Long Read: Portraits of mums as pandemic warriors

Dubai - Covid has changed the world in many ways. For mothers, the virus has made them reinvent their parenting skills to survive lockdowns while protecting kids from paranoia. It’s easier said that done…


Anjana Sankar

Published: Sun 30 May 2021, 7:29 AM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:18 PM

Motherhood is complicated in the best of times, but motherhood in the midst of a pandemic is a different ballgame. You may have self-help books about what to expect when expecting, but when it comes to literature on how to be a sane and sorted mother when a contagion is in the air, there are slim pickings. So, you suddenly need to roll with the times, and learn on the job. Trial and error becomes the name of the game, a daily reality.

Here’s the deal. As adults, we are still grappling with this new normal — working from home, wearing masks, gloves and constantly sanitising. But imagine having to acclimatise your children to a reality that you are yet to fully fathom.

For mothers, keeping their young wards safe while keeping a cool head — even if things are heating up outside — have become top priority. What doesn’t help matters is that school learning has entered your living space with home-learning being the new normal. So they now have to be superhumans who can multi-task: straddle being a stay-at-home teacher, at-home cook, at-home playmate... Donning various hats and juggling them is now the defining trait of a pandemic mom.

Even if you have convinced your children that safety and sanitising are crucial, the bigger challenge is make sure that they don’t get paranoid. It’s a tight rope to walk on, but mothers across the world are rising to that complex challenge.

There’s the added challenge of gadgets being kids’ new best friends. Just policing the number of hours like a jittery jailor in a prison has also become paramount. So, being a digital police who can morph into a doting, playful companion for the children since they are house-bound is a must.

Traditionally, mothers deal with a perennial guilt of not spending enough time with their kids, but in today’s times we have this guilt of that wish being granted. There’s a limit to which an adult can hang out with their tantrum-prone kids. (Note to self: once the pandemic is over, be grateful for the time apart from your kids. You never know when you may have to don the hands-on mother gear again!)

The pandemic has also made many mothers acutely aware of how live-in nannies are the best things that happened since sliced bread. There may be a war being waged against the virus, but the battles for mothers are equally fierce as they learn to shepherd their kids to a safer world.

Here are some accounts of mums who took Covid in their stride. In their own words.

Alice Potter, British mum in South Derbyshire (UK)

“When the lockdown happened last March, my youngest daughter Hazel was three. She did not understand much about the pandemic. But my elder daughter Jenny was six — and it had a huge impact on her. It was really awful! She had very bad anxiety. She had nightmares about me dying. I think it was a lot… she tried to process the pandemic to get her head around it, so she was a bit of a sponge. We were stressed. We were listening to the figures going up. More regulations coming in. We were talking about deaths. We had the radio on all the time. We suddenly realised that she was absorbing all of that though she did not seem to be listening. She thought we were all going to die.

Then, we had to cope with it ourselves being stressed about how do we operate in a pandemic. My husband was working from home. I had a new business. We were all locked in at home.

The lockdown in March was the most difficult time of our lives. Ever. We were worried about the pandemic. We were worried about the kids worrying. The main concern was to make sure that Jenny was okay. I got her a ‘worry monster’ toy. I asked her to write down her worry and put it in the worry monster’s mouth and told her that by next day, the monster would have eaten that worry. She wrote things like ‘Mummy is going to die’, ‘I am going to get really ill’, ‘I will never see my friends ever again’.

I think one segment of society that was worst affected were mothers. We were homeschooling the kids and it was a big disaster. I stopped after a few months because I thought it was more important for her to be mentally healthy than being up to date with her school work.

We had to arrange virtual playdates for her and her friends. They had a couple of tea parties where they pretended to pass on tea to one another and took sips from a cup. It was really sad to watch that.

When we started going out, we were cautioning them to not go near people because of the virus. If someone was coming across on the other side of the street, they would start worrying and say, ‘Oh, there is a person coming!’ Everything was restricted because of the virus. So, we started calling it the rainbow cough because virus is a stressful, scary word.

As a mother, my real worry, however, is that even after this pandemic is over, children will grow up to have anxiety when they see big crowds. It is thin line for parents to make them cautious and also not to create panic. A very thin line.”

Misha Agarwal, Indian mum in Dubai

“As an expectant mother, Covid-19 threw up the biggest challenge as my delivery was due at the peak of the pandemic in the UAE. Dubai imposed movement restrictions in March 2020 and my delivery was in May. That was the time when countries around the world were shutting their borders in fear of this virus. I was planning to bring my parents to Dubai so I could get some help with my elder daughter, Siyona, who was seven. They had packed their bags but could not make it as the UAE closed the airspace. Being left alone during the pandemic and while pregnant was a double whammy. I was anxious all the time.

