“Mommy, we forgot my mask.”
The five words no parent wants to hear when you’re already halfway to your destination.
My 5-year-old was decked out in his jacket, hat, gloves—everything but the damn mask. Did we walk back to our apartment and risk being late for school? Did I try to fashion a mask out of my scarf and hope he still had a few extra at school? Ah-ha! I recalled I had stashed a few backups in his backpack at the beginning of the year. The morning was saved.
Suddenly all the strange looks we’d received made sense.
I was grateful no one had made a snarky comment about my son’s bare face. I have, in fact, encountered relatively little pushback regarding my parenting decisions (and mask snafus) this year—but I’ve been lucky. The internet is rife with stories of working moms who’ve been shamed for sending their kids back to daycare or letting them frolic on a playground. Every influencer’s Instagram post, no matter how innocuous (“Look at Reese in his Christmas pajamas!”), devolves into a debate about in-person shopping or traveling or outdoor dining.
I get it. It’s been a year marked by fear and uncertainty. “Competition and criticism of others is so often a projection of insecurity and instability,” New York-based reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks told The New York Times in an article about mom shaming during COVID.
When we don’t feel good about our choices, we lash out at others.
It’s given rise to what I’ve dubbed the Perfect Pandemic Parent. You know the type. These are the parents who smugly inform friends and strangers alike they haven’t taken their child to a physical store since March. They still sanitize every parcel and foodstuff that enters their home. They haven’t seen another human, even socially distant, besides their immediate family in months. They’ve crafted a minute-by-minute homeschooling curriculum while attending client meetings on Zoom, so how hard can it be?
Let me be clear: I fully embrace pandemic precautions. (We wear masks and only socialize outdoors, except with the two families in our “pod,” which feels right for our family.) But I’ve grown weary of the folks who take joy in patronizing parents who can’t live up to their lofty standards.
Because what these Perfect Pandemic Parents don’t realize is that they often have a multitude of advantages: a job that allows them to work from home and provides them the flexibility to scale back significantly during school hours; a stay-at-home parent or nearby family who can provide childcare relief; the income to hire a private sitter; a big home with separate workspaces for every family member; a generous backyard; money for delivery services; kids who don’t require special medical care, learning supports or other services.
Many of these are uncommon privileges. First, most people aren’t working remotely: An EU policy brief found that only 35 to 40 percent of employees in developed economies have worked from home most or all of the time during the pandemic. Most moms don’t have the ability to cut back their work hours without career consequences: One survey from theBoardlist and Qualtrics shows that dads have been three times as likely to receive a promotion while working from home during COVID. And many parents don’t have family nearby for childcare relief: While the typical American lives just 18 miles away from Mom, people with college and professional degrees are much more likely to live farther from their parents, and especially if both spouses work.
It’s been an excruciating year for everyone, but especially for parents. We are constantly picking from an unpalatable smorgasbord of “less bad” options for our families. As one mom said in a viral Facebook post in July, “nothing feels right.” Many of our “choices” pit our biggest priorities against one another: our physical health vs. our mental health; our career ambitions vs. our children’s education; our safety vs. our sanity.
And they aren’t really choices at all, when a botched pandemic response paired with minimal childcare assistance has backed working moms into a corner.
Yes, there are plenty of people who aren’t following safety guidelines whatsoever, but there are also millions who have weighed the risks and decided taking the kids to Costco is worth the reprieve it gives the parent who stays home.
Or, maybe Mom forgot her son’s mask that day.
Shaming these parents only adds to their guilt, during a time when what we need most is support. (Not to mention, experts say that shaming is not an effective method for converting others to your cause.)
So, to the Perfect Pandemic Parents, I’m begging you: Resist the temptation to criticize acquaintances on Facebook. To tell your favorite Instagram influencers what they’re doing wrong. To brag on Twitter about how faithfully you’ve adhered to CDC guidelines. To whisper behind your friend’s back about how you’d never send your kids to school or visit a museum right now. (Or worst of all, say it to your friend directly!)
There’s no award waiting for you on the other side of this crisis. With a vaccine only months away, all we can do now is hunker down, try to keep our families safe and survive this bleak winter by savoring every bit of joy we can. In keeping with the spirit of the season, let’s extend a little generosity to our fellow parents. We certainly could use it.