The Pandemic’s Impact on Moms: Why Mental Health Needs to be a Priority

January 4, 2021


During the pandemic, everyone's experiences are unique, but we're all facing new stress and disappointment for various reasons. While we can't pretend to carry on with life as usual, we also know life didn't stop when COVID-19 changed everything back in March. Changes to work, school and life in general have forced us to quickly adapt, and mothers especially are bearing the brunt of adjustments forced on households. Some women have turned to alcohol to help them cope with additional duties and increased stress levels brought on by the unpredictable pandemic.

During this time, not only is it okay to be struggling, it is completely normal. However, when you start to rely on unhealthy habits to get you through the tough times, it can turn into a problem. We want to encourage moms to take care of their minds and bodies, so we’re sharing some tips on how to help the moms in your life and be more aware of your habits.

At UCS Healthcare, our team of medical providers, counselors and mental health therapists are seeing more patients than ever before who are seeking help for unhealthy alcohol and drug use, depression, anxiety and other disorders. 2020 was a surprising year filled with new experiences and so many unknowns - not only are we experiencing a global pandemic, but we also saw increased stress and anxiety due to the derecho, unrest and protests caused by racial injustice, uncertainty about schooling and a major election.

“As soon as the pandemic hit we were seeing depression and anxiety levels go up. People that were doing well and feeling better from therapy started coming in more often again. We’ve also been seeing a lot more new patients reaching out during this time.”
     - David Depew, tLMHC, CRC, CADC
     Licensed Mental Health Therapist at UCS Healthcare

Women Are Taking on More During The Pandemic, and It's Taking a Toll

Seeking mental health care is an essential part of integrated care and is just as important as seeking care for physical ailments. The global pandemic has taken a toll on everybody during the past several months and if you are struggling, we encourage you to seek the mental health care you need. In many families, women are the ones taking on the most during this upheaval. Through conversation with our staff and our patients, we’ve heard a few common trends.

We’re Dealing With More Stress

Quarantine has heightened normal strains and brought new worries to the forefront. Along with the normal household chores, childcare responsibilities and work expectations, we’re burdened with uncontrollable situations and worrying about a lot of things during the pandemic:

  • The health of family members and aging parents
  • The safety of sending kids to school or daycare
  • The unknown of your next paycheck or the ability to pay bills
  • The uncertainty of food insecurity
  • The anxiety of going out in public for essential tasks like grocery shopping
  • The judgement of others for every choice you make
  • The fear of making the wrong decisions
  • The future and when we’ll be able to go ‘back to normal’
  • The list goes on

We’re Coping With Loss

For many, this could be the loss of a job. Unemployment skyrocketed when stores and restaurants were forced to shut down or reduce staff, and with the shutdown taking longer than expected, many mothers have been forced out of work for the foreseeable future.

Those that have lost a family member during this time have faced one of the hardest challenges. The passing of a loved one is never easy, but it's even more stressful when it's caused by a sudden, fast-paced illness. During the pandemic, many family members have not had the chance to say goodbye to loved ones due to limitations on visitors. Even if the death wasn't brought on by COVID-19, families have to plan and organize a funeral from afar, decide whether it would be safe or irresponsible to gather and honor the loved one or choose to postpone the celebration of their life to a future unknown date.

For some, a loss triggered by the pandemic may be less tangible. The demise of a routine or feeling out of control has a strong impact on mental health. No matter what loss you're mourning during this time, it should not be minimized. Allow yourself to feel the pain and think about what you need to find closure and move forward.

We’re Handling Changes

Once it feels like we're nailing down our new routine, things shift again or the unexpected strikes. As new discoveries are made with the coronavirus, we must adapt our habits to follow new mitigation strategies.

The first round of big changes came in March when the workforce was sent home and many local businesses had to close shop. Business owners needed to adjust their schedules, purchase protective equipment and potentially let employees go.

However, some of the biggest changes that parents had to face came at the beginning of the new school year as many districts went back and forth between virtual and in-person learning. Many mothers are learning to work from home while guiding their kids through school at the same time. Schools are continually reassessing whether in-person or virtual learning is possible for kids, and the changes have taken a toll on parents and teachers. Some new mothers finally worked up the courage to send their baby to daycare, then the following week there's an outbreak that sends your baby back home to you.

