‘Mom, help help help help!’

Jessica Santos-Rojo, on working, teaching and parenting at home in the coronavirus crisis
Jessica Santos-Rojo, 35, at her home in Gilbert, Ariz., on Sept. 4. (Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post)

Everybody’s doing this, right? It’s normal. It’s basically what parenting is now. That’s what I keep telling myself whenever I’m hiding in bed for a few extra minutes and trying to get ready to face the day. It helps me to think about all the other families in the same situation. Otherwise, it can start to feel impossible, like this is all there is and this is the only house left in the world.

About this series
Voices from the Pandemic is an oral history of covid-19 and those affected.

We don’t leave here anymore. We’re on our own island and there’s no way out. Every school lesson for the kids, every bit of work I can somehow find time for, every meal, every chore, every activity, every thought or conversation — it all happens inside this house. My preschooler has his little desk out in the hallway where he does video lessons and sings his school songs. My fifth-grader, third-grader and kindergartner are set up with computers for virtual learning in the living room. The kitchen has been taken over by storage bins for school supplies. The dining area is for virtual P.E. I roam from desk to desk to help with their log-ins and passwords and all the other problems that come up. “Mama, I need help. Mom!” I’m trying to do my job so I can pay the bills. I’m trying to take college classes online at night to get myself into nursing school. How? When? Sometimes, I go into the bathroom for a few seconds so I can take a breath or send an email and lock the door.

This is our fourth week of virtual learning in Arizona. I guess you could say it’s been humbling. My kids are remote learning for at least the first quarter, and then the school is going to reevaluate. It’s the right decision. The virus numbers are still bad here. When the school made it official, I was like: “Okay. I’m a single mother. I’m used to juggling for my kids. I can handle this.” I manage a doctor’s office, and they told me I could work from home. The school emailed advice on how to prepare for distance learning, and I took it up to the next level. I printed daily schedules for each of the kids and posted it to their desks. I created a whole system of “Mama Bucks” as a reward to keep them motivated, so they could earn fake dollars for movie nights and treats if they had good behavior. I hung a poster on the kitchen wall with our class rules. “Be respectful.” “Raise your hand before talking.” “Do your best.” “Work hard and have fun.”

They’re good kids. They tried to follow all the rules, but they get sick of staring at a screen and they want to be with their friends. My oldest two boys deal with ADHD, and how many 4-year-olds are going to be totally self-sufficient? I was squeezing in five, six hours of work each day when I probably should have been sleeping, but I guess that was still too much. I started getting emails from their teachers. “Why is this assignment missing?” “Why wasn’t he signed into the video chat for math?” “Is there any way to offer them more support?”

I cut back my hours to part-time at the end of the first week, and lately they’ve been going down even more. I’ll be lucky if I can find 10 hours to work this week, and we could use the money. My boyfriend and I are spending through our savings. I barely make enough to cover my car and my phone, but what choice do I have? The kids come first. My boyfriend pitches in with them a lot and my mom helps whenever she can, but they need me. They need every piece of me at every minute.

The sons of 35-year-old Jessica Santos-Rojo, Keanu, 10, left, Kael, 5, middle right, and Kailen, 8, right, are in virtual classrooms at home. Kylian, 4, is a preschooler. (Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post)

Their password isn’t working. Their Chromebook is out of batteries. Their video feed went dead. They need me to give them another writing prompt. They want lunch. They want snacks. They can’t find a pencil. The pencil is broken. The pencil is too sharp. The eraser is the wrong color. They’re bored. They’re tired. They’re hungry. They’re whining. They’re fighting with me, and they’re fighting with each other. “Mom, why is he looking at me? Mom. MOM! Tell him to stop looking at me!”

Sometimes I’ll be talking on the phone to an insurance rep for work, but it’s an interruption every few minutes. The preschooler needs to nap, but instead he’s throwing a tantrum. He wants to go outside, but it’s 110 degrees, so it’s Disney Channel on a loop, and now I feel bad about that. My kindergartner is learning how to write his numbers and letters, so he needs everything. “Mama, help. Can you show me?” My fifth-grader is supposed to be writing an essay about negative political propaganda. “Huh? Mom, what do they even mean?” My third-grader wants help with his subtraction, so I’m trying to show him how to borrow the one, but it’s,“No. No! My teacher didn’t teach us that way.” So then he’s bouncing off the walls. He’s fast-forwarding through all his videos, getting up from his desk and telling me he’s done with all his schoolwork for the day. “What? How? It’s 10 in the morning. How can you possibly be done?”

I catch myself snapping and losing my temper sometimes, and I hate that. I went through my own issues with being picked apart and bullied at school, and I still have the emotional scars. I was the Mexican kid, the fat kid, four-eyes. It created all kinds of self-worth issues. I want so much better for my kids. I want them to know they’re special and precious. I should be able to do that, right? I adore them. None of this is their fault. I can be patient. I can be calm and kind. How hard should that be? I hold up my hand and I tell them I need a minute. I walk away and try to get some air, but their voices carry.

“Mom, now! Mama, please! Mom, help help help help help help!”

I can’t find a safe place to explode. When this is finally over, I’m going to drive to one of those places where you can pay money to smash and destroy things, because I could have a lot of fun with a sledgehammer right now. But how am I supposed to let it out? There’s never any time. There’s never the right space. I don’t want to snap at my boyfriend, because he’s doing everything he can and this whole thing has already taken its toll on our relationship. I tried talking to a few relatives, but they don’t have kids, so they don’t get it. They were like: “Is it that bad? Maybe you should go back to work.” Like I wouldn’t enjoy getting into my car and driving into the office right now, with my nice comfy chair and my personal coffee maker and a door I can close? Thank you. Thank you for that loving advice.

The best outlet I have is whenever my boyfriend watches the kids so I can go to the grocery store. He tells me, “Why don’t you do a big shop and get it all done at once?” But it’s like: “No. I want to go every day. I want someplace quiet without little hands tugging at me. It’s for my sanity.”

I swallow it. I keep it all down. I’ve learned how to hold back my emotions and internalize. My youngest was born at 30 weeks with major heart problems. He was teensy tiny, 2 pounds and 11 ounces, and he stayed in the NICU for 77 days. I would lose it in the waiting room all the time, but I never let him see me cry. I’d go into his room and sing to him, smile, tell him how proud I was. I showed him love and positivity, and believe that it helped. Isn’t that parenting? You take on the hard stuff and you try to give them the good.

But lately, the exhaustion and depression has started to come out sideways. I’ll catch myself in the shower when I’m finally alone, standing and crying under the water. I’ll stay there for a few minutes and let it out. How many more days? How much longer can life continue like this? But then I hear them calling, and I put myself together and come back out to help.

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