affecting everything from how people eat to how family relationships develop.
Stress also affects people physically. "It puts stress on the heart," Cheng said. "It puts stress on the blood vessels. It puts stress on the whole cardiovascular system."
Slopen, whose boys are 6 and 8, said the pandemic's effects on children indirectly added to mothers' stress. "Parents' well-being is very dependent on their children's well-being," she said. "So, it creates tremendous stress for parents to see their children not doing well."
Much stress comes from sources beyond an individual's control, Cheng said. A mom shouldn't be expected to cope with it entirely on her own. But awareness can help people seek ways to mitigate its effects.
Families can help
"A lot of what we do as moms is action-oriented," Cheng said. The classic image of a busy mom is somebody who's always doing something – "it's go-go-go."
Family members should look for ways to share the load, she said, especially as children grow. Cheng suggested making a family game of looking for ways to help by having everyone "observe what that busy mom is doing on a day-to-day basis, hour to hour, across the course of a day," and note ways to improve things.
Family members also need to support a mom's personal time, Cheng said.
"Alone time cannot be emphasized enough," she said. But in busy households, a grown-up who escapes for a while often is chastised. "I think that should actually be celebrated, protected, prioritized."
Help yourself, too
Slopen knows firsthand it can be impossible to prioritize yourself when your children have needs. But it's also necessary.
"We need to attend to our own physical and mental health," she said. A struggling mother can't be the best parent she can be. That means self-care is not selfish, "it's essential for the well-being of your family members."
So put quiet time on your schedule, Cheng suggested. It should be spent without screens – "just you and yourself in your mind and just in a quiet space."
Nobody would say that's easy. But for moms whose lives are spent shuttling children, she suggested arriving at your next appointment 15 minutes early. Use the time in the car to meditate, reflect or pray.
Honor missing moms
Because of the pandemic, many children are in the care of people who are not their parents, Cheng said, and being sensitive to that is important.
As of February, more than 203,000 children in the U.S. had lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, according to the COVID Collaborative, a consortium of health, education and economic leaders. "If you see a grown-up with a child, you might not want to assume it's a mom or dad," Cheng said.
Many adults will be experiencing their first Mother's Day without a mother as well, Slopen said. "It's really hard, regardless of age," Slopen said. People might want to look for ways to acknowledge those who can't celebrate with their own mothers and provide "company and companionship through this time."
It takes everyone
Many challenges facing mothers go beyond what one person can do, Slopen said.
"For many people, the pandemic brought home this message that society doesn't care about women or families, and people felt incredibly abandoned," she said. To really help moms, "we need to reimagine a future where we have policies set up to protect the well-being of parents and children" – for example, paid leave so women can go to medical appointments or economic programs to keep their families out of poverty.
"Becoming knowledgeable and engaged in policymaking that has the potential to improve the lives of parents and children is one way to show love and appreciation for women on this Mother's Day."
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