While everyone is home more often, parents need to find new ways to continually entertain their children. The need to get more creative with limited resources and still being mindful of screen time has created some stress for moms, no matter what age their kids are. Toddlers and smaller children may need more attention and won't understand why they can't go out and do the activities they liked before. Older kids, high schoolers and college kids who are stuck at home are also a challenge since they may feel like they are missing out while stuck with their parents.

Many people have had to put special events and celebrations like graduations and weddings on hold throughout the pandemic. They've been patiently waiting for their recognition and many have been forced to make difficult choices to celebrate without all their loved ones present.

We’re Doing It All Alone

Even if you have a partner helping you through some of these stressors, reduced interaction from everyone else can leave you feeling isolated! A lack of interaction could lead to a smaller support system for moms. Before, you might have been able to rely on neighborhood friends or family members to stop by every once in a while. Now you're forced to communicate with them virtually, and you probably aren't sharing all your troubles because you don't want to add to their burden during this time.

The Stress of the Pandemic is Widespread for Moms

All women are facing more stress and anxiety than normal, and every mom is experiencing her own personal worries no matter what stage of motherhood she’s in. Some moms seem like they have it all figured out, but what you may not see on social media is that more moms are struggling to hold it all together in the changing unknown. While everyone’s situation is unique, UCS Healthcare has noticed some trends among various groups of moms. Do you identify with one of these mothers?

icon-of-working-mom.COVID’s Impact on Working Moms - The pandemic is putting working moms in an extremely difficult situation. Since women act as the primary caregiver in many households, moms are bearing the brunt of helping children familiarize themselves with online learning while they're working from home or making arrangements for their kids if they’re still going into the workplace. If this interferes with their work schedules, they may feel the need to work longer hours, putting even more strain on their work-life balance. In some cases, they may even choose to quit their jobs to care for their children. According to CNN, in September 2020 alone there were 617,000 women that left the workforce, and about half of these women were between the ages of 35-44, a prime stage for their careers. This source says this mass exodus is impacting women almost eight times as much as men as only 78,000 men left work in September. These decisions could impact women’s careers for years to come.

How to Help: If you know your coworker is helping her children with schooling, cut her a little slack on project deadlines, ask what times work best to schedule meetings, be kind if your discussions get interrupted or her child joins the meeting and check in with them to see how they're handling the “everything from home” life.

icon-of-women-short-hair.COVID’s Impact on Moms Who Lost Their Jobs - Women were hit hard during the pandemic early on since many jobs in the hospitality, retail and leisure industries that shut down are held by a female-dominated workforce. Some women may be struggling to find work, leading to financial hardship and feelings of failure if they can’t contribute or provide for their family. The pandemic is new territory for all of us and has led to many unexpected consequences.

Others who fall in this category may have decided to stay home exclusively to avoid spending money on daycare services and help their kids with at-home schooling. Both situations result in stress from taking on a new mindset and role within the home.

If you are currently out of work, know that you are not alone and the increased stress that you are feeling is absolutely normal. This is a new situation for you, and the unknown always brings with it increased anxiety.

How to Help: Let these strong moms know that you support whatever decision they feel is best for their family, offer to help watch the kids if they need to go to an interview or run an errand, drop off a frozen meal on their doorstep, and simply ask them what they need from you as a friend during this time.

icon-of-white-women.COVID’s Impact on Single Moms - Mothers doing it all on their own now have to provide for their families and navigate new schooling just like the rest of families, but they are making many decisions alone. Throughout the pandemic, many single moms have also found themselves with a smaller support system than before, as they have limited interactions due to COVID restrictions with friends, family and the community they’ve built.

