Late last fall, when it became clear that Germany’s Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) would not be recommending the pediatric COVID-19 vaccine anytime soon, Andreea Tucker set out to find a doctor who would administer it to her school-age children anyway. After nearly two years of mixed messaging from the government and months spent watching the United States already vaccinating five-year-olds, Tucker’s faith in institutional decision-making had been depleted.
“Kids need protection and support,” says Tucker, who left her job when her kids’ day care closed at the start of the pandemic. Germany was praised in the United States for its pandemic response, which included curtailing travel, implementing curfews, economic shutdowns, and mask mandates. But once the elderly were fully vaccinated in 2021, schools there reopened with no distance-learning option or a recommendation to vaccinate children under 12. Infection rates in minors soared. “It felt like the Boomers’ way of saying fuck you to kids and their parents,” Tucker says.
Although Germany later went on to recommend the vaccine, Tucker finds herself increasingly frustrated by the government. And she isn’t the only mother in the country to express such sentiments. A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Bremen noted a marked shift in the opinions of women with children under 15 from shortly before the pandemic to December 2020. While all other demographic groups maintained a fairly stagnant low level of distrust in democratic institutions, 54 percent of married mothers noted their confidence in the federal government had declined. Remarkably, researchers didn’t find the same with women parenting alone, nor with fathers: Just 1 percent of the latter measured this loss of faith, on par with those of the same age who didn’t have children.
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While women who parent alone may already have lower levels of trust in the government after having been let down in the past—and hence a lower baseline from which to measure—the disenchantment reflected among married women is worrying. And Sonja Bastin, one of the sociologists at the University of Bremen who conducted the survey, believes it may only have grown worse since.
“Satisfaction with democracy in general, or with the federal government, has a lot to do with where your focus is directed—who you expect what from,” Bastin says. That may explain why the survey showed a drop in faith in Germany’s federal government, which led the overall pandemic response, including shuttering schools, but marked no noticeable difference when it came to community-minded endeavors. In a culturally individualist country like Germany or the U.S., if you don’t expect much from your community, you might be surprised when you do get support.
Though Germany is not the United States—not only does it have a comparatively good social safety net, it has a multi-party government that isn’t as staunchly polarized—the “mad moms” demographic in both countries has grown increasingly vocal as the pandemic drags on. They may not share sentiments (in Germany, moms are now calling for a reinstatement of mask mandates in schools, not the opposite), but they do have something in common: an expectation that institutions work for them.
“The economic system in which we live in Germany is complemented by a social policy that is still relatively conservative—what we call a partially modernized welfare state,” Bastin says. That means, she says, public policy is governed by the idea that the family will handle things privately before the state jumps in. At the same time, she notes that family planning decisions are often made based on a pact that mothers believe they are making with the state. Promises of a year’s paid maternity leave or a subsidized day care spot once a child turns one led many in Germany to start families; when the pandemic stripped the latter away, that may have felt like a breach in the social contract.
“Taken together with historic growth in care work ascribed to women—especially when mothers have the feeling that this added burden isn’t recognized—that’s when a loss of trust can arise,” Bastin says.
That historic growth in care work and the accompanying mental load is something that mothers elsewhere can readily relate to. A report from the Canadian Women’s Foundation revealed that women were spending 95 hours per week on caregiving, up 30 hours since the start of the pandemic and still twice as much as men. Jess Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, has noted that while both parents in heteronormative relationships in the U.S. have been picking up added work at home due to pandemic-related closures and quarantines, in her research, men believe they are doing more than they actually are. “Men have perceived the added frustration of the pandemic, but not in any way to the extent that women have,” she says.
“Many women, particularly women who are married to men or in cohabiting relationships with men, have found a great deal of frustration with the way that the pandemic has made them and not their partners the default parent,” Calarco continues. The cultural inequalities already existent pre-pandemic, with women working in lower-wage, often-feminized, occupations led many couples to justify treating women as the go-to parent during the pandemic, she says.
That left many mothers bearing a heavier mental load, often with fewer resources. Even in Germany, where expanded social benefits included extended short-term disability payments that covered up to 90 percent of monthly net income for the primary caregiver to stay home with their children, moms felt left alone to accommodate their children’s needs while worrying about being forced out of their jobs.
In the U.S., where the utter lack of social support for parents and children has been laid bare, mothers have begun questioning the limitless sacrifices they are expected to endure in a society actively working against both their and their children’s well-being. And the grave fear of regression that all women, especially cohabiting mothers, felt during the early days of the pandemic isn’t abating.
At the same time, married mothers often come from a more privileged position: In the U.S., two-parent households are markedly more likely to be white, conservative, and have a six-figure income than a single-parent household. That may, however, be why their dissatisfaction is more transparent. “Sociological research shows that privilege gives rise to a sense of entitlement,” Calarco says.
Those feelings of entitlement, she says, may have engendered a belief that others owe them greater support—especially institutions. Mothers who had previously grown accustomed to schools making decisions that aligned with their individual needs found it difficult to carry on with their daily lives when schools were closed. And they felt that more viscerally than others who come from a more marginalized background, people who have become used to society turning a blind eye to their needs.
These mad married moms may have been as deeply impacted by pandemic mitigation measures, but they also recognized, perhaps for the first time, that their Pinterest-inspired house of cards relies on the support of others to stay propped up. To be fair, some democratic institutions are failing women in general and mothers more specifically, especially in the U.S. The question was, and is, who will offer this support in their absence.
Even before the pandemic, people were living more isolated lives. And motherhood is an extraordinarily isolating experience; though universal in nature, in daily practice, it often feels like a solitary undertaking. But as the commercialization of the public square has made community spaces in the U.S. rare and with hallmarks of public and civic life, like libraries, schools, and hospitals feeling less safe since the pandemic, these feelings of isolation and distrust have only been enhanced.
Parenting, whether we like it or not, relies on the collective. That’s something women who parent alone know well. In societies that prize the hetero nuclear family, like the U.S. and Germany, those who are single heads of household receive far fewer government benefits and are forced to rely more heavily on extended community support systems to cobble together after-school care or gather funds to survive. So it’s ironic that many of the arguments we hear from angry mothers today on the political stage and in op-eds invoke the dilemmas of the single mother while arguing for the further disintegration of public benefits.
At a time when already-exhausted mothers are being asked to take on ever more responsibility, this is the opposite of what we need. While the governmental response to the pandemic in both Germany and the U.S. may have heightened our awareness of institutional failings, and the virus itself increased awareness of how interconnected we all are, what became most clear was how reliant families are on other people to work. It can be frightening to realize the extent to which women cannot actually do it all on their own after being told our whole lives that we could. But working together toward a common aim—the dismantling of a system not designed to include women in it—is the only way we are going to get through this.
Courtney Tenz is a writer and storyteller based in Cologne, Germany.