Editor’s Note: This is one of four stories published today examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on single mothers. Photographer Yehyun Kim and reporters with the CT Mirror tracked the lives of the three women profiled in these stories over the last nine months, interviewing and photographing them as they experienced lockdown with their children and as the state began to open up last month. A podcast featuring two of the women in this series can be found here.
It’s hard to select just one day from the last year that can be deemed “the worst,” but Corie Tracey, a 37-year-old single mother of two, gamely takes a stab at it.
It isn’t any of the days where the hours dragged and blended together like some kind of drab Impressionist painting, numbing in their monotony. Nor is it one of the nights – so, so many nights – when spiraling fears about the pandemic jolted her out of sleep at 2 a.m. and kept her there, pinned awake until dawn.
No, it was something else entirely, something specific and – dare we say it – funny in the retelling.
One day last April, between juggling works calls and remote learning, Tracey took her then-four-year-old daughter, Juliet, to the pediatrician for a suspected urinary tract infection. A nurse met them outside the building and handed Tracey a sanitized container and a set of instructions for Juliet to pee in the cup at home.
“We couldn’t go in the office. I just thought ‘Oh my god, how am I supposed to do all this?’” Tracey says.
[Life has never been easy for single moms. The pandemic made it harder.]
Back at their condo in South Windsor, Tracey and Juliet camped out in the bathroom. Four-year-olds, in general, do not easily do things like pee in cups –especially if it hurts to pee.
“I’m on the bathroom floor holding the cup, and she’s standing over me and she’s squeezing my hand and I’m saying, ‘You can be brave! You can do this!’” Tracey recalls. “It was such a cluster.”
That moment, while not life-threatening or even particularly frightening, seemed to encapsulate everything that has been hard and isolating about the pandemic for Tracey.
Like other single parents, she has spent the last year alone at home with her children – her other daughter, Anya, is 7 – and is solely responsible for not only their usual care but has also served as a stand-in teacher, playmate and – on that difficult April day – nurse.
Because she has sole custody of her daughters, there was no one to spell her when she was on deadline at work, no one to help amuse the girls when they were bored, no one to share the burden of keeping them on track with their schoolwork.
“It was very stressful, and there were days that it felt really dark,” Tracey says. “I wasn’t really sleeping, and in the beginning I wasn’t really eating. I remember being on the phone with a friend and saying, ‘Oh my god, it’s four o’clock, and I haven’t eaten anything yet today.”
The death of George Floyd last May at the hands of Minneapolis police, unrest over the election results, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol also contributed to her fear about her daughters’ safety, she says.
“It has felt like a very heavy, dark year,” she says. “I am white, and my children are biracial. Systemic racism continues to be a very real issue in this country. I hope that people are waking up to the fact that we need to make changes.”
With more and more people getting vaccinated, schools reopening and spring returning, however, Tracey is finding herself feeling more positive – hopeful, even.
Her daughters, who are now in second grade and kindergarten, recently returned to the classroom full time and, even though they haven’t yet resumed play dates, Girl Scouts and gymnastics, they are at least seeing their now-vaccinated grandparents.
[‘When a storm comes, you just get blow over’]
Tracey, who is a marketing manager for an insurance company, is still working from home, however, and says she won’t be comfortable returning to the office until she is fully vaccinated.
She realizes she is privileged to have a job that allows her to work from home when so many other women with children have been forced out of the workforce since the pandemic began.
“I do feel very lucky that I have not had to choose between a job and making sure my children are safe. I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate that I work with mostly women, and I have a boss who is incredibly understanding,” she says. “My heart really does go out to so many women who have disproportionately been impacted, and it’s almost always Black and brown women.”
The pandemic has woken her to the need for systemic changes in how society values the contributions of women, both at work and at home – changes that would also benefit children.
[Getting by with the ‘grace of god and caffeine’]
“I think it reinforced the idea that our society needs safety nets of some kind to help children and working moms,” she said. “I read all these articles about women in crisis. What I didn’t see is what are we going to do about it. Are we just going back to women bearing the brunt of all of this?”
More flexibility from employers, more affordable child care and more recognition from men about the amount of time and effort women spend on children and the home are all good places to begin, she says.
“I do hope that the lessons learned from this pandemic are things we don’t forget quickly. I really do think moms are the gel that keeps everything going and moving. We are the secret sauce.”