Sound the Alarm: The Moms Are Not Alright

It’s time to take stock of the staggering effects of the pandemic on mothers.

Posted Nov 21, 2020

eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock
Source: eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock

By: Jessica Combs Rohr,  PhD, ABPP and Elisabeth Netherton, MD

Motherhood is a challenge at the best of times; a marathon of early mornings, late nights, emotional hurdles and responsibility for tiny people who, on a good day, might repay that investment with several sticky kisses or a handful of Goldfish delivered in the middle of your morning yoga class (mom rules necessitate that those be eaten). Because of COVID-19, mothers across the country are facing challenges our own mothers didn’t—mothers are homeschooling, social distancing, and facing limited activities and childcare options. Mothers are also facing a financial reality that becomes more strained by the day.

It is important to remember that most women are in the labor force—in 2016, 74.5% of women between the ages of 24-44 were working outside the home. That includes 70.8% of women with at least one child under the age of 18. Households rely on the income that women provide; for many families, it is a necessity, with mothers now being the primary or sole earners for 40% of households with children (as compared to 11% in 1960). And for those with greater financial flexibility, household expenses are commonly structured around the availability of women’s income. We have been experiencing profound changes in the economy that have led to layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts, currently estimated to affect nearly 1 in 2 households.

We know that women make less than men during the best of times—in 2018 women’s weekly wages were 81.1% that of men, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During this recession not only were sectors with higher proportions of female employees disproportionately affected, but female employees have been disproportionately more likely to be laid off than their male counterparts. Women-owned businesses are also more likely to be in the healthcare, education, or retail sectors that have been so hard hit during COVID-19.  Partially due to lower income overall, women also tend to have less buffer to weather financial storms.

This paints a dire picture for women’s mental health. We can readily empathize with financial strain, the fear that accompanies it and the catastrophic negative impact it can have on mental health. We may also appreciate that despite the reluctance we might frequently feel to get out of bed and go to work on a Monday morning, there is a well-established link between employment and mental health. We know that becoming unemployed is associated with depression and suicidality, and that gaining employment is associated with an improvement in mental health. Furthermore, in a socially distanced world in which women are substantially less able to receive household help or have contact with females outside their immediate household, there is a greater burden on the support that partners provide. Unfortunately, we know that within relationships, financial concerns are a major driver of conflict between partners, jeopardizing the support available to struggling mothers.

It is no wonder then that a recent pre-publication study cites staggering rates of psychological distress among mothers, with clinically relevant depressive symptoms reported in almost 44% of mothers of children age 5-8 who participated in the study. Work towards public policy solutions that will address income disparities and challenges accessing paid leave to improve the financial health of American mothers is profoundly necessary. 

Meanwhile, as friends and family members, this is a critical time to make use of our understanding of these financial realities to broaden our support for the mothers in our lives.

Often, mothers feel guilty accepting help from others. However, now is the time to accept support where it is offered—through friends, family, neighbors, Zoom exercise classes, telehealth, and connection with our chosen communities. We will all be stronger and healthier for it.

About the Authors

Dr. Jessica Combs Rohr is an expert in women’s mental health and serious mental illness who is a staff psychologist at Menninger and an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. She also serves as a research mentor for psychology and social work fellows and interns.

Dr. Elisabeth Netherton is board certified in psychiatry and neurology, specializing in women’s mental health issues and the psychiatric treatment of women and men before, during and after the birth of a child. 

To find a mental health professional near you, visit Psychology Today's therapy directory.