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.
Grocery shopper/gig worker and mother of four in Maryland
Over the holidays, months before the virus took hold across the United States, Nina Makel installed cameras around her apartment so that when she was out working she’d be able to look in on her four kids.
Lately, she’s logging 60-hour weeks as a contract worker who shops for other people’s groceries via Amazon Fresh and Instacart.
“I found myself at the job more than being at home,” the 32-year-old says. “It went crazy.”
She’s earning more money than she has during her two previous years doing gig work, but she also has to be away from her children — ages 4 to 12 — as they’ve adjusted to life without school.
“You can’t not worry as a mom. ‘Are the kids okay? What’s going on? Let me check in on them,’ ” says Makel, who lives in Silver Spring. “But you’ve got to be able to check in on them and still be able to do your job. It’s a lot.”
Her network of cameras is proving essential. She can use her phone to watch the kids do schoolwork at the table, play video games in the living room and eat dinner in the kitchen. She speaks to her crew through the cameras, reminding them to clean up after themselves.
Makel’s husband, a Montgomery County bus driver, is home with pay, so he has taken the lead in helping the kids keep up with school and process all the changes in their lives. “He does one-on-one with them. With this going on, it’s a mental thing, too,” Makel says. “He’s sitting down, talking to them, seeing where their head is.”
These days, Makel is often gone by 7 a.m. and not home until after 7 or 8 at night. She has taught her kids how to vacuum, do dishes and take out the trash so she doesn’t come home to a mess. (“I will not go to sleep with dishes in my sink,” she says. “I can’t.”) But Makel still does the family’s laundry and wakes as early as 5 to make the day’s meals in advance. She’s also the main contact for the kids’ teachers, which means she gets the notification if someone doesn’t hand in an assignment on time. And if one of her kids has an especially early online class, she leaves the house phone on their pillow before going to work so she can call to make sure they’re up.
When she finally arrives home, she takes off and disinfects everything she has worn. Sometimes she’s exasperated by rude customers she encounters on the job, but she tries to leave that at the door, too. This way, for the few hours she’s home and awake, she can focus on being with her family.
“Because,” she explains, “They see less of me now.”
Makel knows there are a lot of ways to take care of your kids, even when you’re not at home.
“I don’t have to go stand in a line for help from the government,” Makel says. “I’m able to provide for them.”
U.S. senator from Illinois and mom of two
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.’ ”
Pulmonary nurse and mother of three in New Jersey
When Julie Farrell graduated from nursing school in December, she clearly envisioned her family’s future: She would work a few night shifts each week, sleep during the day while her husband was at work and their children were at school, then spend time with her family in the evenings. The 34-year-old, who left a career in marketing to study nursing, would finally be doing the work she’d dreamed of since she was awed by the nurses who cared for her twin daughters after their birth four years ago.
Farrell’s first day as a pulmonary nurse at St. Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey was March 2, when the confirmed number of coronavirus cases in the United States topped 100. During her second week on the job, covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, and the routine she had once imagined came undone: Farrell’s husband, a scientist at a pharmaceutical company, began working from home. Schools closed, and suddenly the couple were juggling work with caring for their 5-year-old son and the twins.
“When I get home, my kids have just woken up, and they’re ready for the day,” Farrell says, “but I’m not exactly ready for their day.” Before she greets her family, she heads to the basement, where she puts her scrubs, hair covering and shoes into the washing machine, then takes a shower. She stays awake long enough to help the kids with breakfast and set up her son with his online class materials before she goes to bed at 10 or 11 a.m.
From the beginning, Farrell wore protective gear at work, followed safety protocols, stayed home when she wasn’t working — but in late March, she experienced a mild headache, which quickly grew severe, accompanied by a low-grade fever. Three days later, the symptoms vanished, Farrell says, and though she was tested for the coronavirus, she felt fully recovered by the time she learned that her results were positive.
She never isolated from her family at home: “I felt like if I was going to give it to them, I probably already did,” she says. Her husband and children have not shown symptoms of the illness.
She was cleared to return to work in early April and now spends three nights a week at the hospital, from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m., tending to covid-19 patients.
Farrell feels lucky; her brush with the virus was minor, and her husband has been a dedicated partner and parent. (“He really hasn’t had a break at all,” she says.) But the luckiest feeling of all, she says, is that she is working as a nurse at this moment in history.
“So many nurses go almost their entire careers and never see anything like this, and I’m seeing it on Week 2,” she says. “I feel like I’m definitely helping people, so every day has felt like, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing what I set out to do.’ ”
Her work is demanding, and home life can be hectic, but Farrell wants to hold onto that sense of perspective. Going forward, she says, “I just want to always look for the good.” She hopes her children will do the same.
