Pictures reveal the intensity of motherhood—especially under lockdown

For Mother’s Day, women photographers capture what it’s like being confined at home with their kids.

Photograph by Tamara Merino
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Photographer Tamara Merino takes a self-portrait with her son Ikal on their first day of quarantine in Santiago, Chile.

Photograph by Tamara Merino

Pictures reveal the intensity of motherhood—especially under lockdown

For Mother’s Day, women photographers capture what it’s like being confined at home with their kids.

Motherhood can be “all-consuming,” says Australian photographer Lisa Sorgini, who has two young sons. “Within each day we can feel the deepest tenderness, tedium, quietude, love, frustration, fear and despair.” During the pandemic, those feelings are magnified, as families are confined to their homes, without the usual outlets of school and work, friends and childcare.

Photographers are stuck at home too. Instead of assignments in far-flung places, capturing the lives of strangers, they are training their lenses on their families and immediate surroundings.

For Mother’s Day, we asked photographers who are mothers to show us what their lives are like now. They responded by revealing the joy and anxiety, the panic and calm, and the gratitude and guilt that they’ve experienced with their children since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Karla Gachet (Topanga Canyon, California)

We are lucky to live surrounded by nature. Because of the quarantine we have made it a point to get our two sons out every day. These walks have become magical. I feel like I will look back at this time with nostalgia: the time when the outside world was a scary place and yet we became stronger as a family.

This lockdown has forced the boys to be together all the time. The most beautiful gift for me has been to see them get closer and become best friends. They fight and play all day. It's like watching Animal Planet in my own house.

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Rena Effendi (Istanbul, Turkey)

As part of the quarantine measures in Turkey, people under 20 and over 65 are forbidden to walk outside. My daughter, Eliya Runi, has been indoors for over a month while attending her school classes over Zoom. We are lucky to have some outdoor space, a balcony and a communal garden in our building where Runi spends time playing with cats and feeding them. Runi has adjusted quite well to these restrictions. At home we've been doing lots of crafts together, cooking our favorite meals, shooting and starring in silly trailers of homemade films.

On May 13, children will finally be allowed to walk outside in Turkey for a few hours. School will finish early that day to accommodate their outdoor playtime. I will take her for a walk along the Bosporus, something we've always enjoyed doing together. Perhaps we'll be able to spot some dolphins as they have been sighted more often these days due to decreased sea traffic. I am no longer worried about my daughter not being able to adapt to new circumstances.

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Lisa Sorgini (Northern N.S.W, Australia)

Initially the lockdown sent me into a panic. Ordinarily I spend so much of my day out with my children that the idea of being housebound was terrifying. I felt instantly claustrophobic. However, after a couple of weeks, we found a new rhythm to our lives together and found a new joy in slowing down the day, not looking at the clock, and just being together. My older son and I have learned together that I am neither a baker nor a crafty person and that is ok. Neither is he. But what I am good at, and what he loves, is getting outside into nature (our backyard, while in lockdown) and teaching him about plants and animals.

This role of mothering our babies and children is so many things; it can be all consuming, and within each day we can feel the deepest tenderness, tedium, quietude, love, frustration, fear, and despair. Photography more than ever has been my sanctuary and my voice, allowing me insight into myself and my situation. Without it, I have no doubt that the lockdown would have proved to be far more challenging.

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Tamara Merino (Santiago, Chile)

My quarantine days are breastfeeding, napping, diapering, playing, loving, and repeat. But as the world goes wild out there, my son Ikal, like all children, grows up in new ways. Before this quarantine, I didn't let my baby look at screens or cell phones (I don’t even have a TV in my house) but today, his closest way to connect with the outside world is, ironically, through screens. He innocently recognizes his grandfather and his uncles when we have a virtual call and kisses them, touches them, laughs with them, as if that cold glass didn’t exist.

Deep down I feel that quarantine is like motherhood—emotions of loneliness, isolation, unanswered questions, anxiety, reflections, hope. This quarantine has brought me great anxiety for the future, for my son, and for the planet. But I keep raising him with the same love, and I show him that the world is a place full of light and that everything is fine.

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Hannah Whitaker (New York, New York)

Those first few warms days of spring bring so much joy, and for us this has not been diminished by quarantine. When the temperature finally rose above 70, we broke out the backyard pool. My son and I both got in and splashed around for hours. Our teeth were chattering by the end but it was heaven.

