May 06, 2020

A working mom’s quarantine life

This Mother’s Day, eight women balancing careers and kids concede that thriving is out of reach. Surviving is enough.

Source: The Washington Post


Many American mothers experienced a profound shift in their lives — well beyond the mere loss of their routines — when the country began to grapple with the novel coronavirus two months ago.

The working moms lucky enough to have avoided the virus or recovered from it are juggling jobs and child care with an intensity that has never before existed. They are home-schooling while working. They’re preparing lunches while working. They’re policing screen time while working — and dealing with the waves of guilt, stress or resignation that come with not doing any of those things particularly well.

Tasks that had been outsourced to schools, grandparents, nannies and sitters are now falling squarely on parents and disproportionately on mothers. It is surreal for some of the women, who often found themselves feeling that their busy jobs kept them away from their children. Now, they are spending more time than ever with their kids — but this isn’t what they had in mind.

Even before school closures and stay-at-home orders were implemented, balance could feel tenuous for single moms and women married to men, who have traditionally spent less time caring for their children.

Although men have nearly tripled the amount of time they spend on child care since 1965 and the number of men who are stay-at-home fathers has doubled in the past 20 years, imbalances persist in what has been called the “invisible work” of parenting.

Women shoulder the planning, the organizing and the remembering of everything that needs to be remembered. The mental load that comes with that work has grown exponentially in recent weeks.

“We’ve been socialized for 200 years for women to take this load on without even talking about it,” said Stephanie Coontz, a historian of family studies. The pandemic “is really going to bring this to the fore more starkly than in the past because now there is so much more planning that has to be done.”

These are stressors for hourly wage employees and Silicon Valley suits, for entrepreneurs and health-care workers and for moms on Capitol Hill. In interviews, eight working mothers said they are looking for silver linings — a quick hug from a child before a conference call or the pride that comes with keeping a business afloat against tough odds.

But, as Mother’s Day approaches, most concede that thriving is out of reach. Surviving is enough.

Tammy Duckworth
U.S. senator from Illinois and mom of two

It’s so nice to see my kids all day long. It’s lovely. But also frustrating.

It is 9 a.m., and time for Tammy Duckworth’s 5-year-old daughter to wake up for the day. It’s also time for Duckworth to call in to a briefing with the secretary of defense. So the senator takes the opportunity to multitask: She receives the secretary’s briefing while sitting on the edge of her daughter’s bed so she can rouse her little sleeping beauty.

It’s multitasking all the time now. Most days, it’s that way for working moms, quarantine or no quarantine. But for a lawmaker who’s trying to help lead the government during a public health crisis while also suddenly teaching preschool lessons, the tasks can feel especially disparate.

“My schedule in many ways is more demanding and more full now than it was before,” says the 52-year-old Democrat, who is quarantining in the Northern Virginia suburbs. “Because before, there was a real separation. I leave here, and then I go to work, and there’s a work schedule.”

Now it’s just people asking her for things nonstop. Staffers sending texts asking her to squeeze in one more virtual meeting — “It’s almost like people say, ‘Oh, well, you’re just home telecommuting, let’s just add a conference call.’ ” — and daughters Maile, 2, and Abigail, 5, asking for snuggles, snacks and screen time.

Duckworth the senator is also the parent taking the lead in keeping up Abigail’s education. Her husband, Bryan Bowlsbey, works in cybersecurity and is in their basement wearing an earpiece, taking secure calls eight hours a day. But, Duckworth says: “I think most women end up doing the home-schooling. We’re sort of like the ones who make sure the kids take their vitamins and get their meals.”

Sitting at her kitchen table and surrounded by stacks of papers, old Easter baskets and nursery school workbooks, Duckworth recalls having grand plans at the start of the quarantine. “I thought: ‘Okay, we’re going to do worksheets, and then we’re going to do science experiments or baking. She’ll learn measures and all of that. And then we’re going to do some art, and then we’ll go out and do earth science.’ ”

Weeks later? “I’ve had to adjust my expectations,” says Duckworth, who wore a Zoom-ready leather jacket and pearls over a kid-stained T-shirt. “I’m lucky if I get her to do the worksheets.”

And she’s grappling with the guilt of what’s slipping. “I continue to feel very inadequate. Is she not going to be ready for kindergarten? Is that going to be my fault? All of those same self-doubts that we all have.”

Duckworth, an Army veteran who lost her legs during combat in the Iraq War, has help and is grateful for it. In addition to her husband, Duckworth’s 79-year-old mother and an au pair are isolating with the family and help share the load.

“The high point is when I get done with a conference call and I have 10 minutes before the next one and the 2-year-old comes up and she goes, ‘Mommy!’ And she gives me a hug and a kiss. I don’t get that during the day normally,” the senator says. “It’s so nice to see my kids all day long. It’s lovely. But also frustrating. ‘I love you. Kiss, kiss, kiss. Okay, the conference call is starting.’ ”

— E.M.

By:  Ellen McCarthy, Caitlin Gibson, Helena Andrews-Dyer, Amy Joyce