“My son learned to ride a bike last weekend, and I hope, years from now, if he remembers this time — I hope he doesn’t think, ‘That’s when we were in a pandemic and Mom was helping all those people who were really, really sick,’ ” Farrell says. “What I hope he remembers is that bike ride.”
Social media influencer and mom of three, sheltering in the Midwest
Most days, Ashley Chea feels her husband’s job is more important than hers, but this wasn’t one of those days.
Chea, a 35-year-old “momfluencer” with 48,000 Instagram followers, earns her income via social media partnerships. Her husband has the regular corporate gig. She stays home with the couple’s three daughters and fits her work in where she can. His job is stable, predictable. Hers is less so.
But on this day, her job took precedence. A popular car seat company had hired her to shoot what amounted to a mini-commercial starring her two toddlers. Pre-quarantine, it wouldn’t have been a thing, but imagine being a 3-year-old trapped in the house for days getting all dressed up to go nowhere.
“I’m putting them in a car, and I’m taking them out, and they were getting pissed. How do you explain to a 3-year-old I’m doing this for content? ‘You’re going in and out until I get this shot,’ ” says Chea, who has been earning money as a social media influencer for six years. It took two naps and 14 tries. She had to edit the video and submit it for review. She almost felt bad about unloading the kids on her husband. Almost.
She remembered thinking about how they needed that paycheck before climbing the stairs to her makeshift home office and tossing these words at her husband: “I have a job toooooooo.”
By the look of things on her Instagram feed, Chea is winning the quarantine game. Back in February, she and her entire brood decided to relocate temporarily from Los Angeles to their hometown of Columbus, Ohio, to ride out the pandemic with Chea’s mom.
So there Chea is on Instagram painting the back steps of her mother’s home a trendy black while her 11-year-old daughter helps (presumably without complaint). Scroll down, and there are Chea’s two youngest (the 3-year-old and one almost 2) smiling in a Radio Flyer wagon on a near cloudless afternoon. Is she one of those moms pushing sponsored content, beautiful children in pristine clothes and rainbow-colored daily home-schooling schedules?
“There are no days of the week anymore. It’s yesterday, today and tomorrow. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given them their iPads because I don’t care. For me, it’s about their mental health,” explains Chea. She has watched “Frozen” four times in one day. “I’m not about to argue with a 3-year-old.”
And about that perfect Radio Flyer day posted online? The next day, it snowed. The kids were stuck inside. Chea was on a tight deadline for a revision of a script she’s writing, her husband had his own work stuff, her oldest needed help with math, her mother had a headache, and the baby had a poop-filled diaper. Chea ended up in a closet in tears.
“That’s literally how it is every other day,” she says.
Business manager and mom of two in the San Francisco Bay area
It took a pandemic to show Wenlei Zhang how busy her family has been. Maybe too busy.
She’s a business manager for a large Silicon Valley firm. Her husband also works in the tech industry. They’re raising two high-achieving boys — Oliver in 11th grade and Aiden in eighth.
“We were usually out of the house at 8 sharp,” she says. “And then I sit in traffic for 45 minutes to get to work.”
Between the boys’ schoolwork and volunteer programs and the parents’ full-time jobs, it seemed like they didn’t see each other all that much. So when everything came to a halt, Zhang says, it “felt like a relief. Everything was so relaxed. It’s like we’re in this moment where we’re dancing and all of a sudden, the music stopped.”
At first, Zhang and her husband left their children to figure it out. The boys slept in, fed themselves breakfast and then did whatever it is teens do, while the parents worked from home.
Distance learning hadn’t started yet, and Zhang realized she had no idea what her boys were doing with their days, how long they were playing video games, how much time they were wasting.
“After the shelter-in-place started, we drifted into this no governance, no structure. It was nice for a while, but we had to pull back: What do we do? … What is the purpose?” she says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to teach our kids something, and this moment happened for a reason, and we have to get something out of it.”
Her husband decided, she says, that he needed to build in more time with the boys “because we were all so busy and apart, and now all of a sudden, we’re here.” So every afternoon from 4 to 5, her husband and the boys go running.
And Zhang saw an opportunity to give the boys responsibility beyond their household chores.
“I gave up on being Superwoman a long time ago. I don’t do everything. I make sure that in my household, everyone is equally busy,” she says. “I have my kids define their own structure. If I don’t see that in place, [I help them] find something meaningful to get going.”
