Like all moms, I have slogged through the multidimensional burdens of the pandemic, putting to work the optimization tactics I wrote about in Minimalist Parenting and talk about weekly on the Edit Your Life podcast. And as a mom with a full-time job, I have also spent a considerable amount of time feeling utterly unraveled.
Yet I’m one of the lucky ones.
My kids are tech-savvy and — at present — not dealing with academic or social crises. My spouse is an actively engaged parent and supportive partner. But due to the nature of our careers (and his need to be in a physical out-of-home office), I now spend every weekday interrupted approximately every 40 minutes by my kids’ (completely opposite) schedules. I have taken countless Zoom meetings gesticulating to my kids or trying to assuage a frisky puppy out of frame. The majority of my work hours happen at my dining room table so I can function as command central for both immediate and remote caregiving (hello, sandwich generation), surrounded by the relentless clutter associated with everyone being home 24/7. My home office feels like a magical, blissfully spare, far away destination to which I need to buy a ticket and board a flight, even though it’s one staircase away.
This recent uninterrupted workday left me feeling calm for the first time in months; I was able to tackle many action items, yes, but the real gift was a relief from the cognitive drain of constant attention switching and interruption through the day. Fueled by a hunger for more calm, I inspected my calendar more closely. I realized that operating inside the standard business hours of a 40-hour workweek, I get a paltry 6.75 (17 percent) focused hours in my office. The number grows to 12.75 hours (32 percent) when I add the time I buy myself by starting my workday at 7 a.m.
No wonder I recently had a claustrophobic tantrum and walked out of my house so I could sit alone in my car in the dark for 30 minutes.
The pandemic’s burden on women has also been quantified nationally, and the data are dire. A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shared that employers cut 140,000 jobs in December 2020, and that women — specifically women of color —accounted for all of the job losses. Women lost 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000, and of women, Blacks and Latinas lost jobs while White women made significant gains.
Xochitl Oseguera, vice president of MamásConPoder.org (MomsRising’s Spanish-language initiatives and Latinx community) is seeing these numbers reflected in her community. “There’s no doubt that women across the country are struggling to juggle work and household chores along with caregiving and home-schooling responsibilities — it’s been incredibly difficult to give our kids the attention they need, while also bringing 110 percent to our jobs,” Oseguera says. “And it’s no surprise that Black and Latina women, who are losing their jobs and being pushed out of the workforce at astronomical rates, are bearing the brunt of this catastrophe. Many women of color are essential workers and work in industries that have been completely devastated by the pandemic, while others — in order to care for their kids — have had to make the difficult decision to leave their jobs altogether.”
I have heard so many people — especially moms — talk about how they are hitting the most massive of walls right now. Pandemic-related stressors have continued to burn for months on end, and many people just wanted it to be a typical start of a new year and feel permission to turn a new page on life. Yet here we remain, trying to survive a marathon where the finish line is a moving target dependent on many feet other than our own. And we were exhausted approximately 23 miles ago.
Having felt what is possible when my brain is allowed to operate in a state of sustained, quiet focus, I feel a renewed urgency for self-preservation. Here are five recommendations:
1. Identify concrete asks to give you degrees of freedom
Now is prime time to get over feeling bad about asking for help. Whether it’s asking your partner for the gift of time, giving your kids specific jobs to do around the house, or outsourcing errands (Shipt is my new best friend), implement changes to create degrees of freedom in your schedule.
2. Rethink your work hours
About eight years ago, I took a stand against working in the evenings and over the weekends, which is basically the opposite of what most entrepreneurs do. But after looking at the numbers, I clearly need to rethink things given the realities of this pandemic. I’ll still schedule emails to land over business hours (because I believe in client boundaries) but effective immediately, I’m going to prioritize three- to four-hour weekend work blocks at least once per weekend. Which, quite frankly, shouldn’t be hard to schedule right now, since we go nowhere.
3. Prioritize time for restorative and protective care
It may sound counterintuitive to recommend carving out time for something other than work when you are totally behind on work, but this time matters. Give yourself a minimum of 10 minutes a day to prioritize yourself, whether it’s chair yoga, a quick walk, non-doom-scrolling time, or something else.
4. Lean in to loving relationships
Right now — while we’re in survival mode — is not the ideal time to try to muddle through problems with complex relationships if you can avoid it. My GIF-laden text threads, Instagram voice memos, and phone/video calls with loved ones have reeled me in from the edge. Lean in to those relationships.
5. Stand up for working moms
There are so many ways to use your voice, and while a phone call to your representatives is among the most powerful, MomsRising makes five-second activism incredibly easy via digital petitions. Oseguera urges women to act now, and in her case, is fighting for the passage of President Biden’s covid plan. “This plan would make real investments in child care and paid family leave, while also giving us the financial relief that is so long overdue. It’s crucial that the Biden administration listens to moms and reflects our values and priorities.” Find your cause to help working women and do something.
The ability to focus for four hours twice in the same day should not be a unicorn. We have a ways to go in this pandemic, and if we’re going to make it out the other side, the time to prioritize your needs — and those of the collective mom village — is now.
Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist turned author, podcaster, and creative director. You can find her work at christinekoh.com and on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook at @drchristinekoh.