Katie Goodale

Nicole Johnson and her son Elon explore Terry Trueblood recreational area on Monday, March 29, 2021. Johnson moved to Iowa City with her family in June.

Navigating and negotiating in an unsupportive system

May 10, 2021

When Nicole Johnson had her now-4-year-old son, she thought she would have the time and energy to do everything an “ideal mom” in her eyes would: work full-time, make organic food, and breastfeed for two years, among other things. 

However, she didn’t see herself falling into the “default parent” role until it started happening. She recalled negotiating with her husband about what exactly their roles would be and how household and parental duties would be split, but she still felt as though it was expected for her to fall into more of a housewife role. 

“I think that … gender socialization does place women in a role where they are primary caretakers, and that’s not a role that is ideal for me,” Johnson said. 

According to Unicef, gender socialization is defined as the “process by which individuals develop, refine and learn to ‘do’ gender through internalizing gender norms and roles as they interact with key agents of socialization, such as their family, social networks and other social institutions.”

Johnson found herself having to renegotiate with her husband their duties when the COVID-19 pandemic began and she began to do her work for the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Health Care System from home. She said she could see herself falling back into the default parent role, even when both her and her husband — whose job allowed him to work from home before the pandemic — worked full-time from the house. 

“There were a lot of times in the beginning where I found myself as the default parent and having to have those conversations again, to sort of recalibrate who’s doing what, when, and whose job gets prioritized when, and, you know, who has the next deadline or whatever, whatever we’re managing at the time,” Johnson said. “And it’s a constant negotiation, sometimes day by day, most of the time, ideally, it’s week by week.” 

According to a Pew Research Center study from October 2020, 39 percent of working mothers said balancing work and family responsibility has become harder during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to 28 percent of men. Fifty-four percent of working moms said at one point during the pandemic they’ve felt like they can’t give 100 percent at work, and 43 percent of working dads said the same. 

“I think that one of the things that the pandemic has made, has exacerbated and kind of made visible on some level, is that the U.S., regardless of whether motherhood is something that is promoted, or pathologized, it’s completely unsupported,” Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz, an associate professor of communications studies and gender, women, and sexuality studies at the UI, said. 

Fixmer-Oraiz researches reproductive politics and contemporary reproductive politics in the U.S. 

The U.S. has a lack of “robust child care infrastructure,” Fixmer-Oraiz said, such as adequate family leave, affordable and available child care facilities, and sufficient funding for public education programs, which families have been dealing with long before the pandemic began. 

During the pandemic, the country has fallen back on women to make up for this, Fixmer-Oraiz said. 

“This is what I’ve always known about what it means to be a mom, is that basically you’re on your own, and you must rely on a patchwork system of childcare when it’s available,” Conrad said. “And it’s very expensive, so you have to rely on your family and friends. And then ultimately, you must rely on yourself.” 

Buxton said she didn’t think society’s gender expectations have affected her as a mother or a professional, as she and her husband have always presented themselves as a team. The difficult decision to have her be the stay-at-home parent during the pandemic came down to her teaching background, rather than anything else. 

Likewise, Greenwood said her and her husband’s upbringings with stay-at-home moms led to their decision to have Greenwood stay home while the children are growing up. They chose a more traditional route, she said, rather than having it pushed on them. 

“I know, if I had a job outside of our home, we would need to be dividing differently,” Greenwood said. “But by choice, we set up our marriage to work this way so that I could be home with our children for this period.”

Kara Houser, a lecturer in the UI School of Social Work and clinical social worker/family therapist at a private practice, said before the pandemic, her household was broken down pretty traditionally. Her husband had a longer commute and less flexibility in his job than her, so she took on the bulk of childcare of her four children, all between the ages of 11 and 16. 

Due to the confidentiality of her work and the access to privacy and internet her offices give her, Houser wasn’t able to stay home to work during the pandemic, while her husband’s work allowed him to work from home while the kids did online schooling. This resulted in an almost switching of roles; Houser out of the house and her husband taking on the primary role in their kids’ lives during the day. 

“So many things happened behind the scenes, I think, you know, in some way we took for granted, the things that were sort of seamlessly working for us for many, many years until that system was challenged,” Houser said.

Conrad had her own expectations of motherhood, which she described as “naive.” When she pictured being a mom, she saw herself with a baby peacefully sleeping in a wrap against her chest while she worked on her dissertation. 

No one told her about how exhausted she would be, taking care of a crying baby who doesn’t want to sleep at night. No one warned her about postpartum depression and anxiety, the first she experienced with her older child and the second she experienced with her younger child. 

Before the pandemic, motherhood was quiet. Women were expected to be at work and fully engaged, despite any responsibilities they may have outside of the workplace, Conrad said. Children were almost seen as a distraction, in an unspoken way.

COVID-19 has caused professional and personal worlds to crash together, she said, forcing employers to acknowledge what parents have going on behind the scene. They have to accept that she’ll have to step away from meetings sometimes to help her children, and that she can’t just exist for work. 

“One of the most beautiful things about COVID-19 pandemic time is that those walls had to come down, because nobody had a choice,” she said. “And so now, it just seems like it’s more frank and centered in the work experience that you might hear kids screaming in the background, and people will giggle.” 

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