Mothers fight over COVID, masks, vaccines. But experts say this is the problem with calling it a 'mommy war.'

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  • ‘Mommy wars’ is a fraught term and experts say makes it seem like fights over COVID are frivolous.
  • Experts say frictions are fueled by a U.S. fend-for-yourself model around caring for kids.
  • Parents may squabble over masks and vaccines because they don’t have support to make real choices.

Everywhere you look, mothers are fighting over COVID. At school board meetings, in Facebook groups, within families and among friends. Some mothers are adamant their kids shouldn’t be masked in schools, others feel it’s an important safety measure. Some mothers have vaccinated their older children and are counting down until a COVID vaccine becomes available to their younger ones. Other mothers are so ardently against the vaccine that they are moving states, moving districts, threatening to home school if one becomes mandated.

The tensions bring to mind the “mommy wars,” a fraught and controversial term used to describe animosity between mothers – stay at home versus working moms, breastfeeding moms versus bottle-feeding moms, cry it out moms versus co-sleeping moms, COVID-cautious moms versus risk-tolerant moms.

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Sociologists say these frictions between mothers, historically and throughout the pandemic, aren’t caused by frivolous arguments between women, but are fueled by the cultural belief that children’s well-being is an individual responsibility rather than a collective goal. They say when caring for kids isn’t treated as a collective good, parents are left muddling through anxiety, confusion fear and guilt on their own, and it’s why many of them are coming to wildly different conclusions about the threat of COVID and what’s best for their kids.

“It creates a huge mental burden for parents because they’re the ones who have to figure out what’s best for their individual families, given the specific circumstances that they’re facing,” said Jessica Calarco, a professor of sociology at Indiana University who has been surveying mothers’ attitudes toward COVID during the pandemic. “When we make something a ‘mommy war,’ we trivialize it and it makes it easy to distract from the larger systemic problems that families are facing that have put us in this mess.”

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Sociologists who study parenting and health say the absence of universal mandates around masks and vaccines, as well as the government’s failure to explain to parents how science and health guidance during the crisis would expectedly evolve, have created mental hardship for parents trying to navigate their families’ well-being. That cognitive work, experts say, can also leave less space for consideration of community health. When parents are so busy worrying about what’s best for the kids, it can be more difficult to consider neighbors, too.

“Women may seem ‘at war’ now because people are having to adopt individual COVID solutions and protection measures in the absence of government supports and structural solutions,” said Caitlyn Collins, a sociology professor at Washington University. “Fighting amongst each other distracts us from the real source of blame for this impossible scenario. We can’t fix global problems with individual solutions, but that’s the suggestion from the U.S. government now, just like it’s always been with childrearing and family supports in the U.S.”

Experts say parents weren’t given enough education on the scientific process

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Calarco said poor leadership in the early days of the pandemic has exacerbated tensions among parents.

‘I have cried. I have begged.’:Couples clash over COVID

At the outset, she said, parents weren’t given enough education on the scientific process. There was no clear message guiding people’s expectations, explaining that guidance would likely change as more research was done, as conditions changed, as new variants emerged. There was little warning that the choices people made would also change scenarios, in some cases including the effectiveness of a vaccine.

Mothers fight over COVID, masks, vaccines. But experts say this is the problem with calling it a 'mommy war.'

Parents weren’t prepared for the shifting nature of the virus and expected the early messaging would apply throughout the pandemic. Many became confused, angry and distrusting of the CDC and other organizations when guidance evolved.

“There needed to be more humility around the early evidence and that it very much could change,” Calarco said.

Calarco also said that had parents been paid to stay home with their children, it would have alleviated many difficult choices they had to make between their own paid work and their children’s schooling and safety.

“Even if maybe they did care about the risk for other families or for teachers, they didn’t have enough support to be able to make that choice for other people’s benefit,” she said.

‘No one’s going to tell you whether or not it’s a good idea to let your child go to that birthday party’

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women are often the primary health care decision-makers for their families. Calarco’s research has shown mothers are typically the ones shouldering the additional health burdens associated with COVID, which explains why tensions among this group are so high.

