The Mommy Wars Of COVID
From the earliest moments of the pandemic, the question of whether you were being too cautious or not cautious enough seemed to permeate every parenting conversation. Now vaccines promise to complicate relationships further.
I’m whatever is the opposite of an anti-vaxxer — an ultra-vaxxer? So when a parent I met on vacation earlier this spring told me she was leaning against getting a COVID-19 vaccine and that she probably wouldn’t give it to her young daughter, even if the FDA approved it for use in children, neither of us quite knew what to say. Our faces, however, signaled our obvious dismay. Our conversation about a potential park play date when we returned to New York City was over; we never even exchanged numbers, even though our daughters were smitten with each other.
In other words, we had a very typical COVID-era mom interaction: one that culminated in each of us silently judging the other. Should I have had more empathy and open-mindedness about her position before my face betrayed what I was really thinking (you’re one of the reasons we’ll never reach herd immunity and get out of this pandemic)? Perhaps.
The reality was that I had wandered, perhaps inadvertently, into a new parenting minefield. If you thought the first iteration of the COVID mommy wars were rough, just wait. Mom shaming is only going to ramp up in the coming months as a COVID vaccine is approved for children and we find out where everyone falls on the spectrum, from pro-vax to vaccine-hesitant and on up to “anti.” A recent survey revealed that 1 in 4 parents say they won’t vaccinate their kids against COVID.
“At first during COVID, it was all about who can be the most virtuous. Who can essentially stay inside the longest? Who can literally never leave the house?” said Jo Piazza, host of the popular podcast Under the Influence, which explores the Mom Internet. “Now it’s gotten to bigger issues that are entrenched in your moral and ethical compasses. Are you getting the vaccine? Did you get the vaccine? The decision of whether you vaccinate or don’t your child is going to be a friendship-ender for a lot of people.”
At first during COVID, it was all about who can be the most virtuous. Who can essentially stay inside the longest? Who can literally never leave the house?
From the earliest moments of the pandemic, the question of whether you were being too cautious or not cautious enough seemed to permeate every parenting conversation. As early as last March, one New York-based mother recalls feeling quietly judged for staying home with her family in her apartment in Manhattan. “I can remember the comments. ‘Don’t they need fresh air? And room to run around? Are you being safe?’” she remembers. Unlike other families in her orbit, the communications executive does not own a second home.
The fear of judgment permeates many otherwise benign interactions. One Upper East Side mother of a preschooler told me she was worried about appearing on a Zoom call with other parents because she was congested. She was concerned they’d all think she had COVID. (Incidentally, a stuffy nose is not listed as a primary COVID symptom.) I’ve also heard discussions about asking for professional haircuts to intentionally be uneven in order to appear as if it was done at home. Dr. Sarah Nagle-Yang, medical director of the Women’s Behavioral Health and Wellness Service at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, says she knows fellow healthcare workers who have been shunned by other parents because of their line of work and the exposure it entails.
In the urge and zest to mom-shame, particularly in the urban, professional class, there was little acknowledgment of the variability in people’s lives. Some families have (and can afford) to operate within a more hermetically-sealed bubble. But for many others, whose breadwinners are frontline workers or who can’t do their jobs from behind a Zoom screen, staying home isn’t a viable choice. The ability to limit contact with other people is often reserved for the very privileged who can shut themselves off behind the velvet rope economy, which offers many “private” options.
Then there are those parents who worry that the rigid dogmas about COVID safety — like staying home no matter what — may be doing real harm to their children. Piazza told me about several friends who have been worried about the mental health of their kids, some of whom are even threatening self-harm. One friend ended up taking an extended vacation to improve her child’s mental health and received what Piazza describes as “a ton of judgment for it from our other mom friends.”
Compounding the unfortunate prevalence of mom-shaming is the enormous pressure that mothers, in particular, feel to anticipate every danger their children encounter. “We have an unrealistic view that mothers can keep our children and families safe from everything,” says Nagle-Yang. “We are all hoping for understanding, support, and flexibility. But that is hard to come by. We don’t have a flexible mindset around a lot of these issues related to the coronavirus crisis.”
The rigidity and moral shaming are all part of COVID theater to some extent. Part of the performance, I think, stems from the fact that we have focussed too much on the micro choices — whether or not to get on an airplane or eat at a restaurant. But deciding to keep the middle seat free on an airplane or wiping down surfaces were never the keys to stemming a global pandemic. Zeynep Tufekci, a professor who studies inequality and complex systems, has argued that we have focussed too much on individual choices when we really needed much larger policy solutions, such as less dense housing for lower-income people and better access to health care and paid sick leave, among other things that only the government has the ability to implement.
Making people feel bad for their personal choices, no matter how we disagree with them, does little to change their minds — or affect the overall arc of the pandemic.
We are now at yet another inflection point in the pandemic, facing the reality that we can’t defeat COVID-19 if we don’t immunize children, according to public health officials, or if enough adults don’t get the vaccine. (Pfizer already completed a very, very promising trial on 12- to 15-year-olds.)
So what does this mean? For one thing, I’m likely to have more of the kind of run-ins I had with the mother I met on vacation. Friendships will fray — and they already have. One Westchester-based mom told me about her neighbor who won’t give her children the vaccine when it’s approved for use in children. “She’s not an anti-vaxxer, but she feels with all the public pressure for there to be a vaccine that it’s likely to be rushed without time to deal with all the adverse effects of it. I had no idea this divide could even exist, but it’s a decision that may have some impact on whether I want our kids to play together,” she said.
This time around we are fighting about something that actually matters—inoculating the population against a deadly global pandemic with some of the safest vaccines in history, as opposed to hand sanitizer and haircuts. But the lessons from the lower-stakes round of the Mommy COVID wars still apply: Making people feel bad for their personal choices, no matter how we disagree with them, does little to change their minds — or affect the overall arc of the pandemic.