Like many working moms, I typically have anxiety about not spending enough time with my kid. (Not anymore!) So normally I try to make the time I spend with him really count, by staying present. I put down my phone and focus on him. But now, parents have to do 10 things at once. Under these circumstances, I’m the first to admit, I am very often not at all present with my kid. Right now, for example, I’m completely ignoring him and he’s getting increasingly antsy. Every few minutes he asks: When is quiet time over??? And the answer is always: Almost.

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Adriana Zehbrauskas (Phoenix, Arizona)

My teenage son, Gabriel, is living in an artificially illuminated cave and connecting with his friends online almost 24 hours a day. He's finishing high school and starting college but his dream of a new independent life (and living arrangements!) has been put to a brutal halt.

Among a million other things, the rites of passage are also changing in these times. As we try to adapt to a new world that is transforming itself in front of our eyes, it is very hard as a mother to not be able to look my son in the eyes and tell him that everything will be alright, even if this was never true in the first place.

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Miora Rajonary (Johannesburg, South Africa)

Being a mother during these uncertain times has made me pause and reflect—first on how far I am from my own mother and the rest of my family. As borders are closed indefinitely, I cannot answer my son when he asks when we will see them again.

It also made me reevaluate my own role as a mother because I realized how confusing this situation can be for my son, who is only four. I am still a parent, but these days I am also a teacher and a playmate. We spend long days doing activities in front of the computer, in the kitchen, in the garden, oscillating between cries and laughter, hoping for better days to come.

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Anush Babajanyan (Yerevan, Armenia)

This is a truly exceptional time when I can spend long, productive days with my children and not feel endlessly torn about work, my purpose in life, and all sorts of other thoughts. Worries and imperfection are always there, in endless attempts to combine homeschooling, work, emails, and chores. But I try to think in priorities, especially when it comes to my family. And for us the priorities are being together, feeling content, learning about the world, eating healthily. If we have that covered, we’ll take the imperfections. These days and moments do make me feel thankful as a mother, but also restless and impatient as a photographer who simply misses travel and the ability to step into a stranger’s, or anyone’s, home.

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Luján Agusti (Tierra del Fuego, Argentina)

There are many questions that have arisen in relation to motherhood during these times. On one hand I enjoy the slow time and being able to share more with my son, to stop together to observe the world again. On the other, there’s the guilt—that he cannot socialize as much, he is not seeing his friends or our family, or attending school. I keep thinking about how all this will affect him and the idea that something in him—and in the world we live—may change forever. For all that, the answer is a walk along the coast, or the forest, where we can breathe fresh air.

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Robin Schwartz (Hoboken, New Jersey)

We live on the top floor of a converted fire house and have access to our flat roof. The roof represents freedom from our apartment. My daughter Amelia is embroidering a cashmere sweater she found at the Salvation Army and Indie the dog is staring at her, something Indie does with more intensity than anyone I know.

My husband and I never thought our daughter would live with us again for more than two weeks at a time. Now Amelia is with us through the fall, as she has the semester off and will graduate next spring. She had her life lined up—this spring as an exchange student in Spain, this summer an intern in Costa Rica, this fall interning in Boston, then her final semester at Wellesley College.

She did not want to live with us again.

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Sim Chi Yin (London, England)

In good Chinese tradition, we made red-dyed eggs to celebrate my son Lucas' first lunar month. We made an odd number of eggs, as custom dictates for a boy. In this time of the pandemic, we could not go around to visit our relatives to give out the red eggs as one would usually do. Instead, we video-called his grandma, grandpa, aunty, and cousins in Singapore and they made red eggs, too, to show him on a screen.

A month ago Lucas had a traumatic entry into the world. His heart rate was falling after I had been in labor for more than 20 hours in a busy hospital at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the U.K. A team of doctors burst into the delivery room and pulled him out with forceps. I developed sepsis in labor and lost about one-third of my body’s blood. There was no happy, picture-perfect photo of us right after his birth, with him suckling on my chest. I was in a state of shock and no milk flowed. He seemed dazed as well. For a week afterward, his face bore the marks of the big metal forceps, and even now a scab remains on the right side of his head. It was not at all the birth we had planned and longed for. Pandemic-related hospital rules meant I had to labor alone for part of his birth, and one bad thing led to another. I’ve had nightmares and shed tears, but what’s important is that he is here, and we are watching him grow daily, marveling at how his eye lashes and legs grow longer and longer.

