'I'm losing it': Why the pandemic is breaking mothers down

Elise Solé
·8 min read

Alison, an elementary school teacher in California, describes herself as cheerful and energetic, but six months into the coronavirus pandemic, her battery drained. "I realized how much our family was missing — a Disney cruise that took years to plan, my older daughter’s dance recitals and tickets to Hamilton," she tells Yahoo Life. "Still, I felt undeserving of sadness because these weren’t life milestones."

However, as the winter holidays closed in, Alison (whose name Yahoo Life agreed to withhold for privacy reasons) struggled to function. "I sunk into a deep depression and without time to fill my own bucket, my patience grew thin," she says. "I began fantasizing about leaving my family and the guilt brought sadness, continuing the mean and nasty cycle." As the go-to parent for homework help, toy repair and laundry, Alison had little time for herself and began snapping at her family. "With each 'Mommy! Mommy!' it felt like my eardrums would explode," she says. "My husband is very hands-on, but the kids always come to me."

Alison boiled over at the least likely place: her annual gynecological exam. "My doctor asked how COVID life was treating me and I said, 'We're all hanging in there!'A beat later, I confessed, 'That was a lie — I’m losing it!' and started bawling in her office, my feet in stir-ups."

I began fantasizing about leaving my family and the guilt brought sadness, continuing the mean and nasty cycle.Alison

The pandemic has cost many American families their health, lives and livelihoods and brought attention to the mental health of parents. A March study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that one year after the pandemic, parents were more likely than non-parents to have received professional mental health treatment (32 percent versus 12 percent) and to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder (24 percent versus 9 percent). And parents of young children are turning to alcohol to cope with stress and gaining more weight than non-parents.

Mothers have it expressly hard, as many are among the 2.2 million women who left the workforce last year, with Black and Latina women affected the most. "That’s enough to fill 40 football stadiums," Vice President Kamala Harris wrote in the Washington Post last month, calling unemployment and dwindling childcare "a perfect storm for women workers." And a June study published in Gender, Work and Organization found that between February and April, women with young children cut their work hours four to five times more than fathers. "Consequently, the gender gap in work hours has grown by 20–50 percent,” wrote the authors. "These findings indicate yet another negative consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the challenges it poses to women’s work hours and employment."

On top of all that, women continue to do most of the homeschooling (which contributed to worsened mental health for almost half of mothers compared to 30 percent of fathers, per the APA study), and housework. Men are helping out around the house more, found a study of 1,060 parents conducted during the first few months of the pandemic, but more isn't always enough. "The discrepancy lies in how the work is divided. Is it equal?" study author and Ball State University sociology professor Richard Petts tells Yahoo Life. "What we find — and what's consistent across a number of countries — is that moms are still disproportionately doing most of the work." Petts also observed in a press release that quarantining at home may have led fathers to "perceive that they are spending more time in these tasks than they actually are…"

Frustration, concealed by usernames, penetrates online mom communities.

"I totally just snapped at my kid today (girl 10) over finishing her homework," one woman wrote on Reddit. "Since the events at the Capitol I have been angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed. I don't sleep much and when I do I have nightmares." When her daughter got distracted mid-assignment, the mom "snapped" writing, "She cried. And I feel like s**t...I feel like the world is falling apart and I’m having to keep it all together and act like it’s all fine in front of my kid."

"For the stay-at-home moms out there, are you losing your f**king mind?" wrote another. "I have a 3 and 1 year old. And I’m 9 weeks pregnant. I love my babies so much, but I’m SO TOUCHED OUT. I literally can’t get a break….each day I find it harder and harder to keep my cool. I want to cry and scream...today I yelled 'LEAVE ME ALONE' several times. My kids don’t deserve this...Please tell me I'm not alone."

"I'm exhausted, I’m sad and I'm angry," wrote another adding, "It just feels like nothing is ever good enough." Another mother wrote, "I am reaching the end of my rope."

According to Emily Kline, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University and a psychologist at Boston Medical Center, initial lockdowns last March introduced false hopes about productivity and resilience. One example is those aspirational and highly structured kid schedules that went viral as schools closed; helpful to parents with flexible hours, stressful for those working from home and impossible for essential workers or single parents on the pandemic frontlines. "People were well-intentioned to meet the moment with hope or try to control an uncontrollable situation," Kline tells Yahoo Life. "But it was unrealistic."

The duration of the pandemic, says Kline, is traumatic for many women, specifically upon its one-year anniversary.

According to Sheryl Ziegler, a family therapist and the author of Mommy Burnout, adult-sized meltdowns aren't socially accepted. "We’re taught how to handle children's tantrums but not our own because women aren't 'supposed' to have them," she tells Yahoo Life. "We value different traits in men and women without space to acknowledge what it takes to juggle it all."

"We have accepted that high levels of stress in our lives and having to do it all is what it means to be a mother," she says adding that untrue stereotypes like "women are better at multitasking" reinforce expectations. But unmet needs and slacking on self-care is a flashpoint for moms.

Vaile Wright, a senior director of health care innovation at the APA and a co-author of the March research, suggests that parents have explicit conversations about the division of labor, even if it's emotional. "Women are often the social support for male partners," she tells Yahoo Life. "Men usually have strong friendships up until adolescence but that changes somewhere in adulthood." So if you're the "listener" in your family, you may want to protect your own mental space. According to the 2020 State of the Motherhood survey by Motherly, "compassion fatigue," exhaustion from caring from the care of others, is affecting women.

Most parents worry about having outbursts in front of children, but Zieger says it's inevitable. "It's not if your child sees you have a meltdown, it's just a matter of when," she says. "We're human beings and sometimes our kids do not see us individuals with our own feelings, our own fears, our own lives because we serve them so much."

"I think 'mommy meltdowns' are OK, especially if they become a learning experience," she adds. A meltdown is only unhealthy when adults use "loud or scary words," break objects or slam doors. "That's rage."

If you blow up, stop and breathe, apologize to your child, and consider what happened, says Ziegler. "What was the trigger, what do you need help with?" And talk to children about what happened in age-appropriate ways.

Fortunately, normalcy is returning for many families — the White House passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill with tax breaks for parents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is allowing fully vaccinated people to enjoy new freedoms and more schools opened for in-person instruction. Wright tells Yahoo Life that sending children off to school reduced stress among parents in the APA study.

I steal those moments to do something for me.Caitlyn

For Amy of Duryea, Pa., it took snapping at her mother-in-law who supervises her children during her workday. "All I hear is what I don't do right, what I’ve forgotten [to do]," she tells Yahoo Life. "I never felt I could express myself because she helps." But after nitpicking for forgetting to charge her daughter's laptop and working too much, "I went off on her," she said. "For the first time, I spoke honestly about how she makes me feel and it felt great."

While setting reading goals helped Caitlyn, a special-ed teacher in Pa., with three children of her own. She listens to books "when folding or driving," and also reads on her Kindle. "I steal those moments to do something for me," she tells Yahoo Life.

And Alison is finally ready to put herself first. "I'm seeing an internist for medication and a therapist to talk through my depression and temper," she says. "My husband and I are looking at getaways for some much-needed self-care and my vaccinated parents can step back into the picture."

She adds, "I already feel a little lighter knowing that it's mom's turn to meet her needs."

— Video produced by Stacy Jackman

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