I was heavily pregnant with my first child as the covid-19 pandemic gathered pace. I spent a lot of time doom-scrolling in those Spring months. I anxiously, and often angrily, tracked the bans on birth partners in New York City hospitals, and the separations of mothers presumed to have covid from their newborns. I worried about the disruption of routine healthcare. Mostly, I was focused on birth. But by the time my daughter’s due date approached, I had also begun to worry about what it would be like to welcome a new baby without our friends and family around us, in relative isolation.
Those same friends and family did their best to put my mind at ease, arguing that being home with a newborn isn’t that different from shelter-in-place. In some ways, they were right. In the haze of broken sleep and consuming, round-the-clock care of a newborn, I didn’t have time to think about whether I was living through a pandemic. As it turns out, though, babies just keep getting bigger. The pandemic just kept getting bigger, too. As I emerged from the sleepless fourth trimester, I began to wonder about the longer-term significance of becoming a parent during the pandemic. What does it mean to become a parent in private, largely isolated from the world outside of the home?
Becoming a parent outside of normal forms of community is a seismic shift. Like many new parents of the pandemic age, I have yet to learn how to care for my child out in the world, and while spending time with others. With my husband and I both home all the time with my daughter, we have pretty much never been alone as a couple without our child. I also fundamentally lack a register for my own parenting. How risk-averse am I? How flexible? How high strung or relaxed? These aren’t things one gauges in isolation, but in relation to others. My partner and I only know how to be parents, and only know ourselves as parents, on our own. We’re exhausted, for sure, and uncertain of our place.
Over the last year, parents have had to grapple with more isolation and less social support. The degree of social isolation experienced by families during the pandemic has varied along socio-economic and racial lines, as wealthier households have managed to insulate themselves to a greater extent from covid risks. But for all parents whose children were already off at daycare or school or even college, and were suddenly thrust back into the home in the spring of 2020, life derailed (and is still derailing) into chaos. Employers largely wouldn’t or couldn’t accommodate the new caregiving responsibilities of employees, and families—most of all mothers—have had to pick up the pieces. Well before the pandemic, women did significantly more childcare and household labor than men. This has only continued to be the case as the overall burden of unpaid labor for families has increased, and the work of schooling and caring for children rendered even less visible to the world outside of families.
New parents of babies were initially spared some of this, though not for long. Between February and December of 2020, 42 percent of women with children under the age of two left the workforce, including many women who simply never returned from maternity leave. The vast majority of job losses in the last year have been borne by women of color who are disproportionately represented in lower-paid sectors of the economy like hospitality and food service which have been hardest hit in the pandemic. Whether they’re now working for pay or not, mothers’ livelihoods and careers are being disrupted in ways that will be felt for lifetimes.
This crisis of work and care has transformed life for all parents, but as a new parent, I’ve experienced a unique kind of disorientation. Almost daily since my daughter was born, I’ve wondered why I am so exhausted. Why do I feel disconnected from my friends? Why do I keep forgetting to brush my teeth? I ask my husband, “Is this parenting? Or is this the pandemic?” We have no idea. Our experience of parenting began with anxiety about how to buy diapers and other basic goods needed to take care of a baby. It continued with canceled celebrations, disrupted and altered birth plans, difficult and at times impossible to access prenatal and postpartum care, and far fewer friends and family to greet, hold, and get to know the new baby. To some extent, virtual and socially distant life filled the gap with online birth classes and parent support groups. These have continued to be meaningful sources of community, though there is no real substitute for proximate, lived togetherness. I navigate my days in a much smaller world than I used to live in, unmoored by some combination of social distancing and new parenthood, and totally uncertain of where I fit.
Becoming a parent has always been both joyful and stressful, and for the last year, it has been more so. Every decision I’ve made as a new parent has always already involved calculations about covid risk. This has affected everything from whether or not to seek much-needed lactation support or pelvic floor physical therapy, whether to accept help from friends and family, use formal childcare, or so much as run an essential errand with a mask-less baby in tow. From the moment of childbirth, having a baby makes you acutely aware of your dependence on others, and our basic interdependence as a human species. For more than a year, dependence has been fraught.
In many ways, the world remade by the pandemic has been kind to me as a new parent lucky enough to be home rather than on the front lines. It has meant more proximity to my daughter at home and made breastfeeding a lovely, sustainable option. Plus, there is nothing like bearing witness to the extraordinary, super-sonic pace of a baby’s growth to shield against the monotony of life on lockdown. With the ability to work from home, my husband has spent far more time with our daughter this year than would otherwise have been the case. Early research suggests that he is not the only one. In 2017, just 36 percent of American fathers reported spending what they felt to be the right amount of time with their children. By October 2020, that figure had jumped to nearly half. Caring for a baby while the world of work is in upheaval has for many of us made parenting if not easier, then more joyful.
The experience of becoming a parent for the first time in the covid era has ultimately been defined most by its fundamental strangeness. With parenthood comes a huge shift in identity, and identity formation is generally a thing we do in communities. My daughter is now more than 10 months old, but for the most part, my friends haven’t seen me as a parent. Some of my friends have also become parents during this time, and I haven’t really seen them as parents either. We have become parents in our immediate households, and in our neighborhoods. We’ve become parents in private only.
Long before the pandemic, parents in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world were expected to shoulder the responsibility of childrearing with inadequate or inaccessible childcare, a paucity of flexibility and support from employers, and limited public spaces for children in communities. As Margaret Thatcher famously said in 1987, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” It was true then, and it is even truer now. It’s fair to say that politics as much as the virus has brought us to this privatized reality. In this respect, coronavirus hasn’t ushered in a new era so much as sealed the deal on four decades of the rhetoric of personal responsibility, and the demand on families to do and be it all unto themselves. It is too soon to know what the long-term consequences will be for those of us who became parents in the plague year, but one thing is clear: we have learned to occupy our roles as caregivers, and to expect to occupy our roles as caregivers, with little support.
For now, as my daughter approaches her first birthday, I am taking stock not just of a year of new joys and new challenges, but also of loss. Pregnant women in the US are now eligible for covid-19 vaccines, and babies born and parents made in the coming months will arrive in a world very different from the one that shaped first experiences of parenthood last year. Grandparents and siblings and friends will once again visit new arrivals, and celebrations will return. With the mounting sense that there is an end to the pandemic comes grief for what’s been missed, and uncertainty about what’s ahead.
As the pandemic wanes and vaccinations become more accessible, those of us whose parenting was forged in 2020 will have to learn a new way of parenting and imagine our way back into society as the people we’ve become in private. I suspect it will come in fits and starts.
A couple of months ago, as the winter lockdowns eased, my friend Alex texted to say she needed a work break. It was mid-afternoon, my daughter and I hadn’t seen a soul outside of our close family for weeks, and I figured a walk might be just the thing for my tiring baby. I donned my mask and no sooner than I’d met a masked Alex a couple of blocks away, my daughter started to fuss. Alex greeted her with smiling eyes, and before I could apologize with an exhausted look, she began to sing. First the melodic union ballad “Solidarity Forever,” then a beautiful old Yiddish song, and eventually George Gershwin’s Summertime. My daughter drifted off to sleep. We chatted a while longer, and I wandered home uplifted. Alex is a dear friend who I’ve known for years, yet it somehow still startled me that someone else cared for, or even a little bit knew, my daughter. I’ve been singing “Summertime” ever since.
Sarah Stoller is a writer and historian of women, work, and feminism. She completed her PhD on the history of working parenthood at UC Berkeley. She’s now on maternity leave with her daughter, and when not singing off-key, can be found on Twitter @sstohla.