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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”