How to Help: If you're friends with a single mother, ask her if you can take a shift watching her kids (if she’s comfortable with it). Send a text when you are heading to the grocery store to see if she needs anything. Talk to her regularly so she has interaction with other adults and check in to see what she needs to make sure she can give her kids her best.

icon-of-woman-long-hair.COVID’s Impact on Stay-at-Home Moms - While stay-at-home moms are used to being home with their children, they are feeling more isolated than ever before with less options for catching up with friends and family. They aren't getting out to do their normal routine and activities their kids enjoy, and oftentimes they face judgment from working moms that say they shouldn't be stressed out since they are used to staying home. If you find yourself feeling this way, try your best to tune out the judgment, not compare yourself to other moms and know that your feelings are completely valid.

How to Help: Remember to check in on your friends that stay at home with the kids - they're craving interaction with other adults (not just their kids and spouse), just like everyone else. Plan an online get-together at a time that they can get a break from the kids, and be understanding that the stress of the unknowns is taking a toll on them as well.

icon-of-colored-woman.COVID’s Impact on New Mothers - Learning about motherhood and embracing this life changing event can be difficult enough with the direct support of family and friends, but even more stressful when isolated at home with a new baby and fewer visitors. Not to mention, new mothers may have missed out on all the celebrations leading up to the new baby and after the infant’s arrival. New moms may feel a sense of disappointment because they can’t get out of the house with the baby, enjoy their maternity leave outside of the house or spend extra time with friends and family. On top of the unknowns of the world, they're facing brand new challenges and uncertainties about their new role. They may be wondering how to support a baby in a world that seems unsafe and unpredictable.

How to Help: There's no easy way to navigate being a new mother in a pandemic, so do your best to respect their wishes and decisions. Whether they decide it's safe to have visitors around their newborn or not, find ways to help support these moms and show them your appreciation. Start a meal train with friends for the new mom, commit to dropping off her favorite coffee or lunch once a week and keep in touch regularly. If you know someone who is expecting, ask how they want to celebrate and work together to plan a safe event.

icon-of-woman-with-glasses.COVID’s Impact on Empty Nester Moms & Grandparents - Mothers without children at home may long for interaction with their family. They may be missing out on seeing their out-of-town children who usually visit for the holidays, meeting new grandchildren or attending their school concerts, soccer games and notable events. If they're new empty nesters, these moms may be dealing with their adult children moving back into the house. If they’re newly retired, moms could be struggling to fill time and feel disappointed since they're unable to enjoy the benefits of retirement. Moms in this group are also more likely to be in the at-risk age group for COVID, meaning they may be extra cautious and even further limiting their interactions.

How to Help: Similar to the other suggestions, be sure to check in with her frequently. Since they're looking for more entertainment, help them feel like they're still a part of your life from a distance by encouraging video chats with virtual gatherings or game nights. Offer to run to the grocery store or help with other small errands if they feel unsafe leaving their home.

The Consequences of this "New Normal" and the Impact of COVID on Mental Health

Let's recognize that our mental health has probably been affected over months and months of drastic lifestyle changes and the anxiety of the unknown. 2020 was a stressful year, and everyone could use extra sensitivity and compassion right now. These are just a few of the impacts of COVID on mental health for women:

  • Lying awake at night, causing less sleep and feelings of fatigue
  • Feeling inadequate trying to juggle so many tasks and responsibilities, making you feel less motivated to do anything
  • Less opportunities for personal time, which we need to focus on self-care and restore our physical, emotional and spiritual well being
  • Financial hardships put more strain on daily choices and cause more stress
  • Increase in anxiety and depression due to the massive uncertainties and negative news we face daily

Methods to Reduce Stress & Focus on Your Mental Health

Living in all this chaos over an extended period is damaging to our mental health, and it's important to reflect and find healthy ways to cope. One of our experts at UCS Healthcare, David Depew, recommends taking a holistic approach by thinking of ways to reduce your stress from all bio-psycho-social aspects. In other words, there are steps you can take to help your body, mind and social aspects of your life feel more manageable. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Set boundaries for family while at home. In most situations, we've all been stuck inside with each other's company for longer than we'd like. Your kids are used to you being available when you're home, but things are a little different now. While you're navigating how to manage your work online and help your kids learn virtually, outline appropriate times when they can interrupt during a workday.

