Parents: The Unsung Warriors of the Pandemic

Each person has a unique perspective and experience having gone through a pandemic these last 9 months. We’ve expressed gratitude as a nation for the medical staff faced with an unprecedented amount of incoming patients, while not having the proper protective equipment back in the early months of the chaos. We’ve hailed the many essential grocery store, sanitation, janitorial, and dedicated blue collar workers who do not have the option of working from home. We’ve seen outpourings of love for teachers, of which many are entangled with mixed or delayed messaging from their districts on how to execute an array of different learning models: hybrid, remote, or in-person. So let us, at long last, shine a light on the parents. This group has been bearing the burden of this pandemic from every possible direction. This considerably large chunk of the population is exhausted, extended financially, and wondering how much longer life will feel like Groundhog Day.

As a working parent myself of two boys ages 7 and 11, I not only began to experience the mental and emotional load of this pandemic back in April when the realization struck that no one was going back to normalcy anytime soon, but I began to see what other peers of mine were experiencing, and the view was eye opening. Fast forward to this month, November, and the wear and tear of these last 9 months can be felt in the air by a knowing look.

After listening to many other parents in neighboring towns of my own, all within Connecticut, I began to unravel a common theme. Trying to juggle working while parenting, teaching their children, managing the increased housework load, trying to police fun screen-time and necessary screen-time, while delicately navigating the mental health of their families, leaves no time or energy for mom or dad. It’s scary to think of what more months or another year of this could lead to for some. The overwhelming consensus is it’s simply not sustainable.

Chris lives in Fairfield County with his wife, Paola, and their two children, ages 9 and 4. He works in experiential marketing and is in and out of the home depending on his appointments. Paola is a freelance consultant in addition to working for a design boutique. They try to tag team watching the kids, since they both utilize what is now their home office space.Their 9 year old is in a hybrid model at school where he’s only in for 2.5 hours a day. Their 4 year old goes to school full time at a local Catholic school.

“We can’t hide from our children and we don’t want to throw them on a device.” When asked what he does when he or his wife has to get on a client call,

Chris says, “We end up locking ourselves in a room while the other one manages one or both kids.”

Chris shares the hardest part has been, “managing work, being a parent, running a household, basically being a teacher’s assistant. It’s organized chaos, and I don’t really ever know what day it is.”

In an effort to try to implement change, Chris has been active in trying to push his son’s public school to open full time.His son’s quality of education has begun to plummet as well, he shares. They’ve also taken to looking at spending the money to rent an office space in order to take turns working. They feel they cannot continue trying to work in the home with their kids.

Some families find lack of a schedule and the financial piece to be bookend stressors. Tayla’s family is in this exact scenario. Tayla is a nurse practitioner at a school about an hour away from home with traffic, and her husband,John, is an electrician. Each of their jobs require them to be out of the home for long stretches of time, 5 days a week. They have an 8 and 6 year old in the public school system and currently both are participating in a 2.5 hour hybrid school day. Due to John being out of the house by 6:30 a.m., and Tayla leaving at 7:30 a.m.,they are paying $200 a month for morning childcare at the school. Sometimes they can lean on John’s mom, but not often. Once the hybrid school day portion is over, their children are bussed to a local facility where it is a blend of remote learning and childcare for the remainder of the afternoon. This is an added cost as well of roughly $400 a week.

“The hardest part that hit us from this pandemic is the financial piece. Paying for childcare because our kids are only in school for 2.5 hours a day was an unexpected and unbudgeted expense.”

Their 6 year old son had a hard time adjusting to the remote learning model at the after care facility.

“I’d get home and log onto their Google classrooms to make sure the work was getting done and would notice his work was not turned in. I’d have emails from the teacher that stuff was missing.” Tayla says, which added one more layer of stress on top of finding out what she was paying for wasn’t necessarily working out. Tayla and John have been strongly considering sending their son to a local Catholic private school as a result of the remote model not working for him.There he would be in school full-time.

