(WSYM) — I started a new job in January of 2020, just seven short weeks after my second child, Lucas, was born.
Two months later, we were in full-blown worldwide pandemic mode. Work-from-home parenting chaos ensued. Zoom calls interrupted by a toddler trying to figure out how to poop on the potty or a baby trying to keyboard in his own thoughts on the weekly report were a plenty in our household. And a similar scene played out for parents across the country as the lines between personal life and professional life blurred like never before.
Photo courtesy Alexandra Bahou
In the midst of the chaos, parents were faced with challenging decisions when it came to work and childcare. And while every family dynamic is different, multiple studies have shown that taking the brunt of the pandemic pummel, in many instances, were women. A Pew analysis in September of 2020 found that mothers of small children are three times more likely than fathers to have lost jobs in the pandemic as the shift to virtual learning sent parents into a care-giving scramble. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the total number of women who have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic reached over 2.3 million in January this year.
Managing the Pressure
Vicky Mahnke of Ferndale, who is the mother of two children with special needs, said if her employer hadn’t been incredibly flexible, she would have stepped away from her beloved job entirely after the onset of the pandemic. With her husband unable to work from the house, she was essentially left alone to figure out how to help her children navigate online learning and work out of her home simultaneously.
“It was just me and I didn't really have any help,” said Mahnke. “It was just unbearable. It was awful … they just couldn't navigate what they were supposed to be doing by themselves. I didn't know what they were supposed to be doing either.”
Mahnke said she was forced to cut back her work drastically from full-time — and sometimes even overtime — to just a few days a week.
“Number one hardest thing was working out the fact that I couldn't work at home and home school them at the same time. It just was incompatible; that was hard because I had to really … make a big decision about my job,” she said. “I’ve lost a lot of money over the last year and a half for not working as much at all.”
Photo courtesy Vicky Mahnke
But for Mahnke, the money was just part of it. For her, interior design is a passion and the work means so much more.
“The job thing for sure was that that really helps with the sanity aspect. It helped me realize my own value, I think. And I needed to know that because I felt like a failure. You know, I felt like such a failure at all of it, at parenting, at wife-ing, at momming, at the housekeeping … even at my job, I just felt like I sucked at everything,” she said.
Photo courtesy Vicky Mahnke
Mahnke is not alone. Mothers feeling the pressure to strike the “perfect” balance of work and personal life is not uncommon. In addition to the work strains, researchers at Montana State University found that women were disproportionately affected by mental load and impacts on daily life in the early months of the pandemic.
Erin Hunter, Ph.D., interim director of the University Center for the Child and the Family at the University of Michigan, said this “ideal mom” that we as mothers feel like we need to live up to is unrealistic.
“When you think about this, like who an ideal mom is, she is absolutely a mythical figure, like always warm and available and wise and patient and competent and able to remember everything, and on top of everything — that person does not exist,” said Hunter.
Photo courtesy Erin Hunter
Canton mom Tiffany Daniel, who works for Apparatus Solutions, said when the schools first shut down for what was supposed to be three weeks back in March, she looked forward to spending more time with her two sons, but then came the balancing act of working from home and virtual learning.
“I felt that struggle … it’s funny because you're home all the time now, but I find that I am still struggling with work-life balance,” said Daniel.
Photo courtesy Tiffany Daniel
Abeer Mansour, major enterprise projects control specialist at DTE Energy and mom of two, said it’s also been a challenging year for both her and her husband, learning to navigate working-from-home life and their children’s virtual instruction.
“We have a lot of meetings, like one after the other, and having two kids working from home a lot of times we're in the middle of the meetings and now all of a sudden I hear somebody open the door, ‘mom, I lost connections, what do I do?!’” said Mansour.
Daniel said when her kids first started virtual learning, there wasn’t much live instruction to keep them engaged and focused — so in order to help be there for the chaos, she started rearranging her work schedule.
“I know I would wake up really early and start doing work and that way I had the middle of the day to help them with school and then I would go back to work,” she said.
Photo courtesy Tiffany Daniel
Mahnke said trying to help teach her 8-year-old daughter, who she said started exhibiting signs of ADHD prior to the pandemic, and her 11-year-old son who has autism and ADHD was mentally draining.
“I just started losing my mind,” she said.
