Credit: aldomurillo/Dousan Miao/iStock; Francesca Roh/Xtra
10 min

Pandemic parenting in a two-mom family means twice the maternal guilt

In my queer household, we’ve avoided the unequal gendered division of labour, but I still feel like a failure as a mother—and failed by a system that neglects the most vulnerable

It was somewhere around day 75 of sheltering in place with two young kids that the chart went up. The formula was simple: 30-odd squares, each representing one day, to be checked off depending on that day’s success. Each box held so much potential—at the end, if enough checkmarks were accrued, an enticing reward would be earned. It was the same basic positive-reinforcement chart valorized on countless Pinterest pages, adopted by parents and primary school teachers alike to encourage kids to brush their teeth or do math drills. But in this case, the chart was for me.

Some background: A few months into a pandemic regime of working from home while also caring full-time for a toddler and homeschooling a kindergartener, my patience had gone the way of the non-perishable supplies we’d hoarded back in March. That is to say, it was gone, save for a few dried beans we’d stashed for emergencies only. And as my emotional reserves deteriorated, my six year old came up with a perfect plan: every day I made it through without yelling would earn me a check mark; a month of checks would net me (in his words) “a thousand one hundred dollars.” I won’t lie, the prize was appealing (I respond well to incentives). But the entire exercise confirmed my fears: I was a mean, monstrous, abject failure of a mother.

Like millions of others, my partner and I are trying—and failing—to navigate the impossible balance of parenting young kids and working full-time amid the stress and chaos of COVID-19. We are acutely aware of our enormous privilege: we have a home, fairly secure jobs, relatively good health, the ability to draw on our modest resources—and we are both cis and white and middle class. And yet, our distress is as real as it is ubiquitous. As Deb Perelman put it in a July New York Times essay, “Every single person confesses burnout, despair, feeling like they are losing their minds, knowing in their guts that this is untenable.” Perelman’s piece, which was shared by 75 percent of people in my social feeds (prefacing it, simply, with “THIS!!!!”), put into words what so many parents have been feeling. As the headline proclaimed: “In the Covid-19 economy, you can have a kid or a job. You can’t have both.”

So simple. So sad. And so true—especially, as it turns out, for parents who are women and do paid work outside the home. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with even a tenuous grasp of the gendered division of labour in heterosexual relationships that mothers have been disproportionately walloped by the emotional, physical, practical and logistical demands of raising kids while holding down a job in the present moment. One poll conducted in April on behalf of the New York Times found that 80 percent of moms (and let’s assume the majority were partnered with a man or are a single parent) reported being responsible for the better part of their kids’ homeschooling requirements.

That, to be clear, didn’t mean dads in hetero relationships were picking up the slack elsewhere. Seventy percent of the women who responded also reported that they were handling housework; two thirds said they were also responsible for the bulk of their family’s child care.

As September looms and parents contemplate a host of inadequate (at best) or garbage (at worst) plans for reopening public schools across Canada and the U.S., many are throwing up their hands in desperation. With no other option in sight, they’re opting out of paid employment to oversee their children’s care and education. More often than not, those parents are moms. A breathtaking illustration of this phenomenon appeared in another viral news story from earlier this year, in which a tech entrepreneur named Aimee explained that she’d shut down her successful company because her husband, who’d taken a leave from his own job, told her (after just three days of being the primary caregiver for their son!!!!!) that he was tired and couldn’t cope.

These public conversations have almost entirely centered on the unequal gender dynamics within heterosexual partnerships; in the background remains an anguished, frustrated murmur about how women—especially those in conventional marriages—contend with an inordinate amount of the domestic and emotional labour. I’ve been reading these articles and “THIS!!!!”ing them to the moon and beyond.

But even so, they only tell a part of my story. We’re a family made up of two moms and two kids. My partner and I may not experience the same seething resentment and inequality that’s bubbling up within the families described in countless heterocentric hot takes. In our case, though, we’re consumed by all of the stress and double the maternal guilt.