“The one downside to sending him to a private school is that means I’m dealing with 3 different districts: the one I work in, the one my daughter is in, and the one my son would be in. So the schedule is going to be crazy with different days off, start and end times, school breaks,etc. But I’ll have to make it work because we just can’t keep going like this. We need to look into something else.”

Tayla fears that once they switch their son to the Catholic school,the state will mandate a shutdown of schools again, and they’ll have just paid thousands of dollars just to go back to the remote learning scenario. Knowing this could happen is giving her pause. The heaviness of making yet another big decision for their family this year is weighing on them both.

Jennifer, another mom with sons in hybrid learning, is switching one of her two sons to private school this week. She says, “A big part of the problem is the amount of information being thrown at parents that is changing every day. We’re expected to quickly absorb it and adjust our lives while already being in a heightened state of stress. It just adds to the heavy burden we all feel.”

Patching work, childcare, and school schedules together is difficult in and of itself while trying to stay healthy, so what about the other non-COVID health issues that came to the surface unexpectedly for some?

Take for example Paula, who has two jobs and three children. She and her husband, Patrick, own a restaurant, and she also does bookkeeping for a tent and party supply rental company. Their two sons, ages 9 and 7, are in the hybrid school model in the afternoon and go to a friend’s home for the remote learning portion in the morning.

Paula works six days a week averaging about 11 hours a day of work. Patrick works seven days a week running the restaurant. While having found somewhat of a rhythm with their kids’ set up, Paula began having searing knee pain. She went to the doctor and found out it was a meniscus tear, which would require surgery. A few days later she had the surgery. When Paula went to pick up her discharge paperwork, the nurse told her it was a four week recovery that had to be non-weight bearing. This was not the recovery time Paula had expected.

“I totally freaked. How was I going to manage my busy work schedule, the kids, and a household being unable to walk for four weeks?”

On top of already being somewhat isolated throughout the pandemic, this really exacerbated the feeling of being stuck inside. Additionally, Paula and Patrick have felt perpetual pressure, having to make sure their restaurant is staying afloat with newly added restrictions.

Paula shares that their 22 year old daughter ended up bearing the brunt of it.

“She had to cook, handle the housework, work at the restaurant, go to school, and help me with the boys. She was a Godsend. I don’t know what I would have done without her.”

Managing their young sons’ schedules, her working hours, the restaurant, and being incapacitated for four weeks, Paula’s family now have the looming possibility of another restaurant shutdown.Paula laments, “We’re counting on the government to help us survive if there’s another shutdown. I don’t know how we’ll get through it otherwise.”

Along those same lines, how about the people who were in the throes of significant personal obstacles just before the pandemic arrived?

Annie is one of these people. She is a single mom to an 8 year old daughter who luckily returned to full-time in-person learning at the start of this school year. Annie has been jobless for a year and a half.She and her husband began the process of a divorce over two years ago, and then just a few months later, her mother had a stroke.

While trying to sell their house and still sort out the next steps of their divorce, Annie has had to shuttle between Connecticut and Alabama to care for her mother. “I’m part of the sandwich generation: I have a mom down in Alabama who needs me around, but I need to be here at home for my little girl too.”

Annie’s divorce proceedings and custody negotiations came to a halt when the legal system shut down in March. While Annie was fortunate enough to have been able to live off of her savings from her twenties, along with the profits from the sale of her home, and some personal loans from family, she cannot imagine what she would have done if she did not have savings. At this point, she is unsure on what steps to take based on what lies ahead. “There are 3 things that have been the hardest for me during this pandemic as a single parent. One is the uncertainty of the school situation, the second is the feeling of being stuck in my joblessness, and the third is surviving versus thriving both financially and mentally.”

Annie wonders what the next move should be for her career and family life, particularly with the uncertainty of more lockdowns on the horizon.

“If I get a new job and my daughter’s school switches to remote, how do I navigate that? It’s going to be a challenge, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do about it just yet.”

