Life at a Distance: Parenting in a pandemic

Turns out, juggling parenting in a pandemic with work and without the support of schools and daycare is consuming, complex and just plain HARD.

I was surprised to see, on page one of the “New York Times” Business section last weekend, one of my favorite food bloggers, Deb Perelman of “Smitten Kitchen,” not writing about food. Instead, she wrote about New York schools’ plan to reopen this fall, with staggered attendance to minimize the number of children in school at a time. “At the same time,” she wrote, “many adults — at least the lucky ones that have held onto their jobs — are supposed to be back at work as the economy reopens. What is confusing to me is that these two plans are moving forward apace without any consideration of the working parents who will be ground up in the gears when they collide.” She added, “In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.”

As I write this, in the early morning before I start my real job, I’m wearing one noise-canceling headphone on my right ear, playing music to partially tune out my four-year-old daughter’s announcement that bad guys are taking over and that she and I are going to have to save the world, and my seven-year-old son’s exclamations (“This might be toxic.”) as he conducts a science experiment unattended in the other room before his virtual summer camp starts. My left headphone is askew, off my ear, so that I can hear if the science experiments erupt in a mess or a freakout, and respond if my daughter asks me to help her find a yellow marker.

Science tells us multitasking is bad for productivity and bad for our brains. It makes tasks take longer while depleting us of energy, creativity and long-term memory. Of course, many people in all kinds of situations are suffering from burnout or worse during the pandemic. But for parents in quarantine, there’s no such thing as tasking that isn’t multi-, and frankly, it’s brutal for a lot of families.

I know I’m lucky to still have a job and be able to do it from home even as things begin to open up again, and that I’m especially privileged that my mother-in-law is co-isolating with us and able to massively help with childcare during the work day while my husband and I manage conference calls and schedules that often encroach on our evenings and weekends. Still, the burden is heavy, and I can’t fathom what it must feel like for so many families without the support we have. It’s stressful just reading Juggle co-founder Amy’s account below of how she and her husband split up the workday (and night). And single working parents doing this solo deserve a damn medal.

The complexities of childrearing as a working parent without the support of schools and daycare are vast. This spring’s remote learning experiment, at least in my experience with a first grader, was a complete failure. Trying to get 30 kids to pay attention to a teacher on Zoom as she explains math problems by pointing to a blurry, shaky piece of paper in her other hand was more distracting for me and less enriching for my son than his science experiment that I probably should have been paying attention to this morning.

But at the same time, if we’re going to send our kids back to school in some fashion, especially little kids who can’t really be trusted to keep their face masks on, then what was all this for? If states were just going to rip the bandaid off and reopen businesses, restaurants and ultimately, schools, as though the virus weren’t still spreading like wildfire in most states — then what was the point of locking down in the first place? Aren’t we just asking for the virus to continue its path of destruction? We know the virus seems to be less deadly for children, but that doesn’t mean they’re not at risk of complications or of passing it on to family members and teachers.

The debate over what to do with our children rages on. Some schools, like Amy’s daughter’s school in Austin, Texas, have already reopened, at least for now. It’s an attractive solution when you’re juggling childcare the way their family has. Who knows if these schools will be able to stay open, or what will happen in Austin, in Brooklyn where I live, and elsewhere around the country? Question marks still abound in this pandemic, leaving families and pretty much everyone else in limbo, without answers or the ability to plan for the near or even distant future. So, um, good luck out there?

Amy Madore, Austin, Texas

Tell us about your quarantine

Amy’s daughter decompresses with a little downward dog

I live in Austin with my husband and two-year-old daughter. We’ve all been at home since Monday, March 15, when our employers asked us to start working remotely and our daughter’s montessori school closed. As far as I can tell, people and businesses in Austin were vigilant about social distancing and wearing masks until late May, a few weeks after the governor started reopening the state. Then the wheels started coming off, and now new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are soaring in Austin and across Texas

During the first week of lockdown, my husband threw out his back for a couple of days. Single parents out there: I see and commend you. I don’t know how you do it. 

A highlight and balm during this time has been the arrival of our niece, who entered the world in early June. My mom traveled from overseas to help take care of the baby. We saw her after she quarantined in a rental home for two weeks and it felt like such a treat. My daughter was beside herself; it was the first time she’d hugged anyone other than Mama and Papa in over two months. 

Are you currently working? What is work like in quarantine?

My husband and I still have our jobs. We both commuted to work prior to lockdown. We both worked in offices previously and now both work from home. I manage a team and this is the first time we’ve worked remotely together, though a few of us (including me) have telecommuted full time in previous jobs. A few weeks into all of this, my husband created a workspace in our garage that we use to hide from our toddler when we’re working. It’s getting toasty in there now that it’s summertime, but I’m grateful to have a private space to work in when we need it.

Has anything positive come out of quarantine for you?

I’ve relaxed some notions I apparently had about what constitutes exercise. Previously, if I couldn’t get myself to a yoga class or the gym I felt like I’d failed and concluded that was it, no exercise for me that day. Now, I consider all sorts of things as exercise, especially now that  I have even less personal time than before. It’s getting outside for a 15-minute walk with a headlamp at 9:00 p.m. It’s climbing the stairs a bunch of times, or doing a chunk of a kid’s yoga class with my toddler. I’m only doing these activities once or twice a week, and I know my heart and lungs need more aerobic exercise. I’m going to work toward that. In the meantime, I’m embracing any movement I can work into my day as a step in the right direction.

I’ve also gotten to spend a ton of time with my daughter, who’d been in daycare since she was three months old. It’s been hard, of course (see my biggest challenge below), but it has also been lovely. I’ve gotten to know her better, and there’s a stronger bond between us now. She’s a delight to know.

What has been your biggest challenge? 

I usually don’t have time to myself unless I’m working (and not on a Zoom call) or running a quick errand. I know — if I want to make time for something, I’ll make time for it, right? 

A typical weekday looks something like this for me: wake up when our kiddo gets up (between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m.); feed and hang out with her until noon, at which point my husband and I trade places and I start working; help with dinner and bedtime between 5:30 and 8:00 p.m., clean the kitchen or corral kiddo back into her bedroom several times from 8:00 to 8:30 p.m.; get back to work from 8:30 p.m. until anywhere from 10:30 p.m. to midnight; sleep; repeat. The weekends are more relaxed but we often use the evenings to catch up on work and general life management stuff. 

Update: Since writing this, my daughter’s school reopened and she’s been back for about three weeks. My husband and I now both work in different rooms inside the house (air conditioning!) and at a less frenetic pace during the day. At the same time, our daughter has started sleeping an extra hour in the mornings. I suspect it has something to do with her returning to a structured routine and getting social time with friends and beloved adults. There’s a chance Texas is going to shut down fully again, which would close her school. But it has changed my work schedule recently (phew!), and at least for the time being, I’m grateful for the respite.

How are you taking care of yourself in quarantine? 

I go on a socially distant walk with a close friend every couple of weeks. And my guilty privileged pleasure has been to drive to our favorite local coffee roaster to grab more beans and a cappuccino. Coffee has always signaled treat and luxury for me, even though I brew it at home every morning. I usually try to avoid buying it out, but I’ve relaxed that boundary some to get out of the house by myself every once in a while and enjoy something special and delicious. 

What do you think? (Leave comments here.)