Over last year, no one was sure what the outcome of the virus would be… we were scared we would contract it. I remember setting out on deep-cleaning missions inside the house out of sheer panic. I felt vulnerable every time I stepped out of home for a medical check-up. I used to stand the entire time and refuse to sit on couches.

One night, my water broke and we had to rush to hospital leaving behind our daughter. I have to say that things went super smooth with the delivery and the hospital staff was amazing. I am ever so grateful for the great facilities we have in this country.

After the delivery, from day one, I had to hit the ground running. I was back home and I had to give full attention to my daughter while tending to the baby. Siyona was home-schooling and that is a new normal that we had to get adjusted to. The baby had be fed, changed, and fed and changed.

On top of that, I had a third baby to tend to: my new sustainability venture. I started the company in 2019 to offer sustainability solutions to hotels and big corporates. I could not leave that in the lurch. It is my commitment to make this world a better place by doing away with the plastic pandemic.

Honestly, it was all overwhelming though my husband also worked from home mostly and we did everything together.

Now, I have learned to divide my time efficiently and straddle all roles: being a new mother, teaching and playing with my elder daughter, attending Zoom calls and running a company.

The best thing is that the world has become more understanding of mothers. A baby screaming in the background is totally acceptable when you are taking a virtual meeting, thanks to a virus!”

Mona Shehab, British single mum in Dubai

“I am a single mom who has been living in Dubai for over 12 years. My daughter Hannah is 11 years old and the biggest challenge for me was to make up for her social life that we all had to sacrifice due to the pandemic.

When we had the lockdown and, later, when we had to limit our going out, I started creating small tasks for her at home. For instance, when I was cooking, I would ask her to decide and pick stuff like fish and vegetables for dinner time, look for a new menu for me, find new recipes online and so on. I would make her write down shopping lists. The idea was to get her involved in day-to-day activities and divide the task between the two of us.

At dinner time, I would get her to do the chopping and prep ingredients in advance, while I’d do the cooking part. One of the things I did to keep her busy was get her interested in playing piano. We would look into different songs online and learn new songs. Children like to emulate us. So, I picked up a guitar and started learning the instrument with her. My idea was to teach her dedication and team work.

In short, I had to get my creative juices flowing as a mother and reinvent myself to beat the pandemic.

I found it tough that we could not go out and enjoy physical activities, and had to be locked up inside a two-bedroom apartment. YouTube and some workout sessions were there, but I came up with a fun idea called ‘Stair challenge’ to get her moving. We climbed stairs and reached as many floors as possible; we would count the steps, count the floors and keep motivating each other to go higher.

But with everything I did, she still missed meeting her friends and having playdates. Zoom was a big blessing. She would meet up friends online and play games with them.

There is so much on you as a mother. You have to be a parent, a friend, teacher and mentor — all of this while working from home.

What I learnt from this pandemic and how I coped was by teaching my daughter to live responsibly. Whether it is masking up, social distancing or constant sanitising, she has learnt to be responsible. The new world order demands that from all of us.”

Margherita Giacobbi, Italian mum in New Hampshire (US)

“I live in New Hampshire, which is on the East Coast less than an hour north of Massachusetts. I have to admit that my challenges are extremely different from what a mom in downtown Boston or New York has gone through in the past year and a half.

I am a person whose loves intense outdoor activities and social interactions, so, when Covid hit, my first instinct was to turn to the big playground, which is nature. As a mother, I have always been hiking with Emilia, my daughter, even when she was in my belly. Before the pandemic, at least two days in a week, we would hit a mountain, a lake, a friend’s backyard. Those outdoor activities were my biggest entertainment — and also the best bet for Emilia to be happy and burn off energy.

I was hearing horrific stories of how city dwellers had to literally lock up in apartments and how police were deployed to patrol the streets. I immediately felt grateful that our lives were better.

I was lucky to have two mothers in my neighbourhood with who we had built a rare trust. We knew that all of us were being extra careful and cautious when it came to following health protocols, and hence we could have a safe bubble for our children to occasionally meet. That was the only social interaction we could offer our kids.

When we came out of the worst of the pandemic, I did notice that Emilia’s abilities of interacting with people, especially strangers, had deteriorated. Her social life — little performances, stage shows, visit to the museums, being in a crowd — all that was gone from her life. That part was hard.

Now, I know the onus is on me to make my daughter understand and adjust to this new normal. It is a changed world that she is growing up in. I have not yet been able to make her wear masks. But sometime soon, when we start travelling, I hope I can get her to do that. It is a weird external limitation on my child. But I have to do that. I see other kids wearing it. I know that kids are sponges and pick up and adapt to the new normal easily.

I am acutely aware that my mental well-being and happiness has a huge impact on my child. So, I have learned to love and embrace this place that I followed my husband to. I have learned to be happy and at peace, and I hope my daughter will feel the same.”


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