Rai King on COVID-19 and the Anxiety It Produces for Moms: “Moms Are Suffering. And We Are Going to Great Lengths to Keep a Hold of Our Sanity”

Last week as households everywhere began settling into the reality of what their new normal would look like, I started noticing a trend of moms in my feed expressing concern for their mental health. I saw statements like “I feel like I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown” and “I think I just had a panic attack about 30 minutes ago.”

While there are actual benefits to this forced quarantine that include less crowded daily schedules, and more time with our families, there is also the burden of tending to aspects of our children’s daily lives that weren’t present before. Many of us are now tasked with preparing every meal of the day where previously, kids might have eaten breakfast and lunch at school. Other services like house cleaning and childcare are also on hold. And now, many mothers are suddenly first-time homeschoolers. Teenagers are begging for time with friends and then are attitudinal when it isn’t granted. Younger children are confused about the interruption of their daily routines and it’s mostly moms who are tasked with filling the void of friends by arranging online “playdates” and virtual activities. Then there’s the added scare of making sure everyone in the house is staying healthy-listening out for every sneeze and cough to make sure it’s nothing more serious than allergies or a cold and scavenging for enough food to feed bored and hungry kids from bare grocery store isles.

Add working from home, taking conference calls, and meetings to all of this, and you have a recipe for quickly overwhelmed moms. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, too many women already shouldered the burden of the invisible work that has been written about in so many other think pieces. I spoke with The North Star writer, Branden Janese, about my own journey to break the unhealthy cycle of “mom martyrdom” and how I quickly realized that this COVID-19 quarantine could easily set me back if I let it.

Rai King: I had to work really hard for my independence. Now, COVID-19 has burdened me with going back to the main floor, cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a family of seven. So many of us are living in households where we are expected to be the noticers and the rememberers of everything. It’s too much. Noticing is draining.

I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication a few years ago. I don’t know if I really want to reveal that. I tend to talk pretty openly about mental health and so I'm on the fence about that because I don’t want to be a part of adding to the stigma by not talking about it.

Two years ago, when Shaun’s brother was dying of pancreatic cancer, it was the most upsetting, awful, horrendous period that we’ve lived through together. And I was struggling. Taeyonna, my oldest, was going to college that same month and it was...a lot of things were going on publically with us, with me and Shaun...it was the convergence of so many things. I was struggling to eat and sleep. My doctor suggested medication and I took it for a month and I didn’t like the way it made me feel. I was able to find other natural ways to cope with anxiety. I started meditating. I started working out. I lost 20 pounds. I was eating healthy. I started taking weekends, every Saturday morning to myself. I was being deliberate about taking care of myself and then I didn’t need the medication anymore. I’ve lived the past two years without it, and once this crisis hit I found myself thinking, ‘Oh my God, I don’t think I’m going to make it. I don’t think I’m going to be able to manage it. Do I still have those pills somewhere?’

I started looking through my medicine drawers and I found it. After talking with Shaun about it, I decided maybe I needed them again and started taking them. Then I realized that it had been expired for a year, so I called my doctor to see if I could get some more. She called me with a new prescription.

I was talking to one of my girlfriends, who is a doctor, about what I was going through. She said, ‘Yes, take the meds.’, and [told me] a little secret that I don’t think people know. She said, ‘So many moms are on anti-anxiety meds.’ She said, ‘I have a pill I call, the mom pill, that I prescribe to all the working moms who come to see me.’ Can you believe that? What does it say about our society that doctors have specific anti-anxiety pills for moms?

Branden Janese: I wonder if there’s a dad pill.

RK: They don’t need a pill. For the most part, they are not the ones doing the remembering.

BJ: They have the luxury of forgetting.

RK: Of course. I started seeing a therapist last year and one thing she helped me see is that I set up these conditions in my house. I allow everyone to think that I’m always going to handle it, that I’m going to notice. That I’m going to remember. I set that up. I allowed it. And it’s up to me to change it.

My therapist said, “It’s going to be hard for you but you’re going to have to take your hands off of everything. If it fails, it fails. If they don't do the project, if the company falls apart, if dinner doesn’t get made, if the groceries don’t get ordered and if they don’t have anything to pack in their lunches, that will start triggering some people to see some things that you normally don’t have to let them see.” That was a lightbulb moment for me, but we are not talking about random people, we're talking about people who I care about and who I don’t want to see fail. But that’s what I had to do-take my hands off of some things. Last night, after cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for several days straight, I didn’t feel like cooking dinner. I was like, ‘alright everybody, peanut butter and jelly, go make it.’ And everybody made their own sandwiches and it was fine. I think sometimes we think we are needed in ways that we may not be.

And while I don’t play into the mommy wars - because whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or working outside the house mom, it’s all hard - I do think there is a unique burden of working moms, because we have so many other responsibilities outside of our home. I say this as a mom who has spent several years in both camps. I think it’s a crisis, and I think that if we are not deliberate, and if we are not careful, this time could have lasting effects on gender roles and it could set us back to an age of the 1950’s and 60’s. For me, it could set me back to what my life looked like a few years ago where I was killing myself trying to do it all. If I’m not really careful about maintaining boundaries and maintaining my sanity. There should not have to be a pill for working moms. This is wild. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to go back to the things that I know work for me without meds, and require more of the people in my house.

BJ: If we are careful, what can you envision?

RK: I think we have an opportunity right now to know our kids in ways that the hustle of everyday school and activities and homework doesn’t allow. And that’s for moms and dads. We have a chance because the commute is taken out of our schedules, and everybody is home, then dads do have an opportunity to be noticers now. They’re in your face. The kids are here. You can’t get away from them right now. So what can you learn about their relationships and their friendships? What video games are they playing? What do they like to eat? What can you cook? What does their schoolwork look like? What is their reading level? What is their skin allergic to and how often do they need to take the medicine? What kinds of pants do they refuse to wear? Now is the time for dads to know these things. These are the things that moms always know.

I think we have an opportunity to come out of this more balanced. Shaun woke up this morning and he got Zayah set up on the computer for her live zoom. He was struggling at first and I was about to go to the rescue, but he worked it out. I didn’t need to have anything to do with it. Normally, I would have gone and sat with her and said, ‘it’s okay, I’ll do it, you don’t have to, Shaun. Go do your podcast,’ but he stayed with her and worked it out. It’s amazing what happens when you pull back.

BJ: I see you put the responsibility in the lap of the beholder. It’s not something that is happening to women. It’s not a dark cloud hovering over the house waiting for the perfect moment to zap women back into the 1950’s. It’s what women aren’t doing. It’s when women don’t come to the rescue everytime, that the whole household grows.

RK: I would also say that it’s not so much what women don’t need to do, but more of what women need to do, and what men can do to step up. I like what you said about the dark force coming over the house and changing the gender roles. That’s right. It’s not a dark force, it’s actually things that we are doing, that we could be doing differently, that could change the wellness of the house. With COVID-19, [my household] fell into a routine that no longer serves me. Getting out of that routine takes some time.

About the Author

Branden Janese is a creative and a writer. She lives uptown.