Split up chores & responsibilities with your partner & children. These days, more women are tackling demanding careers, yet they're still expected to take on a greater portion of domestic tasks around the home, like cooking, cleaning, laundry and childcare. If you find yourself struggling to complete your daily responsibilities, now is the time to take some of the burden off. We encourage you to divide some of the household tasks with your partner and set up chores and to-do lists your kids can help with around the house.

Schedule your alone time. Although it may feel selfish at first, realize that you deserve a little space from your family and time to yourself. A lot of your time is spent focusing on what you can do to keep your family and those around you functioning smoothly, but you can't do that when you don’t dedicate any time to yourself. Make your mental health a priority and don't cancel on yourself! It can be easy to think that it would be more productive to use your designated hour to respond to work emails or do another load of laundry, but it's important to use this time to focus on healthy stress relief such as reading, therapy, exercise, meditation or other healthy investments in yourself.

Plan more virtual interaction with friends & family. Keep asking to set up video calls and virtual game nights with loved ones. At the beginning of quarantine, this was a lot more common. Once the newness of Zoom wore off and many were spending hours logged on for work, these connection opportunities may have seemed less fun. We still need each other for support and interactions! Try to regularly check in on your friends and family members to see how they're dealing with this extended period of stress, and don't be afraid to let them know if you're struggling. We all want to help our loved ones through this, and sometimes it's easier together, even virtually.

Setup or analyze your budget. Many people are feeling the strain in their wallets and this can certainly cause increased mental health struggles. If you keep a regular budget, check back on the last several months and determine areas where you can cut back to save money. Don't have a budget? Now is a good time to start tracking your expenses and making sure you're spending your money wisely. There are plenty of online budgeting tools to utilize or go analog with a notebook, calculator and pencil!

Ask for help. While you may feel like you want to keep it all together for your family, asking for help is one of the best ways to find balance in your life. Think about some of the smaller areas where you feel comfortable asking for help and begin with those. If you are feeling overwhelmed by cooking, reach out to a group of friends for healthy recipes. If you want to start exercising but need somewhere to start, see what exercise routines your friends have been following. If you start asking for help in smaller areas of your life, it will become easier and easier to seek support in other areas.

COVID & Alcohol Usage: Moms Turn to Drinking to Manage Stress

All of the stressful scenarios above and the consequences are leading to an increase in alcohol usage as a way to relax, de-stress or self-medicate during the pandemic. Alcohol sales increased significantly when we went into our first lockdown, and in Iowa alone, our alcohol sales have increased by 8.2% in the 2020 fiscal year compared to 2019.

Throughout the pandemic, women especially have seen an increase in alcohol use. There are many reasons, and even though the new pressures and added stress has been extremely hard on moms, we have seen the further normalization of "wine mom culture” throughout the pandemic.

Mommy Wine Culture Can Lead to Over Consumption of Alcohol

Even before the pandemic, there has been increased messaging around the need for alcohol to get through parenting. This wine mom culture messaging has grown over the last several months, and we see even more memes, t-shirts, home decor and merchandise that focuses on wine as "mommy's juice" or treating drinks as a necessity, especially for parents.

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This normalization has contributed to an increase in alcohol use during COVID as parents feel pressure to get through longer days at home with kids. When it feels overwhelming, it's now "normal" to grab a glass of wine to get through the day. In fact, a survey by the JAMA Network reports that during the pandemic, women's frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 17%. When we're home, there are fewer obstacles in the way of drinking earlier in the day or more often throughout the week. While social and legal regulators to limit drinking, like having to leave drinks with friends and pick up kids or drive safely home were factors before the pandemic, it is now easier to justify an extra drink or a stronger drink. These subtle changes are how an increase in alcohol consumption can slowly creep in and become a dangerous habit.

While adults can decide how much alcohol to drink, some are more susceptible to addiction, dependence or exacerbating anxiety and depression symptoms through alcohol use. UCS Healthcare’s Organizational Psychologist, Dr. Paul Ascheman, believes that while increased drinking can be non-problematic for some moms, others will go all in on “mommy wine culture” and fall into a dangerous cycle that could lead to a substance use disorder, especially at a time when we're already facing more stress, anxiety and uncertainty.

