Navigating Mother's Day in 2020

Balancing safety, work, and child-rearing during COVID-19.

Posted May 09, 2020


It has been recognized by psychoanalysts, psychologists, and neuroscientists that pregnancy and motherhood result in a reorganization of a woman’s brain and psyche.

Ambivalence is a universal psychological state for mothers who have to balance work outside the home with the caretaking of their families, especially their young children. Even if mothers are lucky enough to have the resources (either family or financial) the ambivalence may lurk under the surface, to periodically consciously emerge. This ambivalence results in many mothers’ conscious guilt:

  • I have to go outside to work because we need my income.
  • I need to continue my work because it is personally very gratifying.
  • I need to go to work because I cannot be with my kids 24/7.
  • I hate leaving my kids with my spouse or a substitute caretaker because I am their mother and they need me.
  • My heart sinks when they cry as I go to work.

The impact of the quarantine

Unfortunately, the closing of schools and many places of work has thrown all of us into a very unfamiliar place: living in very close quarters. Too many of us have had to continue work outside the home as essential workers. Others have had the luxury of being able to continue their work lives from home. And, sadly, too many mothers have lost their source of income.

There are many mothers who have had to continue to work outside their home during this time, such as:

  • Health care workers
  • Workers in the transportation and information sector
  • Workers in the safety sector, such as police and firefighters
  • Workers in the food industry

The mothers in these sectors face the challenge of performing their work obligations, protecting their own health, and protecting the health of their families, especially their children. The balancing act can create real anxiety. In my next post, I will discuss some ideas to help master the anxiety provoked during COVID-19.

Mothers who have the luxury of working from home have to balance the needs of their work with their family obligations, which now include becoming the teacher’s paraprofessional. Some children can do their Zoom school independently, while others require on-the-spot adult supervision.

Mothers whose financial situation is in trouble need to figure out how to discuss these problems with other adults in the household. On the one hand, they need to, as much as possible, protect their children from too much anxiety, while at the same time communicating needed changes in their lives.   

The importance of partnerships in helping with conflict and ambivalence

Many years ago, a psychoanalyst, Doris Bernstein, was the first to describe how in Western culture men have much less conflict when choosing between work for their occupation and their home responsibilities, including care of their children. Much more than men, women are likely to experience guilt (no matter what their choice). There are many biological, sociological, and psychological reasons as to why, so often, mothers feel most responsible for the lives of their children.

Many mothers, while working wish they were taking care of their children, And, while taking care of their children believe they should be taking care of their outside work. Unfortunately, too often it is believed that to be a good mother, a woman has to eliminate that conflict and ambivalence about her own personal wishes as well as about her feelings toward her children. Rozsika Parker suggests that the problem is not maternal ambivalence itself, but rather the guilt and anxiety that ambivalence provokes, which prevents mothers from acknowledging and accepting their ambivalence.

Working collaboratively and sharing responsibilities with one’s partner goes a long way to help adapt to conflict and ambivalence.

Feeling in charge of one’s feelings

Mothers need help understanding the universality of ambivalence and acknowledging their own conflicted feelings to themselves in order to master their conflicts, rather than having to deny them or become overwhelmed by them because they are so frightening. They can feel more in charge of their own feelings and create a better balance between their occupation and child-care responsibilities, including ensuring that their partners participate in homemaking and child-rearing activities.

Happy Mother's Day.


Bernstein, D. (1983).  The Female Superego: A Different Perspective.  In. J Psycho-Analysis 64:187-201

Hoffman, L., Nachman, P., Rosenman, A. (2006). Voiced and Unvoiced Concerns of Mothers: Psychodynamic principles address the challenges of early parenthood. Zero-to-Three 26(5):45-51

Parker, R. (1995). Mother love, mother hate: The power of maternal ambivalence. New York: Basic Books

Stern, D. (1995). The Motherhood Constellation: A Unified View of Parent-Infant Psychotherapy. NY: Basic Books