I asked how she is coping with such significant stressors in her life, in addition to all of the obstacles the pandemic presents, Annie says, “I’m practicing as much self care as I can right now. I’m getting outside more, before winter sets in, attending support groups and meditation classes via Zoom. However, the loneliness I feel as a newly single parent is ever-present and magnified without my family and friends nearby.”

When telling her mother the other day that she is trying to inject more self-care in her life, Annie’s mother asked, “What’s self-care?”

“This was significant to me in terms of how new this concept is to our society, especially for women. My mom ran a business and was always go-go-go while we were growing up. Taking time for yourself to rest was not a thing nor was it modeled for our generation.”

Annie makes a great point above. Without time for self care, there is no break. Of the very few hours parents are in their home alone, they are likely out running errands or racing to finish their work in an abbreviated amount of time. This is a recipe for exhaustion, which can wreak havoc on the nervous system. Some parents are left with only one day off a week. So what does this mean for the parents where English is a second language, for which many have four jobs between the mom and dad? The truth is striking.

Meire is part of this ESL demographic. She is from Brazil and speaks better English than most of her peers here in the U.S she says. She was a teacher in Brazil, which is what she attributes to giving her a better grasp of the language. She has two sons, ages 17 and 11, both in the hybrid learning model at school. Meire works as a house cleaner from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then she has a small gap to come home to make dinner, before heading to her night job cleaning an office building from 7:30 p.m. -11 p.m. Her husband owns a hardwood flooring business, which has slowed to a halt with the pandemic. He works at a tree services company in the meantime and is out of the home almost every day. Neither one of them can help their boys with school as a result of the language barrier and their schedules.

“We hired my cousin, who recently graduated from high school, and is taking a year off from college because of COVID-19. She comes 3 days a week, and we pay her $50 a day for 4 hours of her time helping the boys. I’m making this financial sacrifice because there is no other way for my sons to learn. We cannot help them.” Meire also explains that some of her clients have told her they cannot use her services anymore due to all of their disposable income going towards tutors, sitters, and nannies to help their own children with school.

“I told those clients I would still help them for a discounted price.There is one client that I am helping who has a health issue and cannot move around well. I go to her home and help clean for a discount, because I don’t know what she would do if I didn’t.”

Meire says her only day off is Sunday, and it’s no longer a day off at all. Instead it is her day to clean her own house, go to the supermarket, and prepare for the long week ahead.

Meire’s friends are suffering much worse, she shares. Since they cannot read or understand English, they are unable to help their children with schoolwork or with getting logged on to the Google classroom. “These parents have pooled their money to hire one person to help teach all of their children in one home. It is the only option they have for their children’s education right now.”

Meire knows it’s more expensive to live in this area of Connecticut. In fact, she works hard to live here, ironically, to get them a good education in the public school system. She says she’s trying not to give up on the education system and move somewhere more affordable just yet.

“Everyone is losing here. Not just Latino families like ours, everyone.”

Just as Meire mentions above, every situation is uniquely hindered by this pandemic. Parents’ employment and productivity, as well as their children’s education and livelihood are at the mercy of each school district. People’s businesses have gone under, meanwhile bills still need to be paid. Some families are mourning the loss of loved ones who succumbed to the virus, but are unable to have closure due to funeral restrictions. Others are having to take on an unbalanced share of responsibility in the the home, as a result of being the parent able to work from home. Each new day presents a fresh set of problems to solve, and it makes you wonder how much longer parents can exist in fight or flight mode… with nowhere to fly to. It is a fight to the finish with no finish line in sight. This is precisely why parents are the unsung warriors of this pandemic.We’re on the battlefield every morning with our weapons drawn to fight through the day in one hand, all the while holding our white flag of surrender in the other. So the burning question is…when will it end?

Learning & unlearning on this parenthood journey. Do-er, mom, kitchen dancer. Always listen to the storytellers.

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