By and large, we have managed to share most parental and household responsibilities in a fairly equitable way. Our labour is divided not according to traditional “his” and “hers” arenas of responsibility, but based on an ad hoc logic. On the most basic level, we’ve taken turns as gestational/biological parents; on a macro level, we trade off tasks and chores that hew close to our preferences and strengths. She is more patient than I am in virtually every scenario; I’m better at spontaneous cookie-baking sessions and using duct tape to turn an empty oat milk carton into a semi-functional bird feeder. I cook; she drives. We’re both aspiring minimalists who are terrible at managing clutter—which has a tendency to overwhelm when you’re living in a Toronto semi-detached house the size of a LEGO structure. And we’re both sensitive talkers who’ve raised our kids with a ramshackle attachment-oriented approach—which is to say, as parents, we both draw on qualities that are traditionally associated with “mothering.”

Objectively, I don’t worry that we’re abject failures in the parenting department. Contrary to the fearmongering of “family-values” homophobes, queers tend to be perfectly good parents. The American Psychological Association notes that a “remarkably consistent body of research” has found that sexual orientation has no bearing on a person’s effectiveness raising kids, and that queer parents are “as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children.”

Lest that sound like damning with faint praise, let’s note that there is, in fact, evidence that LGBTQ2 individuals might actually possess additional strengths and advantages when it comes to parenting. One long-range study spanning 25 years found that kids raised by lesbian parents tended to struggle with fewer psychological and behaviour issues and were more “well-adjusted” in comparison to their peers. The reasons for this are multifold: queers and trans folks typically have to go out of their way to have kids, drawing on more economical and practical resources to get there. Translation: Fewer of us have babies by accident or without a lot of deliberation and planning, though it certainly can happen.

And, absent the gender norms and expectations that can exist within heterosexual relationships, same-sex couples generally appear to communicate better about the division of household chores and childcare, and seem to feel a greater sense of choice and satisfaction about how that labour is distributed. Two caveats here: One, it’s possible, given the ways in which LGBTQ2 folks continue to be discriminated against as people and as parents, that we feel compelled to be twice as good as our straight counterparts, adding additional stress to our lives. And two: all of these points represent the big-picture situation. It’s important to recognize that some members of the LGBTQ2 community experience domestic violence; that even the most wanted and worked-for kid can be subjected to abuse; that there is still woefully limited research on the experiences of trans and non-binary parents; and that one’s experience of parenting is shaped by additional socioeconomic factors such as class, race and ability.

For the most part, I think our family has lived up to these assessments. We try to be equitable and engaged. We went to great lengths to plan for and conceive our kids. We have never taken for granted the opportunity to be mothers. We were exhausted and overwhelmed and overworked, as is true for most parents of young kids. But we were managing.

Then COVID-19 hit, demolishing our routines and equilibrium. Right before the pandemic, my partner had started a short-term placement on a daily radio show with immovable deadlines and lightning-fast turnarounds, and she continued to go to her office to work. That meant my more amorphous, marginally less deadline-driven full-time job as an editor had to stretch and warp to accommodate the need to entertain and educate our two kids while I worked from home.

For the first two weeks, I woke up before dawn to jam in hours of work, while my partner anxiously went to the office and returned at dinner time, compulsively washing her hands and changing her clothes before she would hug our kids. My resentment and her guilt over undermining my work schedule grew in tandem. When she was able to finally work from home, the relief over our mitigated health risk was tempered by the continued stress of trying, in the manner of so many archetypal working moms, to have it all.

I agonized over my mediocre job performance and dwindling attention span; she fretted that her efforts to do research during her allotted childcare shifts meant that she was falling short as a parent. Both of us worried, incessantly, that we weren’t doing enough to support and enrich our kids, that their developing psyches would be permanently scarred by unlimited screen time, pandemic anxiety and our parental inadequacies. Even my longest fuses grew shorter. I hid in the kitchen and cried while my kids played quasi-“educational” iPad games. I yelled, and then felt terrible about yelling.

These are conundrums for the majority of COVID-19-era parents, but they’re all-consuming for countless moms. We idealize motherhood as an exercise in self-sacrifice; for all of feminism’s gains, many women who prioritize their careers feel the sting of societal judgment and wrestle with their own internal sense of maternal insufficiency.

Like so many other aspects of everyday life, parenting (even for queer parents) is an exercise subject to flawed but weighty assumptions involving gender: There’s more space within masculinity to express anger and frustration, more pressure within femininity to be sweet, patient, nurturing, soft. (This cuts both ways, of course, as any boy who was mocked for being a sissy knows all too well.) And in our case, as queer moms, we’re hyper-attuned to cultural expectations and judgments over how we’re raising our kids. Will our every effort to defy gender norms be read as though we’re forcing our politics on them? Will we encounter conservative educators whose bigoted values inflect how they teach our “fatherless” offspring?

