How I long for the good old days of mom-shaming.
Back then, you could tsk-tsk over any number of maternal decisions: breastfeeding or bottle-feeding; having children out of wedlock or in wedlock with another woman; staying at home, or working full time.
Nowadays, all that remains is: How she plans to educate her children this Fall.
We vilify women planning pandemic e-learning, asking them, “What planet are you on,” “Don’t you have anything better to do,” and “Why do you deny the benefits of school?” This last one usually extrapolates into “contributing to systemic inequalities.”
We dismiss women who buy new-school-year outfits, surmising they are “part of the Matrix,” they “refuse to see the realities of this disease.” Many supplement that moms “are putting teachers in harm’s way.” (My favorite condemns women by wondering: “Why did you have children, if you can’t even take care of them for a few months?”)
It’s quite gratifying, really, to watch the last frontier of mom-shaming unfold.
Because let’s be perfectly honest: These are decisions largely made by moms, and it’s moms who’ve been responsible for following through. As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere: Women are juggling the emergency-schooling load, in addition to the mental load of researching and planning for an unknown future.
However, there’s a bedrock of misunderstanding underlying the mom-shaming. This is something all physicians get beaten out of them during their first pediatrics rotation: “Children are NOT small adults.”
That is, children are different creatures from us— based on different physical, physiological, and developmental stages. (As a medical student, I was dismayed to learn that pediatric lungs weren’t just tiny, cute versions of mine.) COVID-19 may infect and affect young children differently than adults (and perhaps it’s just another thing they’re not good at sharing!)
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and newspaper editorial boards have all clamored for safe school reopening. But just because something is important (to children, to adults, to our future as a country, to our economy now) doesn’t mean it is straightforward. By this point in the pandemic, “there are no perfect answers” on how to restart schools.
So here is the fundamental problem: These are complicated systemic issues, which we (yet again) boil down to women’s personal shortcomings, lack of education, or poor decision-making.
The more we frame and blame individuals, the less we remember: These are not choices— these are desperate reactions to massive political and systemic failures.
As a judgemental bystander, I can never know the secret asthma of a child; the frail, beloved nonna at home; or any other reason a parent keeps their child out of schools. I can never know the agonizing decision to return to school by a depressed and overwhelmed stay-at-home mom. I can never know the unemployed single mom going hungry, trying to hide a food shortage from her 3rd grader.
So, to the mom who quits her job to homeschool, because she refuses to send in her preschooler without having better answers: I respect you.
To the nurse who sends her son to an imperfect school because of his speech regression during quarantine: I respect you.
To the lawyer who gives her twins iPads, to keep them home while she works remotely: I respect you.
To the part-time freelancer who sends in her toddler, so she can answer emails without being hit by legos: I respect you.
And to the finally-sung heroes, the teachers who have always been on the front lines (even before when we called it that), who have always protected and loved children, who have always been covered in germs: I hope society finally elevates you to the level of honor and power you have always held.
I call upon you, the architects of knowledge, to join with pediatricians, the scientists of childhood, to form local emergency groups. Please be the ones guiding our decision-making with evidence-based, real-world practicality.
To all the mom-shamers out there: Let’s rise above individualism, and demand the collective support we, our children, and our society need.
(Even if it means there’s one less thing to complain about.)
Giannina L. Garces-Ambrossi Muncey is a critical care physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com