Mother’s Day like no other; most memorable or best forgotten

Dr. Kaninika Verma, who attends to COVID-19 patients in the ICU at a Peoria, Illinois hospital. She has Mother’s Day off this year for a change. (Photo courtesy Dr. Verma.

For many Indian American mothers, this Mother’s Day isn’t about hallmark greeting
cards, flower bouquets and family brunches; it’s about keeping their families safe and
secure.
Like most things in 2020, Mother’s Day- a time to pay tribute and show appreciation to
the woman who provided loving care and encouragement throughout our lives has been
upended by the coronavirus. And this year especially, as social distancing guidelines
have families sheltering in place at home, moms are taking more responsibilities than
ever before.
Mom’s Grapple With Work and Home Schooling
Sheetal Shah, CFO and managing director of the Hindu American Foundation, who
lives in New York City with her husband and four and half year old son, says it’s been
challenging being a mom during COVID-19.
“It’s definitely a lot more work,” Shah said. “I am fortunate that my son’s private school
continues with classes in the mornings. I’m taking this call in the bedroom because he’s
taken over the dining table with his iPad until around 1:30 PM. He needs a real body
near him to help him to focus while he is doing his studies. My husband’s taken the
other room. And all this is going on while I am working,” Shah said.
Indian moms sheltering in place aren’t just grappling with the need for more space for
everyone to work and learn from home. Shah says there’s a lot more to think about, like
providing meals and exercise for her son and family.
“Before my son had his meals in school, now it starts with breakfast, snack, lunch,
snack, dinner and so on. It’s an all-day affair,” Shah said. “We do try to go walk in
Battery Park in the afternoons, so he gets some exercise, when not many people are
there, Shad adds.
Shah says she’s thankful that her husband can help out even though he’s working 12-13
hours a day himself. Still, Shah says that things could be worse comparing her lot to
other moms. “I might have challenges, but compared to some other moms, I still have it
pretty good. My friend is a single mom in New York. She has a five-year-old, and I
cannot imagine how isolated she must feel. At least have some backup and another
person to communicate with,” Shah said.
Annie Bhatnagar is an English as a second language (ESL) who lives in Las Vegas,
Nevada, with her 14-year-old son (Taj), an 11-year-old daughter (Milana) and husband.
Bhatnagar says she finds herself at both ends of the spectrum – teaching kids online
and also home-schooling her children. She says online teaching is fine, but it’s not the
same as when a student walks into a class.
“You can tell when a student walks into a class if they are having a bad day. When we
have our parent meetings, I can see some families are struggling. Luckily for me, my
kids have made a smooth transition, and now in week seven, we have a routine,”
Bhatnagar told Desi Talk in an interview.
Bhatnagar says she tries to take time out for self-care but worries about her children
becoming stressed and her husband, a cancer survivor who has been disease-free for
two years now.
“I read novels. I look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘Oh God! I’m aging; my roots are
showing,’ I give myself a facial more for my sanity than anything else. I’m not doing it for
anyone else,” she said.
Spending time with her large extended family is also something she’s unable to do
during quarantine life. “I miss my mom, who lives just ten minutes away. And I have a
huge extended family, sisters, and aunts, so I really miss that support during this time,”
Bhatnagar said.
Bhatnagar says her immediate family hasn’t decided how to spend Mother’s Day yet.
“It could be a picnic in a park, or maybe in our backyard. And for my mom, who we
usually had a nice tea with on this day, my son is going to make some cookies that we
can drop off at her doorstep on May 10,” she added.
Kaninika Verma is a pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine doctor in Peoria,
Illinois. Verma and her husband Bhagat Singh Aulakh are doctors who work in intensive
care units, and part of the family’s garage has become a decontamination zone since
the onset of the pandemic.
“It’s been very challenging for me. I’m in the ICU. I take care of the sickest of the
sickest,” Verma says in a surprisingly upbeat tone. “We can’t constantly cry or be angry.
Everybody is in the same boat. It is a very emotional time and very stressful, from
multiple different angles. We will all get through this together,” she explains.
Verma says that she and her husband had to explain that things were about to change
dramatically to their two teenage children early on.”We had to sit our children down and
explain that we have to do our duty, and things are going to be different. Naturally, they
are worried, they hear the news,” she said.
Verma says that as a mom, she feels torn and stressed out with home-schooling and
has had to let some things, such as limiting screen time. The added pressure at work
and home-schooling has compelled them to cancel both of their parent’s visits to their
place. “My mother lives in Las Vegas. We’ve canceled both our parents’ visits to our
place. I think everybody’s going crazy at this time. What with home-schooling and our
work.” she said.
Verma, who has the day off on Mother’s Day, says their plans like many things in Illinois
are dependent on the weather. “We will either go for a hike if the weather is good, or
stay home as it’s quite cold still, and watch a movie and order food from a favorite
farm-to-table restaurant in town,” Verma said.

