Three years into pandemic parenting, and Slack notifications have become the background noise of my home. I've tried to tell myself that this unsustainable "new normal" is viable, that the erosion of my mental health is still tolerable.
But a Slack notification alerting me that Pfizer has postponed its application for authorization for their COVID-19 vaccine for children under 5 reminded me that my daily affirmations are all lies.
This is not viable. None of it is tolerable. Moms with kids under 5 are not OK.
To be clear, no moms are OK right now. But moms with kids too young to be vaccinated? We are really, truly, deeply not OK.
After learning the vaccine would be delayed for months, I burst into tears, sequestering myself in our downstairs bathroom so my sobbing would not disturb my 3-year-old, who was clocking in hour [redacted] of "Sesame Street." I texted the article to my partner, an essential worker at an Amazon fulfillment center who, in March and April and May of 2020, would strip down to his underwear, bag his clothes, and shower before touching me or the kids, fearing he would somehow bring the plague into our home.
"F*ck," he replied. He's tired, too.
So is Jaimi Klein, 34, a mom to a 16-month old-daughter and currently 18 weeks pregnant with her second child. She says that when she heard the vaccine for kids aged 6 months to 4 years was going to be delayed, she felt both crushed and infuriated.
Related: Moms are finally airing out their anger, but experts say it’s not enough
"COVID has changed everything about our lives," Klein tells TODAY Parents. "I gave birth in October 2020, and after 16 weeks of paid leave I moved into unpaid leave and took unpaid leave all the way up until her first birthday, because we were trying to wait until a vaccine and didn't feel safe sending her to daycare."
"We've all literally just put our lives on hold. We're just sitting here, waiting for the vaccine."
Faced with the decision of either sending her unvaccinated child to daycare or quitting her job as a health care worker, Klein is grateful that instead, her husband's sister put her entire life on pause to move in with them and provide childcare. All of this, she notes, is a massive privilege — she knows so many moms who don't have the option of taking unpaid leave, or who don't have a family member who can help care for their children.
"I've mostly been feeling rage about this, and I'm getting so emotional now that I'm talking about it," she says. "But we've all literally just put our lives on hold. We're just sitting here, waiting for the vaccine."
With the promise of a vaccine for kids in her daughter's age range looming, she enrolled her child in daycare starting in January, 2021. Then omicron hit, and Klein delayed her daughter's daycare start date.
"We made a plan with her school, so now her new start date is March 14. And then we hear that the (vaccine approval) delay happened and we just don't know," she says. "We don't know what that's going to look like for us."
Klein says that if the vaccine doesn't come in time, she will keep her daughter home.
"It just feels like we don't exist because people are so dedicated to going back to partying or traveling or doing whatever," she says. "It's so frustrating."
Related: Why mothers are bearing such a huge mental load during coronavirus pandemic
Is anyone even hearing us? Or worse, are they just choosing not to care?
Multiple studies have shown that the pandemic has disproportionately hurt moms' mental health. An online TODAY survey conducted in May 2021 found that 83% of moms are feeling burnt out by pandemic parenting, 69% felt overwhelmed, and 83% say they're handling 60% or more of the housework or home responsibilities.
Yet it feels as if no one truly cares about the declining mental health of moms, especially those with young children who are still following strict COVID safety guidelines for the health and wellbeing of their families. Yes, we're angry and we're screaming in fields... but is anyone even hearing us?
Or worse, are they just choosing not to care?
"Becoming a new mother has always been stressful as we are trying to the best of our ability to keep this fragile little human safe, healthy and protected," Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW and Founding Director of The Motherhood Center in New York City tells TODAY. "When you add a pandemic on to that — all bets are off. Terms like 'a pandemic of the unvaccinated' is like pouring gasoline on a fire."
"This pandemic has created a maternal mental health crisis. Mothers are at the end of their ropes — they need help, and they need it now."
Paige Bellenbaum, The Motherhood Center
"If there was ever a question that society rests on the backs of mothers — this pandemic has all but amplified it," she adds. "Working mothers have been juggling triple the amount of work that they ever were before. (And) that doesn’t factor in the emotional or invisible labor — the constant worry that the looming pandemic will harm her children, or what the long term impacts of Covid will have on their emotional and academic development, or the fact that she has been so tired for the past two years that intimacy with her partner has fallen to the wayside, or that she hasn’t been able to visit her ailing mother, or that her job performance has plummeted in the wake of all of these things. And the list goes on and on."
"It’s clear why the mental health of all mothers — including working mothers — is hanging by a thread," she adds. "This pandemic has created a maternal mental health crisis. Mothers are at the end of their ropes — they need help, and they need it now."
Related: How the pandemic has forced a new generation of latchkey kids
Bellenbaum says that without systemic support — like “earmarking federal dollars to subsidize robust mental health initiatives” and “encouraging companies to invest in their employees mental health by prioritizing and subsidizing treatment,” as well as “forcing insurance companies to pay higher reimbursement rates for mental health care” — moms cannot maintain their mental health, now or in the future.
As states lift mask mandates despite thousands of Americans dying every day from COVID-19, parents with kids under 5 still feel like it's March 2020. The same worries and fears that existed then remain when your youngest children are not old enough to get a vaccine proven to protect people from severe COVID-19 illness and death.
We want to protect our children from long COVID, from multi-system inflammatory syndrome or any COVID-related complication, and no discussion on how "uncommon" or "unlikely" severe COVID-related illness is in children erases the realities so many parents and children are facing today, in busy pediatric intensive care units across the country.
We want a better work-life balance, where self-care isn't expensive or marketed as just another thing to add to our never-ending to-do lists, but is actually feasible and supported. We want our unpaid emotional labor to be noticed and appreciated. And after 27 times more men than women rejoined the workforce in January 2022, we want the chance to both parent and pursue our individual goals — a chance that still feels exclusive to men.
We'll continue to will ourselves to make it through one more hour of our unsustainable reality, because there is no other option.
We also don't want to "return to normal" when normal means having limited access to affordable child care, no mandated paid family leave, and a crushingly uneven division of labor inside the home. We don't want a return to unequal pay, where moms are paid 69 cents for every dollar a dad makes. We don't want to turn back towards a maternal health care crisis that is disproportionately harming Black and Latinx mothers. We don't want dads to be treated as part-time babysitters and not equal parenting partners.
So, instead of going back or moving forward, we're stuck — inside, at home with our unvaccinated children, working while we raise our kids and hoping that the country's leaders will remember the population that is too young to get vaccinated and the people who care for them, too.
We'll continue to will ourselves to make it through one more hour of our unsustainable reality, because there is no other option. We'll keep plopping our kids in front of televisions for more hours of screen time that we'll later feel guilty about, as our work-from-home Slack notifications continue to ping — the world spinning madly on, leaving so many of us behind.