August 10, 2020: Dawn Ung cares for her oldest son, Devin, 20, with assistance from her other son, Darin, 17, at their home in Rainier Beach in Seattle. Devin was in a car accident on September 26, 2017 that left him severely disabled from a traumatic brain injury. (Photo by Karen Ducey)

This piece is part of COVID-19 in 2020: A look back on health equity & community resilience in Chinatown-International District. The project was led by Seattle photo-journalist Karen Ducey and former ICHS marketing and communications manager Angela Toda in partnership with International Examiner. The project was funded by Historic South Downtown, King County 4Culture, and Society of Professional Journalists.

It’s still dark when Dawn Ung rises. A single, working mom with two school-aged children and a third with a disability, she makes an early start to her job as an administrative supervisor at International Community Health Services (ICHS), a non-profit health center.
Ung’s life was busy and stressful pre-pandemic. Now, each day brings a new test of her endurance.

“There are always speed bumps,” said Ung. “Nothing really goes as planned in my world, so I just take it as it comes. I think that’s the only way I know how to deal with things without making me crazy.”

Ung is one of millions of exhausted women who have reached their limit, disproportionately shouldering the pandemic’s load as caretakers, housekeepers, and wage earners.

Many have called it quits. Last September, an unprecedented 865,000 women over 20 left the U.S. workforce — four times more than men. The future impact on women and the workplace has yet to be determined.

The emotional and financial strain of the household, work, and the restaurant Ung co-owns with her sister, rest heavy. Once in a while, Ung hears her ex-husband is in town, but he’s “out of the picture.”

August 10, 2020: Single mother Dawn Ung cares for her son Devin. “I get up about six o’clock,” Ung said. “That’s when Devin needs his first set of meds. And then I get him prepped and if he needs to be changed, I change him and start his water feed. I start him off in the morning with some water for hydration, and then his caretaker will come in at eight and then start her routine, which is total personal care after that.” Photo by Karen Ducey

Ung was just 19 when she had her first-born, Devin. Three years ago, he was struck by a car, leaving severe, traumatic brain injuries. “He used to yap nonstop, and I used to have to tell him, ‘Please shut up,’” and now that’s gone she says, adding, “it doesn’t seem real.” Now 21, Devin has no speech. He tries to bat her away as she brushes his teeth, washes his face. “He’s total care, wheelchair bound,” said Ung.

The cost of Devin’s care is steep. Along with medical bills for special equipment and a full-time caretaker, a personal loan Ung took out after the accident hangs over her head.

“There’s a lot of guilt there too, but what do you do?” she asks, acknowledging little time for the other kids.

January 15, 2021: Dawn Ung gets the first dose of the CO-VID-19 vaccine. While she looks forward to taking her son Devin out of the house and hosting a “huge gathering,” her more immediate concern is the departure of his long-time caregiver. “Trying to find a caretaker at this time has been very challenging,” Ung said. Ung was born just 20 days after her parents arrived in the U.S from Cambodia in 1980 and grew up immersed in the flavors of their popular Chinatown-International District restaurant, Phnom Penh Noodle House. She and her sister took over the business, which was just reopening when the first CO-VID-19 cases were discovered in the U.S. (Photo by ICHS)

Derin, her middle boy, a 17-year-old senior, lends his lanky, teenage muscle to the heavier job of lifting and moving Devin. With the pandemic, he and Ung’s eight-year-old daughter Daylin, miss seeing their friends. Ung fears Daylin, who’s big on recording Tik Tok dances at the moment, isn’t learning enough from remote school. “She’s struggling with reading and it’s tough,” said Ung. “I feel bad because I just don’t have time to help her.”

Ung’s not alone. According to a report from the American Psychological Association (APA), the formidable task of meeting the needs of school-aged children is one of the stressors contributing to a national mental health crisis. Nearly 47% of women with children doing remote learning at home said their mental health had worsened during the pandemic, compared to 30% of men.

May 8, 2020: Jenifer Chao, Deputy Director of Administration in the Consumer Protection Division for the City of Seattle’s Finance and Administrative Services Department, works from home in her daughter’s room during Governor Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Chao belongs to the Mien community. Seven people from three generations live in her South Seattle home. (Photo by Karen Ducey)

It’s dark again. Devin’s night routine puts Ung’s bedtime past 1 a.m. Boxes from a recent move line the hall unopened. An unexpected medical emergency for Devin costs her days from work. Getting three contractor bids for a wheelchair ramp — something she needs for Medicaid — proved impossible, so she pays out-of-pocket instead.

The pandemic adds to every challenge.

“People don’t know what it takes,” said Ung. “The time it takes, the effort it takes.” She says she’s not one to ask for help, even from family, who “mean well,” but “don’t walk in” her shoes. “I feel like I’m forgotten a lot.” Some days are so hectic, “I wish there was a clone of me. Like two or three.”

May 10, 2020: Tony Ngo (center), age 20, a student at Carleton College, exercises with his mother Hong Ngo in their home in the CID. Ngo returned home to live with his parents after his school closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the experience has brought them closer together. (Photo by Karen Ducey)

How will women like Ung — already stretched thin and long-inured to listening to their needs and fatigue — pick up the pieces and start the process of recovery, once the immediate crisis of the pandemic ends?

The Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan has started to make health care more accessible and includes a sweeping child anti-poverty measure that expands the child tax credit, as well as increases funding for safely reopening schools. It’s a step forward that will strengthen the quality of life for American families, but doesn’t put a price on all Ung has paid or help her fully reclaim it.

As a visitor leaves, Ung points out the new sneakers she gave Devin for his birth-day — on a shelf, no creases or scuffs. She discovered he’s now able to stand. Sometimes, his arms looped over hers, “we’ll dance together.”

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