Annie Bhatnagar who teaches English as a Second Language in Las Vegas, NV schools, home with her children. Her son is baking cookies for Mother’s Day, May 10, 2020, for his grandmother to drop off at her doorstep. (Photo: courtesy Annie Bhatnagar)

“Class Divide” Among Indian American Moms
But not all working moms are primarily concerned with their children’s schooling; some,
especially many immigrant Indian mothers, are just trying to figure out how to put food
on the table. With unemployment at its highest levels in decades, many lower-income
Indian American families are facing unprecedented economic hardships.
Shikha Bhatnagar, executive director of South Asian Network (SAN), says the corona
pandemic has revealed a class divide within the Indian American community that’s often
not discussed openly. SAN is a Los Angeles-based community organization that
addresses social and economic issues affecting the Indian community.
“What happens to Indian-American mothers during COVID-19 depends on the
socio-economics,” Bhatnagar in an interview with Desi Talk. “The middle and
upper-class moms are stressed due to home-schooling. The lower-income moms are
more concerned about putting food on the table. It really highlights the class divide in
our society, and is not spoken of enough within our community.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, SAN is providing food assistance to elderly and disabled
community members and those who are facing financial hardship due to job loss. The
organization is also helping people gain access to public benefits and navigate the
healthcare system. SAN also provides mental health counseling services for those
experiencing anxiety and depression as well as arranging temporary shelter for
survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and their children.
Domestic Violence Silent Crisis Amid Covid-19
In the shadows of the coronavirus, there’s also another crisis brewing. Women across
the world are being held captive in their homes with their abusers.
One out of three women in the world experience physical or sexual violence in their
lifetime, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And the surge in domestic
violence worldwide caused by lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders has experts
alarmed.
According to Anita Bhatia, the deputy executive director of the United Nations Women,
social distancing and isolation are causing more women to become victims of domestic
abuse. “The very technique we are using to protect people from the virus can perversely
impact victims of domestic violence. While we absolutely support the need to follow
these measures of social distancing and isolation, we also recognize that it provides an
opportunity for abusers to unleash more violence,” Bhatia told TIME magazine in an
interview.
According to an interview study of Asians in the Houston areas published in 2017, 20%
of respondents reported experiencing at least one form of intimate partner violence
ranging from thrown objects to the use of a knife of a gun on the respondent.
And in times of crisis, such as natural disasters, wars, and pandemics, the risk of
gender-based-violence only escalates, as women become separated from their support
networks, and social and legal systems are weakened, according to the WHO.
Last month, the United Kingdom saw a 120% increase in the number of calls it received
in its domestic abuse hotline within a single day. In response to the surge, Home
Secretary, Priti Patel launched a national domestic abuse helpline to help victims of
abuse urging anyone in immediate danger to seek help and call authorities without
hesitation. Part of the plan includes texting a three-digit code if women in peril are
unable to speak in the presence of their abusers.
Alternatively, in the US, calls to domestic abuse hotlines in areas located in the
epicenter of the coronavirus have notably declined. But the sharp declines have experts
alarmed that women trapped in their homes and isolated from resources are facing
increased danger.
Helpline calls at Manavi, a New York-based domestic violence agency located in the
epicenter of the US coronavirus pandemic, dropped astounding 53% from February to
March, according to Executive Director Navneet Bhalla.
“What that indicated to us is that survivors are not safe. And that they don’t have a safe
space to make calls. Women are afraid to leave because they don’t want to expose
themselves and their children to COVID-19,” Bhalla said on a webinar organized by the
South Asian Bar Association of North America to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on
gender-based violence in the South Asian community.
Women living with domestic abuse are having to make a difficult decision- whether to
continue to endure violence inflicted by the perpetrator or risk the health of their
children, she said.
Access to healthcare, affordable housing, and food insecurity are also making it more
difficult for women to leave abusive circumstances during the crisis, says Neha Gill,
executive director of Chicago-based domestic violence agency Apna Ghar. “The
pandemic has created a perfect storm,” Gill said. Women are fearful of contracting the
coronavirus, and it’s preventing them from seeking out medical care even after
experiencing physical abuse, she added.
As hospitals and emergency personnel focus on responding to the pandemic, many
women aren’t speaking out due to fears that they would be unable to receive access to
essential services such as healthcare, temporary housing, and employment, Gill said.

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