In the month since, I have been guilt-ridden about not being able to breastfeed Lucas from the get-go and have been playing catch-up since. It’s been an intense start to motherhood. At 41 and into my third career, I’ve done a fair bit in life, but this has got to be the toughest gig yet. It’s harder still in this lockdown here in London, where most of his health checks have been by video or phone, where we’ve found it hard to get help as new parents, or to even buy food or diapers. May things turn around by the time he marks his next lunar month here.

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Endia Beal (Winston-Salem, North Carolina)

Every day is different and it is almost impossible to create a sense of balance with a toddler and an infant. The only constant is Maxim’s jelly toast for breakfast in the mornings.

My feelings about being a mother are heightened by isolation. The moments of joy are more meaningful at a time when sadness could be consuming. I make a conscious decision daily to focus on the things I have, like family, love, food, and shelter, and not on the things I lack, such as time alone or a steady income.

As an artist, I feel a sense of urgency in my work. My community of artists and photographers is being hit drastically by the pandemic and this has fueled my desire to continue addressing social and economic issues with my photographs.

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Tasneem Alsultan (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

I left my hometown in eastern Saudi Arabia in March, when the world was beginning to wake up to the seriousness of the novel coronavirus. I thought I would stay in the capital for a few days to document the Saudi response to COVID-19. More than 10 weeks later, I'm still in Riyadh with my youngest daughter, Yara. I’d always promised to bring her on one of my work trips. Sura, her elder sister, wisely chose to stay home. She turns 15 in June. We don't know if we'll be home together by then.

I initially thought I'd done what was best, for my daughters and my parents, and even for myself. To have one daughter with me for a short work trip would be a great bonding experience. But this is the longest I've been away from home and the longest I've not seen my daughter. I thought all was well until Sura shared how she misses us and the three of us burst into tears on a video call. We constantly remind ourselves that we're healthy and that we're lucky to be safe, but now I'm also reminding them and myself that it's ok to feel emotionally constrained and frustrated.

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Olivia Arthur (London, England)

I always talk a lot about wanting to travel less, to make work closer to home and just be a bit less frantic. But I am bad at saying no and somehow afraid of getting forgotten about, of being pigeonholed as the mother with young kids. So suddenly being told that I couldn’t go anywhere and having the kids sent home from school and nursery wasn’t all that unwelcome. I’ve enjoyed spending all this time with them even if it is sometimes exhausting. But cabin fever has started to kick in and everyone has kind of had enough.

More than anything I have had the slightly surreal feeling of living in a little bubble while outside in the world something crazy is going on. I’ve never been or wanted to be a war photographer but I appreciate the work that my colleagues are doing to cover what is going on while those of us with children sit in and try and work out how to be teachers.

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Alessandra Sanguinetti (Petaluma, California)

I'm enjoying having my daughter Catalina at home all day. She's 13 and was already beginning to be more distant and less interested in spending time with us. But after a couple of bumpy weeks we've settled into a sweet camaraderie that I think we'll remember for a long time.

Strangely enough, I don't feel isolated at all. In fact with this new slower pace I feel more connected to myself and other people than ever. I'm also fortunate I have two people I love with me and can give and receive hugs every day.

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Rebecca Hale (Washington, D.C.)

Almost all of my childhood memories involve my two brothers. We were a tight-knit trio; there were few orchestrated playdates. It was just us. But my children’s lives are full of more kids than I can count. Before the lockdown, kids were constantly running through our front door. I loved it.

Yet this quarantine has put into play a situation I’ve always wondered about: What would it be like if my children just had each other? Now they have no friends to retreat to when they irritate one another. They walk, bike, sit and read together. They hold hands, lying in our yard after dinner. This is not to say that life is suddenly serene and peaceful. Tears and big emotions find their way into almost every day. Worry is always there.

The type of photography I do has completely shifted as well. Without access to my photo studio and equipment, my kids and family are my only real subjects. Elaborate studio portrait sessions have given way to documenting our lives with my phone. As a mother and photographer, I’m trying to use this time to see and connect in a different way. Just like my kids.

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Smita Sharma (Delhi-NCR, India)

The entire house is a playground for my one-year-old son, with the kitchen being the focus of his attention. He recently learned to stand without support and often tries to grab things beyond his reach. He has a fascination for wires and gadgets and looks for every opportunity to put things in his mouth. He keeps us on our toes all the time.

In the absence of any help due to the continuing lockdown, my husband and I take turns to work and do household chores. When my son goes to sleep, we hit the booster button to maximize our efficiency! His innocence and ability to stay happy spreads positivity in our home.