We’re also both struggling with the guilt and turmoil of how to shoulder so much emotional labour in the midst of a crisis—and yearning for the external and internal validation that comes from doing your professional job well, even in an impossible situation. To be completely honest, every so often, when I read the (again, invariably heterocentric) think pieces about the toll the pandemic has taken on conventional mothers and conventional fathers in conventional straight marriages, there’s a part of me that yearns to be that out-of-touch doofus dad who’s wedded to his job and who trusts that his wife will just figure out everything else. (Before you @ me: Nearly all the cis, hetero dads I know are equal partners and equal parents, and many of them are trying to equitably share the burden of childcare and chores. And yet, and yet.)

Before COVID-19 hit, I found inspiration and comfort in the ways in which LGBTQ2 folks have been able to queer notions around parenting—how we’ve challenged divisions of labour, biological essentialism, gender divides. But what this moment has taught me is that, despite these strengths, queer parents are still vulnerable to the impact of a crisis. As so many people have noted, the pandemic has triggered a she-cession, with women faring far worse than men economically.  That means queer moms are facing the reality that in a household headed by two women, where both are already more likely to earn less than their dad counterparts, they’re also more likely to lose their jobs. We are all united in our experience of overwhelm and worry.

These issues are not new, but COVID-19 has trained a harsh floodlight on them. We’ve been forced to confront the fact that women continue to do a disproportionate amount of domestic work, as well as the ways society has always relied on the emotional and practical labour of women to compensate for inadequacies in our societal infrastructure.

Women and non-binary folks are at the crux of the sandwich generation: We’re relied on to care for aging elders when governments underfund long-term care homes, dismantle services for seniors and disembowel public pensions. We’re forced to juggle work and childcare due to exorbitant daycare fees and a dearth of available spaces. And without universally guaranteed sick days, mothers (who typically make less and have less job security than their dad counterparts) sacrifice income to look after sick kids—or, worse, are compelled to work even when dealing with illness themselves. And for members of marginalized communities who have precarious work and insecure housing, COVID-19 has made their situations exponentially more uncertain.

In the Before Times, privilege allowed many of us to remain relatively oblivious to the threadbare nature of our social safety nets. But now, as the vicissitudes of pandemic life have shut down schools, community centres, libraries, daycares and so many other services, it’s become impossible to deny that our existing supports were—are—inadequate at best.

At the moment, it seems almost impossible to imagine what After Times might look like, but we need to have these conversations—and we need to have them now. What lies ahead can’t simply be a return to life pre-pandemic, but rather a complete reimagining of the system to create something better and more equitable.

My queer family might have allowed me to avoid an unequal, gendered distribution of labour within our home, but queerness offers no protection against living in a culture that refuses to take care of its youngest, oldest and most vulnerable members. (In fact, many LGBTQ2 people are suffering a disproportionate impact from COVID-19 due to loss of access to community services and healthcare.) Queerness doesn’t inoculate me against a government in my home province of Ontario, that, when faced with a COVID-19-calibre crisis, offers up a contingency plan that seems to consist of crossing its fingers and hoping parents (read: Moms) will figure it out themselves.

As Deb Perelman wrote in that crystallizing essay, what so many families are struggling with right now isn’t an emotional issue, it’s an economic and structural one: “We are burned out because we are being rolled over by the wheels of an economy that has bafflingly declared working parents inessential.” That’s true regardless of your sexuality, gender identity or family unit. We need to queer this conversation, to think beyond conventional structures—familial ones as well as those that underpin our economy—to determine how we improve this situation now and going forward.

One of the things I appreciate about being queer is how we’ve worked to dismantle traditional ideas about what makes a family—how we’ve embraced the notion that it takes a village, or villages, to raise a kid. COVID-19 has illuminated just how important these networks are, even as it’s made them, in so many cases, a logistical impossibility. I have never felt so appreciative of the other adults who love and help care for our kids as I do now; I yearn to encapsulate them in our (already-full) bubble with a desperation that…well, let’s just say if that were my reward instead of “one thousand one hundred dollars,” yelling wouldn’t be an issue.