Q & A: Why the weight of expectations is often falling on the shoulders of mothers

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo speaks to a motherhood expert about managing work and child care during the pandemic.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo speaks to a motherhood expert about managing work and child care during the pandemic

Audrey Poulin playing with her son Timothy pre-pandemic. (Submitted by Audrey Poulin)

This year marks a very different kind of Mother's Day. For many people, hugs an face-to-face encounters won't be an option.

The pandemic has also changed parenting over the last two months. The fear and anxiety of our current reality along with balancing work and parenting can be a challenge.

Glenda Wall, a sociology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, studies motherhood and expectations. 

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo spoke to her about how parents can navigate and manage expectations around balancing children and work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: What's your take on heading into a Mother's Day under a global pandemic?

Glenda Wall: It is a very different one and a lot of my research has been about how mothering has become more intensive over the years and how we're spending more and more time with our children.

More time taking them to and participating in activities with them — lessons that sort of thing — and how mothering has become over time more financially expensive. The standard of good mothering has become more financially expensive, more time consuming, takes more energy and more emotional energy than in the past. 

At any rate, this is very different because all of those things are suddenly gone. We don't have the lessons, we don't have the activities and our children are just home with us while we're trying to work full-time or perhaps have been temporarily laid off or are essential workers and are scrambling for childcare. So yes, it's really different.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: It's going to be at least two months since emergency measures kicked in.  Normally you spend solidly straight time with your kids maybe at home or at a cottage for a week. But it's been going on for eight weeks. 

Glenda Wall: Yeah and this is completely different. It's especially hard on parents of young children. They have no help. They have no supports and yet for many people they're still expected to to be working and fulfilling their job duties or taking time off or taking paid vacation or are doing those sorts of things.

So, I really feel for parents and mothers who in good times generally do about two thirds still — even though dads are doing more and more, [moms] still do about two thirds of the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry and the care of young children around the house. So I think it's hitting mothers harder than it's hitting fathers.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: Do moms still have the pressure with higher expectations over dads?

Glenda Wall: The mothers I talked to say they feel like they're full-time housewives again. And I know dads are doing more as well, but it's safe to say that mothers are taking on the majority of the child-care burden and the extra cleaning, the extra cooking, the extra laundry and everything else that's that's going on right now.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: There's a lot of anxiety generally, how do you get through living at home with the same people day in and day out. 

Glenda Wall: Kids are feeling the anxiety that parents are feeling as well. And it makes it more difficult for those kids and even young kids can suffer from mental health problems. But especially as kids get older into their preteens and teens when they start to experience a lot more anxiety or are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, those kids are are feeling this as well.

I certainly talked to parents who are struggling right now, not only in dealing with their own anxiety but having to help their children who are feeling increasingly anxious.

Some of that focuses around homework and schooling as well. A lot of the the blowups in households or when emotions sort of get out of hand are often around frustrations around schooling with parents maybe not feeling capable or having the time to do that extra help with kids and kids not necessarily having the supports that they normally have in school.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: Have you done any study during any other conflict times? How does the pandemic compare to most recently 9/11 or dating back 100 years to the Spanish flu pandemic?

Glenda Wall: Well parenting looked a lot different then. And we didn't have the same expectations of parents that we do today.

We have very high expectations of [parents] in terms of not just taking care of their children's physical and health needs, which were more the concerns back when child mortality was a lot higher and we didn't have vaccines. Most of the focus on child care advice at that time was on keeping your kids healthy and and generally well disciplined as well.

Since [the Second World War] and things settling down, there's been much more focus on children's psychological and emotional health and parents' responsibility to help them out with that. And then more recently, of course, on children's academic achievement and parents participating in making sure that their kids gain a competitive advantage and going into the workplace and being the best they can be prepared academically.

The short answer is, it's changed a lot. The expectations on parents are higher today than they were back then in terms of the amount of time and energy that needs to be put into child care. Children were workers at a very young age and we're taking on greater responsibilities.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: How do you help a mother ease that anxiety and pass that on to their children?

Glenda Wall: I think mothers just have give themselves a break and do what they have to do to get by. And now more than ever it's important not to expect perfection from yourself. If your child doesn't do all their homework or all their schoolwork, it's not the end of the world this year.

Other people need to sort of back off the expectations about what's going to happen in terms of kids schooling this year and other things as well.

But hopefully workplaces where people are still expected to be working and working full-time are being more understanding with flexibility and perhaps looking more at outcome measures rather than actual hours put in because without child care it's just not possible for parents to continue to do both of those jobs managing child care and in their work environment 100 per cent to the same extent that they did before.

It's not just backing off on your expectations of yourself but it's on workplaces and other places backing off expectations too.