Photo courtesy Vicky Mahnke
Mahnke said she also struggles with depression and it was hard not projecting her emotions onto her children during the stressful times.
“It's like a lot, so hard to talk about because there’s just so much to it, it's like a big pill to swallow, you know,” she said.
Hunter, who is also a mother of two kids, said she, too, has experienced low points.
“I have broken down into, like, all out ugly sobs more than once over the last year,” said Hunter. “And it's because it is in fact too much. It is overwhelming to our coping abilities. And that doesn't mean that we are weak, that doesn't mean that we're not doing a good job. It means we're actually paying attention to what's going on and it's going to get better.”
Mom Time on Hold
As the pandemic continued to turn things on its head throughout 2020 and now, even into 2021, some mothers are having a difficult time carving out moments for themselves.
When asked when the last thing Mahnke did for herself, she chuckled.
“That was December, I got a haircut,” she said.
Mansour also said she’s been throwing a lot of her energy into helping her children heal from some of the damage of the pandemic little by little.
“I'm not really thinking of doing anything to myself. My priority is now the kids,” she said.
Hunter said it’s important that mothers take some time for themselves. She analogizes it to the oxygen mask instructions on an airplane: put the mask on first before helping children get theirs on properly.
“Parents and particularly moms need to take care of themselves. And it's not like being selfish and saying, ‘I'm going to ignore everyone else's needs,’” Hunter said. “It’s saying, ‘I'm going to take care of my own, so that I have the resources to be able to take care of others and to support others.’”
She said the myth of women sacrificing themselves for the family that has permeated throughout society is problematic.
“That is absolutely detrimental to the family well-being, because parents — and this goes for moms and dads — we are only able to support the rest of our family with whatever resources we are holding in that moment,” she said.
Hunter recommends mothers take at least 5 minutes a day for themselves.
“I mean, ideally, it would kind of be more. But I also realize for some situations, it’s not that. Maybe it's, you know, going on a walk alone, maybe it’s just stepping outside for five minutes,” she said. “I think the other thing is really being compassionate to yourself and saying, … ‘it's OK to not be OK.’”
Beauty in the Chaos
Despite the tumultuous time the pandemic has brought for families around the world, it has also presented a unique opportunity for people to discover joy in unexpected ways.
Daniel said she’s grateful for the extra time she’s been able to spend with her kids at home. She said she and her husband tried to create memorable moments for the kids by transforming their basement into a “Chuck E. Cheese”-style gaming room or a big movie theater, doing scavenger hunts and throwing themselves a private Halloween party.
“As bad as it is, I am loving being home with my family. I’ve always had to work and now that I finally get this opportunity, I don’t want to waste it. I love being with them all of the time — not all of the time, but a good majority of the time,” she laughed.
Mansour said she, too, has enjoyed the working from home aspect and the slower life pace for a change. She said the pandemic has opened her eyes to a different way of looking at things.
Photo courtesy Abeer Mansour
“It was more relaxed, I would say, in a way like because there's no activities, there's nowhere to go. So it's kind of like … we were kind of more quiet,” she said.
Mansour’s children along with Mahnke’s children are now back to in-person learning, while Daniel is keeping her two boys in virtual for the rest of the year — decisions all parents are having to grapple with as in-person and virtual learning options are available.
Hunter said parents should give themselves grace and realize that there is no ideal answer in this pandemic.
“There is no set course as much in a pandemic and letting yourself lean into that and being kind to yourself,” she said. “I think even giving yourself the space to kind of realize that there probably isn't any there isn't one good answer. It's just kind of like, what are you going to choose and then just go with that and let it be.”
Mahnke said she knows everybody is dealing with their own burdens and she’s not sure what the future will bring.
“Maybe things won't just be normal again one day. I don't know if they will, I really don’t. That scares me. But on the other hand, it's just life, isn't it?”
And life is never picture perfect — whether during an ongoing pandemic or not — and that imperfection is perfectly OK said Hunter.
“I would just love to see people be going for genuine messiness and, you know, the messiness involved and being genuine versus an impossible perfection ideal,” she said. “There's a beauty in messiness, like there's contrast and richness that you don't get when there's perfection or the image because it never actually is.”
Photo courtesy Alexandra Bahou (Current status of this reporter's living room)