Some are more concerned about the possibility of their child contracting COVID, others are more concerned about their children’s mental health, and the experiences they may be missing when parents are vigilant.

“If your kid gets invited to a birthday party in the absence of lockdowns or mandates or clear public health guidance, no one’s going to tell you whether or not it’s a good idea to let your child go to that birthday party,” Calarco said.

Parents have to figure out who’s going to be at the party, if it’s inside or outside, whether people will be eating, how likely it will be that everyone will be masked or vaccinated, what current case rates are where they live, the chances their individual child will get infected, the chances they’ll get seriously ill if infected, the chances that they’ll infect someone else.

“That’s a huge cognitive burden for parents to have to figure out in every situation that they go into,” she said. “We sort of say, ‘figure it out for yourself, do what’s best for you,'” she said.

To cope with this model, parents simplify risk calculations. When they make a decision on whether to send a child to a birthday party, they often make it by focusing on what’s good for their individual child or family, and not on how their decision might ripple out to affect the safety of other people. Parents keep their decision-making narrow because in the context of COVID, the decision-making is hard enough.

‘We could probably agree that a thousand children dying is a thousand too many children dying’

The biggest parenting debates around COVID focus on masking kids in schools and vaccinations. Research shows many parents are making decisions about masks and vaccines in response to early messaging that kids were not likely to contract or become seriously ill from COVID.

Recent evidence has shown that while children are still far less likely than adults to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19, they are contracting and transmitting the virus. Children birth to age 12 in the U.S. have made up more than 5.5 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, according to the CDC. In January, there were more kids being admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 than ever before.

Jennifer Reich, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Denver who has studied vaccine hesitancy, said parents make vaccine decisions “cafeteria-style,” treating each vaccine as a unique decision. She said prior to COVID, epidemiological and quantitative data showed 20% to 30% of American parents were not fully vaccinating their children according to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices schedule.

Analysis:Skeptics doubted vaccines long before COVID, despite health gains

The COVID vaccine is no exception. Most parents are making decisions about whether to vaccinate their kids based on a risk-benefit calculation. The challenge is that there are still many unknowns around COVID, including long-term impacts.

“We’re approaching a thousand pediatric deaths of COVID, and for parents, compared to the 900,000 adults that have died in less than two years, that sounds like really minimal risk,” Reich said. “At the same time, we could probably agree that a thousand children dying is a thousand too many children dying since children generally don’t die of very many things. That might just be a thousand preventable deaths. How do we evaluate that risk?”

Some parents, Reich said, are not vaccinating for COVID because vaccination doesn’t eliminate transmission altogether. They view the benefits of the vaccine as fairly minimal, even as the risk of infection is very high because outcomes tend to be fairly minor for most children.

COVID hospitalizations:Overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated.

“Every parent has their threshold of what they think they can control, what they think they can manage. It may or may not be statistically true, but it feels true for how people make decisions,” Reich said.

‘What would it take to put us all in a boat where we could actually have the support we need’?

Reich said the U.S. has oversold the belief that a person can personally manage disease risk alone through hard work, risk management and self-surveillance. This has become the overarching story of health, and she said it’s had dangerous consequences.

“The assumption is that people who get really sick must not be working hard on their health, they must have a poor diet, or they must be overweight, or they must have done something to deserve a bad outcome,” she said. “This has become a kind of cultural common sense, even if it’s not medically true, and COVID messaging has absolutely increased that story.”

Reich said the story of COVID has become one around risk as it relates to age and pre-existing conditions, but that doesn’t account for the full story of Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, of pediatric hospitalizations, of the nearly 1 million people who have died of COVID.

Calarco said it’s easy for exhausted and frustrated parents to direct their ire at one another, rather than at the deeper source of the problem. People’s proximate connections make easier targets, but Calarco said they are less productive.

“We’re squabbling over masks or no masks or in-person schooling or no in-person schooling or vaccines or no vaccines, mandates versus no mandates, as opposed to thinking about, “What would it take to put us all in a boat where we could actually have the support we need to care not only for ourselves but also for other people’s wellbeing too?”

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