So when parents with younger children at home had asked her whether Oliver could help teach their little ones, she sat him down and asked him what he thought his “social responsibility in all of this” was. Both of her boys volunteer with Silicon Valley Youth, an organization in which teens tutor their peers. After she told Oliver he needed to “do something,” he and other teens in the program created eight shelter-in-place classes. There, they’ve talked about the virus, the mask debate and even the issues related to President Trump saying “Chinese virus.”
Wenlei says she told her sons about an Asian American woman in her neighborhood who was yelled at when she was in line at the grocery store, accused of bringing the virus to the United States and told by a cashier to leave. The boys didn’t dwell on it, she says, but she knows it’s on their minds.
“I’m really only worrying about two things: whether we get sick and if my husband and I still have our jobs,” she says. “But at the same time, I’m much more grateful for everything around me. … I’m not religious, but I have to think maybe there’s a message God sends us that everyone should stop and slow down.”
Cafe and catering company owner and mother of one, decamped from New York to the Tampa Bay area
On March 1, Ayala Donchin, 50, celebrated her daughter Brooklyn’s fifth birthday with a huge “superhero princess” bash that she cooked up for 100 guests. A few days later, the catering company she spent a decade building was “gone, it was just gone.”
Here’s how Donchin, a single mother in Manhattan, described the first few weeks of the outbreak when the news grew scarier: Parents at her daughter’s private school started escaping to second homes; her independent 84-year-old mother was still going to Pilates; and every email Donchin opened was another client cancellation.
“It was like trying to put a Band-Aid on a geyser,” she says. The questions, the logistics, the panic and the problems wouldn’t let up.
“In this situation, literally nobody knows what … they’re doing. There’s no one to tell you, ‘Yes, this is the right way,’ ” says Donchin, who recently learned that her business, Evelyn’s Kitchen, didn’t make the cut for the first round of Cares Act funding.
So why is everyone looking to her like she’s supposed be the all-knowing wizard? Her employees, her child and her daughter’s father in New York have all been looking for direction.
For a while, the questions were endless. Should she head down to Florida temporarily to be with her mom? Stay in Manhattan and pivot Evelyn’s Kitchen somehow? Leave and close for good?
“I made the best decision for my family to be here,” Donchin says from a quiet room in her mother’s home. A place where Brooklyn can swim in a pool or ride a bike while Donchin runs the business with the help of Brooklyn’s father, who is handling day-to-day operations at the restaurant.
Still, the move — both literal and figurative — wasn’t without its bumps. The day of the reopening of Evelyn’s Kitchen — which amid the pandemic had shifted to a business model of providing large catered meals for first responders — was the day Donchin, who described herself as a “let’s-get-through-it person,” cried. All that pent-up pressure finally found a release.
Of course, she was happy to keep the lights on and her eight employees working, but that was also the first day Brooklyn, an only child whose world had just shrunk, was left to entertain herself for hours.
“I realized I was shortchanging her. She didn’t complain, but I felt horrible,” Donchin says. “I can’t be another person that’s not there for her. I’m all she has right now. … We communicate really transparently. I tell her, ‘Look, I’m going to be on the phone. Here’s three things you can do, but please, I need time.’ I feel like my kid has really seen who I am now, and thank God she still loves me.”
Nonprofit program director and mother of one in Georgia
Elizabeth Snarey has often thought about the passage of time, ever since her son Michael was born 11 years ago with a rare genetic disorder called Hunter syndrome and doctors said he was not likely to survive beyond 10. But time has taken on new meaning as the pandemic has reshaped their lives.
The 32-year-old single mom in Atlanta now works from home while caring for Michael, who was abruptly separated from his special-education program and his speech and occupational therapists.
Snarey was already accustomed to being Michael’s sole support, always on duty, a mother who has spent every cold and flu season worrying about what might happen if her medically fragile child got sick: “A common cold — that’s very dangerous for him,” she says. “His oxygen levels can drop, he can have difficulty breathing.”
Now they’re both adjusting to the absence of their previous routines. She’s still working as director of programs and family support at the Arc Georgia, an organization that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Michael has access to some online learning resources, but “it’s really difficult to deliver that to a child who can’t really navigate systems like that anyway,” Snarey says.
These days, Snarey works at the dining room table with Michael playing nearby so she can keep an eye on him when she joins conference calls. She spends her waking hours immersed in thoughts of covid-19. As a professional, she is working with other advocates to help people with disabilities navigate the pandemic. As a mom, she is determined to protect her severely immunocompromised son, mostly keeping him inside, the two of them alone except for visits from a nurse who delivers a weekly infusion to help combat his disease.
