As an ob/gyn in a busy academic practice, I miss a lot of my children’s firsts. This year, my son was supposed to start kindergarten, and my daughter would have started preschool. I had diligently planned ahead and taken vacation on their first days of school, anticipating that I would be dropping them off and picking them up while transitioning slowly to a babysitter.
Of course, in March, we were struck by a pandemic, which has irrevocably altered the lives of all Americans. My family has been very lucky; my husband is an infectious disease physician, and while work has been incredibly busy, as I read the unemployment numbers, I remind myself that at least we have jobs. We have all remained healthy, and a wonderful sitter helps us with the kids when we are at work. I have so much to be grateful for during this time where others have lost loved ones, their livelihoods, their homes, and even their lives.
But every day, I experience a sense of loss and grief. My world is a Venn diagram of overlapping circles, with COVID-19 flashing in bright red at the very heart of my existence. When a state of emergency was declared in Massachusetts and my daycare closed with fewer than 12 hours notice, I scrambled to find childcare so that I wouldn’t have to reschedule my patients. In the beginning of the pandemic, extemporizing both at work with the adoption of telehealth and at home by patching together a childcare schedule at the start of each week seemed like an adventure, only because it was temporary.
Now, several months into the pandemic, I wonder bleakly how much worse it will become as we face a second surge here in Massachusetts. Work has become even busier than it was prior to the pandemic due to the backlog of patients needing to be seen. I used every available OR slot to fit in patients whose surgeries were postponed during the surge. Babies don’t care about a pandemic — there have been nights when I’ve run from room to room on Labor and Delivery helping to bring new life into a world that so desperately needs some joy. My first priority is the care of my patients, so I give up my academic time that is protected for research to operate or to squeeze in that patient who has been having abnormal bleeding since March and hasn’t been able to see a gynecologist. Meanwhile, patients call the office, frustrated by insurance mishaps or upset that their appointments have been rescheduled, not realizing that some of our office staff is still furloughed, and each staff member is doing the work of two people. Worse yet, the workday has been stretched to fill 12 hours at a time, with the beginning and the end of our traditional workday bookended with 7 a.m. or 6 p.m. meetings. I scramble to cook dinner and feed my family while listening in via Zoom.
The delicate balance I had crafted — so that I could be the type of mother I wanted to be but still maintain a fulfilling career for which I have worked incredibly hard — rapidly crumbled in the face of COVID-19. I joked with a friend recently that in the past seven months, there was one week where I felt like a good mom and a good doctor, I ate healthy food, and I exercised. I have never been able to replicate that unicorn of a week since.
I feel like a bad doctor when patients call the office complaining about the long wait times for appointments. I feel like a bad mom as I frantically take notes at the school committee meeting about all the things I still have to do to get my son ready for hybrid kindergarten. On his remote day, during the only synchronous lesson he had, the internet cut out for 15 minutes. My sitter texted me the news while I was in the middle of a very busy clinic. I emailed the teacher to let her know, and she very kindly sent me a link to the book they had read in class. That night, between cooking dinner, feeding the kids, dealing with an urgent patient issue, and trying to recreate the bedtime routine that the pandemic has destroyed, I forgot to read my son’s book. He reminded me of that at 10 p.m., when he found me sitting at the kitchen table, trying to edit a manuscript while shoveling cake into my mouth.
“You didn’t read me my book,” he said solemnly.
Holding back tears of exhaustion, I wiped the chocolate frosting off my face and read to him.
I have so much to be thankful for — I have a job that I love, my family has remained healthy, and I have someone to help me at home. But even with all these privileges, I am struggling. The pandemic encroaches on every circle of my Venn diagram, and there is no respite in sight.
I am tired. America is tired. But particularly, American mothers are tired. The pandemic has indelibly impacted the lives of mothers. I am on the front line for an infectious disease pandemic and a pandemic that remains unnamed: that of the myriad sacrifices we as mothers are being asked to make, silently and without recognition or acknowledgement. The expectation for me as a physician is that I will continue to take care of others despite limited PPE, even if it meant that for months at the start of the pandemic, I wore the same N95 mask for days at a time. The expectation for me as a mother is that I will sacrifice my well-being and my career for the sake of my children, even if it means that I feel exhausted and discontent. Around 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September, a number four times that of men. Mothers who haven’t quit their jobs have likely shifted some work hours to later in the evening, after bedtime.
This pandemic has exposed the deep rifts in our attitude towards working mothers. Even prior to the pandemic, high-quality childcare was inordinately expensive for many mothers; when I had my son as a resident physician in training, the annual daycare tuition cost as much as my entire salary. Very few employers have daycare centers on site or are affiliated with daycare centers that can provide some cost savings. The paltry three-month maternity leave we are offered is neither guaranteed nor is it fully paid in many jobs. Employers are not legally required to pay women for breaks they may take for pumping. The prevailing attitude is that of course, working women can have children — but at each step of the way, it becomes more and more difficult and prohibitively expensive to do so.
The Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women recently released its report of the impact of COVID-19 on women. More than half of women surveyed have considered decreasing their work hours or have already done so, and nearly 90% are worried about their children’s emotional and social well-being. The report highlights the impossible expectations that women are expected to fulfill right now. This juggling act of motherhood, homeschooling, and working will likely cause many more women to be pushed out of the workforce. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The pandemic has upended “normal” life in America; we should use this opportunity to implode the archaic structure that provides such little support to working mothers.
How has the pandemic disrupted your life as a working mother? Share in the comments.
Dr. Huma Farid is an obstetrician/gynecologist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.