About 64 years ago, in May 2020, I asked my colleagues how they were keeping their s*** together and being productive during a pandemic. Ah, innocent times.
As the pandemic has worn on (and on and on), a robust set of articles and research studies have discussed the wear and tear that pandemic living has cast on working parents, particularly mothers. We’re burned out, fighting more with our partners, facing bias, and leaving the workforce in droves. In short, we’re not OK.
And yet . . . here we are. At Leff, almost a quarter of our full-time staff is moms with kids at home, ranging from babies to teenagers. We talk openly and often about the struggle to balance family time with a workload that has only increased since the pandemic started. Our kids frequently attend our team videoconferences. Calendar time is blocked off for childcare duties. I’m typing this while praying Little Baby Bum keeps my toddler entertained long enough to finish this sentence.
So I figured it only appropriate to ask the moms of Leff, myself included, more specifically how they’re keeping their s*** together during the pandemic.
What’s it like being a mom during a pandemic?
Annie: Every mom I know would answer this differently. How many kids you have, their ages, your profession, your tolerance for risk—these factors create vastly disparate experiences. But I think one thing is universal, and that is that being a mom during a pandemic is full of hard decisions. Parenting is never easy. But never have I felt like I was deciding between my child’s happiness—and potentially her longer-term well-being—and our family’s safety. We’ve kept our toddler home with us since March, and almost every day I question if this is the right choice.
Alyssa: Where do I begin? The boundaries between work and life—something I’ve worked very hard to uphold since becoming a mom—evaporated overnight. We’re incredibly lucky to have childcare now, but in the first few months I felt like I was drowning. My mind was constantly racing between work projects, being a preschool teacher, and what we’d have for dinner. I would forget until we had one diaper left that we needed diapers. The mental load makes working full time and parenting difficult—and we’ve added to that the fear of how to keep the family safe.
Brittany: It’s isolating and overwhelming and exhausting. I will never take childcare for granted ever again. I’m thankful that our day care is open now, that my daughter is little enough that she won’t remember this time, and that I don’t have to learn new math. Right now, we’re working on counting to 10, and I must say, it’s going very well. You cling to those little wins and try to have a sense of humor and not become an alcoholic.
What has it been like to manage both working full time and parenting?
Heather: Most working moms deal with guilt. For me, mom guilt has ratcheted up several notches. My typically independent young teenagers now often need help with online learning, including staying on task and being motivated to do well. At the same time, my workload has drastically increased, meaning I have less time to help them. And I often find myself catching up on work during the evenings instead of spending time with them. Mind you, it’s not like they’re dying to spend time with me. But because so much of my energy is spent on work—and the stresses of the pandemic, the crazy politics of the past couple years, and the personal problems we all face—at times I feel like I’m less in touch with my kids now than before. Even though we’re all stuck in the house together nearly 24-7.
Alyssa: I feel like Sisyphus. Every time I think I’ve caught up on things, I’m behind, once again. That said, being a mom has made me such an efficient worker. You can’t waste time because your time is so limited. One of my former bosses told me he loved hiring working moms because they got things done—and in a fraction of the time that others did. I didn’t understand that sentiment until I became a mom.
I’ve also learned to ask for help and delegate more. Before, I often felt I needed to do it all myself or I’d be viewed as a subpar worker. But I’ve realized part of being a good employee, and a leader, is demonstrating that we can’t do it all. Learning when to say, “Hey, I need a hand,” or “Can you please take this off my plate?” has helped me a lot. And I hope, in turn, it gives other colleagues, particularly younger ones, a chance to try their hand at something.
Jennifer: Having the boys at home in virtual school adds another layer of worry and stress to my workday. They’re both smart, so their grades have stayed up, but they need the structure of an in-person school day. They get bored easily. When they’re on breaks they sometimes play video games, and I’ve had to go upstairs to tell them to stop yelling into their microphones. Or they get into bed and blast their computer volume so they can hear from across the room; I have to tell them to get back to their desk and turn the volume down. I’ve learned to deal with it—and keep my headphones on as much as possible.
How has your pandemic parenting experience evolved since March?
Annie: Oof, it’s been a ride. My daughter was just 21 months old when we started staying home, and she’s now two and a half—this alone is a huge difference. What entertained her at the start of this is different from what entertains her now. On the one hand, she needs more stimulation; on the other, she’s much more self-sufficient. But we’re also all just tired of this, of the repetition of our days. Earlier on, I was more intentional in my time with June. I’d try to come up with new, fun things for us to do together. But you can go get ice cream or craft a homemade sensory experience only so many times.
Heather: I have learned to establish rules and routines. Initially it was like the Wild West up in here. My husband and I thought, “These are extreme circumstances,” and we let the kids get away with eating more junk food and spending more time on screens than we normally would. For years I had resisted subscribing to Netflix because I just knew my kids would be obsessed. In late March, I bought that subscription, and my prediction came true. We let things get out of hand and then had to work hard to rein it back in and set guidelines for what’s acceptable.
I do think that we’ve found a good groove with the kids in terms of communication. We talk more often and openly now about our feelings and mental health. At this point it might be clichéd, but our kids know that it’s OK not to be OK. That’s a great thing.
What actions, mindsets, or TV shows have you found that have helped everyone cope, stay productive, and not go insane?
Jennifer: I’ve stopped worrying about their rooms becoming a disaster area. Sometimes they clean up, sometimes they don’t. Being a stepmom has its challenges in that they already have a mom, so I’m not taken as seriously; I’ve learned to live with that too.
Alyssa: A few go-tos have helped me stay sane: first, workouts. Twenty minutes here or there. If it means sticking my four-year-old in front of the TV, so be it. Second, naps. I’ve never been one who can power through particularly well when tired. I’ve found that a 30-minute nap can make all the difference. Third, kvetch with other moms. I’m on several mom text groups and have a moms book club—which really is us sipping wine and venting about our kids. Knowing that you’re not alone in this insane journey of parenthood—and during a pandemic, no less—puts it all in perspective. Fourth, the New York Times Parenting newsletter and Lucie’s List. Both have fabulous, nuanced tips, tricks, and essays on being a parent in the 21st century. And finally, crying. I’ve embraced that it’s OK, and helpful, to have a good cry—and even better if it happens in front of your kids. Many parents feel we must “hold it together” in front of our kids. But that’s not reality, and I want to teach my daughters that emotions—and empathy—are powerful and healthy.
Heather: We all need alone time. Letting the kids—and letting ourselves as parents—have that time is essential. We’re lucky that we have a house that allows us to find our own space. But I’ll admit to having spent an hour sitting in my car in the garage talking on the phone or even watching a TV show on my iPad when I can’t find the peace I need in the house.
What are your work or parenting intentions for 2021?
Brittany: I need to learn that it’s OK to turn off the computer and not look at it again when my daughter gets home from day care. My workstation is in our living room, so there is zero physical separation, which means it’s up to me to put up a mental wall and respect it.
Annie: Regardless of what happens in 2021, I want to muster up new energy and a renewed appreciation for how good I have it. After all, my family is safe, my husband and I are employed, and we’ve gotten about 1,000 more hours with our daughter than we would have had 2020 not burst into flames. We are some of the lucky ones.