“Michael doesn’t really understand what’s going on, but he is not enjoying the isolation,” Snarey says. “He loves living life alongside others, and not being able to do that has definitely been tough.”
The weeks of uninterrupted time together can be challenging for both of them, Snarey says, but she finds she is often reminded of the qualities she cherishes most in Michael: his sense of humor, his cleverness, his desire to simply be near her. She is gradually learning to surrender her need for control, she says, letting go of the hard moments and unaccomplished tasks at the end of each day. “I think showing myself more grace and kindness,” she says, “has really been a result of this madness.”
Their days pass in a constant ebb and flow of stress and sweetness: There are afternoons when they go for walks or blow bubbles together on the small lawn outside their condo. There are nights when sleep is banished by anxious thoughts. There are regular visits from the nurse, whose arrival signals both life-supporting care and the constant threat of infection.
“I think that what this pandemic has done is just created every possible emotion all at once. I can be scared about the unknowns, I can be irritated about the balance that we’re all still expected to have between work and family, but also — when would I ever get this time back with Michael?” Snarey says. “I am extremely grateful for this time with him because I don’t know how much time he has, and I also don’t know if we will ever get to slow down like this again.”
Poet and mother of two in Ohio
Being at home right now while working and trying to educate and care for our children is not “working from home,” says poet Maggie Smith, 43. Trust her. She works from home. This is not that.
“This is sheltering during a global pandemic and trying to get work done,” she says. “In many cases, I need to remind myself of that.”
And so she tries to focus on the essentials and be more forgiving of herself than usual, as a single mother of Violet, 11, and Rhett, 7. When things aren’t working? They take a break. Maybe they have an ’80s dance party or a picnic on the carpet. The kids have taken to collaging, using her magazines. Go ahead, kids, if that means a few minutes for Mom to answer her emails — cut it all up.
This strange time has provided Smith, who lives in Bexley, Ohio, a potentially life-altering way of being.
“It’s actually made me a little more forgiving for myself and … forgiving of the time I need,” she says. “We feel a lot of guilt as working mothers, especially if we’re not attending to their needs every second of every day. That they’re going to feel ignored or think we care about our work more than them. And I think them watching me navigate this with them, I hope and trust that they know they’re the top priority. But I also can see that they get it. They’re like: ‘Go do your thing. We’re fine.’ Like, we’re all giving ourselves space to not be perfect and just do the best we can.”
Smith’s lectures and readings and workshops are canceled. The release of her upcoming book, “Keep Moving,” is delayed until October. She tries to use the days when her children are with their father, five minutes away, to work on bigger projects or schedule meetings, but it’s lonely and can be hard to focus. It used to be that those “stretches were glorious. I’d have coffee with a friend, go to happy hour. … It felt like a respite,” she says. “This doesn’t feel like that, and it’s because we’re sad, scared and isolated.”
When the kids are with her, instead of quiet time to edit and write, “we’re in these close quarters sharing too few devices to get their work done and my work done and we’re having to compromise.”
Her son told her this time is making him more independent. He doesn’t have Mom or teachers telling him what to do every second of the day, he told Smith, so he and Violet figure out things to do together. Both kids are doing more for themselves, Smith says.
Smith is finding bright spots like that everywhere, despite feeling isolated, and trying to hide her own sadness from her children. “What we thought of as ourselves, we can’t do right now. And it makes you realize how much of that is status and not self. And when all of that is stripped away … it helps you get to some essential stuff that maybe we don’t think about that often.”
First Fall by Maggie Smith
I’m your guide here. In the evening-dark
morning streets, I point and name.
Look, the sycamores, their mottled,
paint-by-number bark. Look, the leaves
rusting and crisping at the edges.
I walk through Schiller Park with you
on my chest. Stars smolder well
into daylight. Look, the pond, the ducks,
the dogs paddling after their prized sticks.
Fall is when the only things you know
because I’ve named them
begin to end. Soon I’ll have another
season to offer you: frost soft
on the window and a porthole
sighed there, ice sleeving the bare
gray branches. The first time you see
something die, you won’t know it might
come back. I’m desperate for you
to love the world because I brought you here.
Reprinted with permission from Tupelo Press
Edited by Krissah Thompson, Kendra Nichols and Alexa McMahon. Video: Taylor Turner. Video Graphics: Daron Taylor. Copy edited by Paula Kelso. Design by Beth Broadwater.