How to Help: There are three key ways to help fend off wine mom culture:

  • We should all try to be more aware of this type of language online - think about what you’re posting on social media before posting! Be aware that regularly talking about alcohol or needing wine to handle your stress is not only normalizing this habit for you, it could also trigger friends trying to cut back on drinking.
  • Pay closer attention to wine culture language and behaviors when you’re talking to your friends or family. If it seems like their social drinking has become problematic or they’re mentioning increased usage as part of their habits, have a conversation about it with them.
  • Set an example by suggesting safe interactions that don’t involve drinking, like taking kids ice skating, to the zoo or a local attraction that aren’t centered around having a cocktail. Additionally, it’s important to remember that children will notice if you start to refer to them as a burden like many wine mom culture posts do.

Seeking Help To Regain Control or Working Towards Becoming a Sober Mom

If you're at the point where you're noticing signs of drinking too much or increased anxiety or depression but you're not sure what to do, you're not alone. According to Dr. Ascheman, one way to regain control is through awareness and adaptation. With this approach, you must first spend time understanding your habits and assessing why you may be reaching for an extra drink, and then develop strategies to adapt with new habits.

Quitting cold turkey is rarely a good solution. so it is best to think about ways you can limit your drinking, such as not drinking before 6pm or drinking only on the weekends. Additionally, the adaptation phase is a great time to identify healthy replacements for relieving stress, such as exercising or journaling.

As you begin the process of awareness and adaptation, here are some helpful steps to think about:

  • Being aware of the signs that you are drinking too much is the first step. If you start to notice that you’re drinking earlier or more often in the day, pouring larger serving sizes, spending more money on alcohol, noticing more bottles in the recycling or feeling guilty or confused, you may want to assess and adjust your habits. Recognizing that this behavior could cause potential harm to your physical or mental health is a big step toward success.
  • Monitor and adapt your drinking habits. Keeping track of every time you're reaching for an alcoholic beverage and even calculating how much you're spending each month on alcohol can help you assess your situation and work towards progress. Dr. Ascheman recommends keeping track of your drinking for two weeks before starting to make any habit changes. You may have kept a food diary or exercise diary for a wellness effort, this is a similar process. This allows you to develop a clear baseline and think about the extent to which you have been drinking.
  • Identify why you feel the need to drink. Is it because you're stressed, out of boredom, for social reasons? Knowing what situations trigger you to want a drink can help you avoid them.
  • Talk with trusted family members or friends. Reaching out to others and letting them know your struggles will help you build a better support system. If you're comfortable, it's best to discuss your alcohol usage with your primary care provider, but if that's too intimidating at first, start by talking to someone you're close with.
  • There's always help available! Reach out to a professional at UCS Healthcare or another practice who can assess your mental health and provide the care you desire. Fortunately, telehealth has made seeking help from a mental health professional easier than ever in a time where everything else seems demanding and stressful. When the CDC recommended people stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Iowa legislators passed bills that allowed people to seek professional treatments virtually. The addition and acceptance of telehealth has broken down barriers and made mental health therapy and substance use disorder treatment more convenient and accessible for many people by:
    • eliminating travel barriers for people with disabilities, folks with limited access to transportation or those living in rural communities
    • reducing the time investment making it easier for everyone to take a break from responsibilities for a therapy appointment
    • allowing individuals to explore therapy options in a more comfortable and less intimidating environment

Reach Out to UCS Healthcare for Assistance with Mental Health & Alcohol Use

The biggest indicator you need to seek help is if your daily functioning is impaired. If you’re struggling to complete your responsibilities or you feel too overwhelmed by the idea of completing them on a consistent basis, ask for help! Everyone's mental health needs and plans are different, so talking to a licensed therapist about what works best for you can help you become a healthier you. Your mental health impacts your overall health just as much as your physical health, so it should not be neglected.

Schedule a virtual assessment with a licensed therapist or counselor at UCS Healthcare that specializes in substance use disorder treatment and mental health. Our experts provide integrated care and same-day assessments at three convenient locations in the Des Moines metro area.


Learn more about how alcohol consumption has changed during the pandemic in our COVID article series:


UCS Healthcare is part of the IDPH Integrated Provider Network, with services funded by the Iowa Department of Public Health and the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.