This Mother’s Day can be particularly lonelier

by Emily Withnall | May 8, 2020 12:43 pm

Photo credit: Orione, Pexels.

Mother’s Day can be a complicated day for many mothers because it often requires extra labor on the mother’s part. But for single mothers, the day can be particularly fraught. It is challenging to parent alone and Mother’s Day is ripe with opportunities to reflect on that isolation. Add Covid-19 to the equation and the day feels even lonelier. While in previous years single moms might have banded together or gathered with extended family, social distancing makes that impossible. Instead, the day calls on me to consider my isolation as a parent and the way that parenting has become so lonely for most of us.  

I have a hard time asking for help. This can be challenging even in easier times, but as I think about drafting a will, and making calls to people about caring for my kids if something happens to me, I am even more terrified. Asking for help before the pandemic never required asking someone to contemplate my death. Even so, both before and now, these requests can feel transactional and as a single parent without many resources I never feel that I am making good on my part of the transaction. I wonder how to give back or to make the relationship more equal.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like a burden or suck on others’ resources. Even beyond the stigmas attached to single parents, and especially those of us who receive support from safety net programs, repeated requests in personal friendships and acquaintances come with their own set of challenges. When I’ve talked to friends who are also parenting solo, they have shared that they also struggle with asking for help. It’s not just about having difficulty with accepting help—it’s about finding the courage to ask when asking for help becomes the primary aspect of the relationship. The imbalance can be uncomfortable for both the asker and the giver, especially over time. In our own nuclear families, we are each responsible primarily for our own families and it is already a lot. Taking on more can tip the tenuous balance we all hold.

As the pandemic continues to expose inequities in our healthcare systems and schools and who receives support and who does not, I have also been paying attention to the ways people are showing up for each other. Mutual aid groups have sprung up in countless cities across the U.S. People are delivering groceries and helping each other with bills and donating to food banks. I have been the fortunate recipient of some of these kindnesses. Best of all, I never asked–it was simply offered. 

Although we are quite literally siloed in our family units, I want to see mutual aid grow and expand and help us all reimagine what our day-to-day lives might look like if we are all actively engaged in community building and caring for one another. I’ve been trying to imagine what mutual aid might look like in the future when we don’t have to stay six feet apart. How might mutual aid grow and expand? What if the government commits to supporting all of the people who live in our country? I imagine all of us getting to know all the kids in our neighborhoods, and all the elderly. I imagine all of us getting to know the immigrants and single parents and people living with visible and invisible disabilities. I imagine that rather than providing one-on-one assistance from time-to-time, that we truly live together and support each other. That we pitch in with driving people to doctor’s appointments, or babysitting, or helping with math homework, or providing meals. I imagine what it might feel like if we take down the walls of the nuclear family and nurture each other collectively, nurture our rivers and parks and forests collectively, and invest in shared hands-on problem-solving. I imagine our government ensuring access to education and healthcare and living wages and clean rivers and clean air, so that we can all have more room to breathe and grow. I imagine a society where a single parent like myself doesn’t have to worry about who will raise her kids because there will be a vast community of people who have known and loved the kids since the beginning. I imagine that my kids will not be a financial burden for anyone else if I die because the government will be supporting all of its citizens ensuring that everyone has their basic needs met. 

These are wild, idealistic imaginings with no clear-cut roadmap. People used to live this way, yes, and some small communities still do. But moving away from the cultural norms of capitalism, individualism, and independence that have become so ingrained in all of us will take thoughtfulness, effort, and plenty of growing pains. Are these fantasies? I hope not. Restoring things to the way they were before the pandemic will not work. The systems and cultural norms we’ve been relying on are running us ragged and keeping us apart. We can’t connect and build a deep community when we are struggling to simply pay the bills. 

I know I’m not alone in my reluctance to ask for help, and I also know I’m not alone in struggling to make it all work without help. Americans have been raised to believe we must live life in silos and be the sole problem-solvers of our own cordoned-off lives.

As the entire world experiences the Covid-19 pandemic at the same time, the culture and values in each country are shaping the response. In the U.S., the words “independence” and “freedom” are meant to convey possibility. If you work hard enough, as the myth goes, you can achieve success. The trope of the “self-made” entrepreneur permeates our culture. Not only can you achieve success if you work hard enough, but you should be able to do it alone. This thinking is often applied to personal relationships, but it’s used for government, too. When these values are applied to government policies, caring for one another becomes suspect. Safety nets, meant to support the most vulnerable and help everyone through inevitable life challenges, are seen as “hand-outs.” 

Thankfully, the mutual aid networks that have emerged in communities across the U.S. are challenging the ideas of self-sufficiency we’ve had hammered into us for so long. These networks are not new to all communities and have been a continual means of survival in many marginalized communities in the U.S. and across the globe. Still, self-sufficiency and independence have come to define what it means to be American and to live in a capitalist society. This thinking is harmful, not just to those with the least resources, but to all of us.  We are all connected, and our health and well-being depend on our neighbors’ health and well-being. Equity and access to resources requires all of us working together. 

Still, some communities can only do so much. When a handful of wealthier communities hold the majority of resources it prevents equitable distribution of food or cash through mutual aid to those who need it most. Ultimately, the kind of mutual aid we need to get all people through the hardships of the pandemic and the economic crisis needs to come from the federal government. 

A one-time check of $1,200 is nowhere near enough to help most families pay for rent and food and other bills for one month, let alone the indeterminable months without work that lie ahead. And while rent moratoriums are helpful, $1,200 will not pay the back-rent when these moratoriums are lifted. 

Congress and the current administration need to work together to expand cash payments to at least $2,000 a month per household, with the guarantee that these payments will continue until the economy recovers. And because we are all in this together, no one can be left behind. The federal government also needs to guarantee that all immigrants will receive stimulus checks, including those who are undocumented. Undocumented workers are often the ones planting and harvesting our crops and caring for our children and doing the hard, crucial work that supports all of us. And as many national organizations, like Community Change, are demanding, we need the government to commit to a $100 billion investment in child care so essential workers can have access to safe care, and so that when the rest of us are able to return to work, childcare centers will still be open. States and cities also need billions of dollars in federal aid, so that local governments and organizations can support workers on the front lines who are delivering public services during this crisis.

It’s time to break away from the myths of independence and self-sufficiency. We need each other. Our health and economic security, individually, can only be as strong as the most vulnerable among us. It’s time for me, and for all of us, to practice asking for help and to hold our representatives and leaders accountable for supporting us through this crisis. On this Mother’s Day, I will be imagining a society in which single parents like myself do not feel so isolated. I will be imagining a nation that supports families regardless of income, ethnicity, documentation, or the number of adults in the household. The only way forward is together.


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