Who Fills In the Gaps During a Pandemic? Teenage Girls

“At only 17, I have to be a tutor, a nanny and a student all at once. It’s just a lot to handle for a kid.”

—Cindy Chen, 17, Caldwell, N.J.

During the pandemic, women across America have been forced to take on increased domestic responsibilities, and teenage girls have not been spared.

As a New York City high school senior, I have witnessed how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of many of my classmates—from picking up gendered in-home chores like cooking and cleaning, to acting as stand-in parents for younger siblings. While the effect on U.S. teens may not be as dramatic as the effect internationally, because most U.S. girls are not being forced to leave school, the pandemic is still causing tension and strain for millions of girls.

Here are a few of their stories.

Maya Green, 19, Charleston, S.C.

Who Fills In The Gaps During The COVID-19 Pandemic? Teenage Girls Reflect On Responsibilities
Maya Green (Courtesy)

Maya Green, a 19-year-old from Charleston, S.C., is a freshman at Stanford University. She has been attending school remotely and is living at home. In addition to her schoolwork, she is taking care of her younger sister who recently returned to school in-person. According to Maya, the pandemic has been a mentally rough time, leaving her feeling “stretched thin.”

On top of navigating her first year of college and being the organizing director of Student Voice, a nationwide network of educational equity-focused student activists, she has had to take on family responsibilities that she would not have if she was able to live on campus—for example, taking Student Voice calls in the parking lot of her sister’s orthodontist appointment and tennis practice. 

Cindy Chen, 17, Caldwell, N.J.

Cindy Chen, a 17-year-old high school junior from Caldwell, New Jersey, has experienced caring for a younger sibling, too. Cindy recently switched from a hybrid schedule to remote learning, due to the time it took her to get home and come back to school for lunch. Prior to the pandemic, she and her 12-year-old brother would eat lunch at school, but, now, she has to make sure that her brother is eating lunch between his hybrid classes, as his lunch is not being served in school. During the school day, Cindy also assists her brother in accessing Google Classroom.

Cindy’s parents own a Chinese restaurant in a nearby town which has been impacted by the pandemic. Her parents are now unable to hire people on short notice, so Cindy works at the restaurant during the week and on weekends. “I do whatever needs to be done,” Cindy told Ms. “I pick up the phone, I can waitress, I can be a hostess, I can pack the orders, I can work in the kitchen if need be.”

She jokingly told me the greatest skill she has acquired during the pandemic is dealing with angry people. Cindy cannot think of her extra responsibilities as a burden, because of her parents’ upbringing in China. Yet, she said, “At only 17, I have to be a tutor, a nanny and a student all at once. It’s just a lot to handle for a kid.” Her mental health has also been affected by the recent uptick in anti-Asian racism.

Emmanuella Agyemang, 17, The Bronx, N.Y.

Who Fills In The Gaps During The COVID-19 Pandemic? Teenage Girls Reflect On Responsibilities
Emmanuella Agyemang. (Courtesy)

Emmanuella Agyemang, a fellow mentee in my writing program, Girls Write Now, is a 17-year-old Ghanian American junior from The Bronx. She has been attending school remotely and has two younger brothers, ages 13 and 15, as well as a 19-year-old male cousin in her household, making her the only girl in her family.

She said she has less free time due to the pandemic and is unable to go outside nearly as often as her male cousin because of her strict parents—only twice a month. Emmanuella not only helps out around her house, but also assists her brothers with their schoolwork and helped her 13-year-old brother through the New York City high school application process. She said her responsibilities have taught her the importance of patience and faith.

Emmanuella does not think that she would be asked to cook if she were a boy, and acknowledges her mother’s gendered belief that women are the caregivers. If her mom were away from home, Emmanuella would be expected to cook—not her older male cousin. She thinks that this reinforces gender stereotypes, requiring girls to fill in the gaps because women have been asked to watch the kids, clean and cook throughout history. Although these messages are not explicitly stated in her family, the gender roles are obvious when looking at the chores she is given. She hopes one day people will “treat their daughters like they treat their sons.” 

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Sumiya Rahaman, 16, Westminster, Md.

Who Fills In The Gaps During The COVID-19 Pandemic? Teenage Girls Reflect On Responsibilities
Sumiya Rahaman. (Courtesy)

Sumiya Rahaman, a 16-year-old South Asian sophomore from Westminster, Maryland, is attending school remotely. She has a brother in ninth grade and a 3-month-old sister. Because she is home, her domestic responsibilities have increased. She takes care of her infant sister when her parents are working and running errands, which means that she might be caregiving until 1 am. She also checks up on her sister in between her virtual classes that last from 7:30 a.m. until 2:20 p.m.

In addition to caregiving, Sumiya has extracurricular activities such as her activism work. She said her school performance has been affected due to her tendency to procrastinate and her mental health has been worse during the pandemic. “Schoolwork feels useless and takes up a lot of time,” she said.

Sumiya comes from a South Asian family and, based on her brother’s experience, doesn’t think she would have to take on these responsibilities if she were a boy. Because of the expectations placed on girls in her Bangledashi culture, her relatives still think she doesn’t help out enough in the house. Sumiya feels that she is silenced in her own house and questions why she advocates for others but cannot advocate for herself. 

Grace Ly, 19, Los Angeles, Calif.

Who Fills In The Gaps During The COVID-19 Pandemic? Teenage Girls Reflect On Responsibilities
Gracy Ly. (Courtesy)

Grace Ly, a 19-year-old from Los Angeles and a freshman at Scripps College, is attending school remotely. She has a 17-year-old brother with special needs also completing school from home, so part of her job is helping her brother with his Los Angeles Unified School District classes. Her brother used to have an aide assisting him, but now this is not always possible.

Grace’s mother works from home and must occasionally do site visits, as she is an essential worker. Her father, immunosuppressed and chronically ill, has not been able to leave the house. While her dad also tries to help her brother with his schoolwork, Grace has more patience, she said.

Grace is taking on a full load of courses at Scripps and is taking part in a play, too. She feels that she’s become almost another parent to her brother, but she still does things necessary for her mental health. She told me that she learned to prioritize since she and her family come first. 

Grace feels there is a trend with female eldest siblings being the second mother, or third parent; she said she’s expected to be part-sister, part-mother. She does not think she would be expected to do as much work or be harangued as much for being hopeless in the kitchen if she were a boy, and she thinks that there would be more emphasis on protection than nurture. 

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Ilana Drake is a first-year student at Vanderbilt University. She has written for The 74, YR Media, and other national publications. Her work can be found on her website.