Waiting for a break: Being a working mom during COVID-19
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Being a mom is hard. Being a working mom is also hard.
Being a working mom when a global pandemic disrupts carefully designed schedules and an already precarious balancing act has — for many moms — presented greater challenges than ever before experienced.
No two families are alike, nor are any two sets of hurdles, stressors and systems of support.
As the pandemic hits the one-year milestone, the challenges have evolved, but by no means gone away.
“I think there’s a collective exhaustion for everybody,” said Julie Warnke, a mother of three and Spanish teacher at Steamboat Springs Middle School. “Spiritually, psychologically, workwise. We are all so tired of constantly living in this place of uncertainty and waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
The 10 moms surveyed for this story described already busy lives thrown into overdrive.
“It is our nature to take it all on,” said Erin Brosterhous, a mother of two and marketing entrepreneur. “I know I did at the beginning. My kids weren’t going to miss a lesson or do subpar school work, but I was spread too thin to manage it all.”
For Traci Hiatt, a mother of one who has worked full-time from home since the beginning of the pandemic, “Trying to be the best mom, the best wife, the best employee, and keep all the plates spinning has felt overwhelming at times.”
While the moms expressed appreciation for their partners and older kids pitching in, moms are more often than not the default for a multitude of motherhood tasks.
“Every day is a true dance — who has what Zoom meetings and when, who can drive a kiddo somewhere, what the day’s online schooling looks like, saying no to things we really want to say yes to, being OK with a messy house, cooking three full meals a day for everyone, umpteen dishwasher and laundry runs and taking solo walks around the block just to get some mind space and fresh air,” described Robin Hall, a mother of two boys who was starting her own business when the pandemic hit.
“It was really challenging to be teaching from home and also in charge of teaching my own children at home,” Warnke said of last spring, when schools shut down entirely for in-person learning.
Describing her own three children as “the circus,” Warnke jokes her online students “mostly tuned in to observe the chaos.”
In March 2020, Kathy Diemer, who owns Johnny B. Good’s Diner with her husband, Mike, had to lay off 33 employees. The couple, with two sons home from school at that time, completely restructured their business.
“All of a sudden we were doing takeout, delivery, groceries and curbside carry-out along with giving away meals to those who were really hit hard by unemployment,” she said. “I had to completely redesign our website and start online ordering. So while I helped my sons with remote school, I would run in and out of my office, work on my computer, run out and help with math, work on my computer, make snacks, work on my computer, change a load of laundry. … I just kept pedaling and tried not to think about how filled my days were. There was no time to worry about myself.”
Mothers described little or no time for self-care. Traditional social outlets also vanished.
“I became very isolated and separated from the activities and relationships that brought a lot of purpose into my life,” described Hiatt. “I had to shift my mindset to be grateful for my family’s health and this place we get to live.”
After about 10 months of completely neglecting myself, she said, Hiatt finally made the conscious choice to make herself a priority. She returned to her daily workouts, stretching, yoga, eating well and finding at least 10 minutes a day of alone, quiet time.
“I was drowning in all of the responsibilities of being mom and wife and employee, and forgot to take care of myself,” she said.
But nearly every mom surveyed also expressed deep gratitude — for dedicated partners who stepped up to help with child care and household tasks, for supportive employers, and for the benefits of being in a relatively small and close-knit community.
“I’m lucky to have a really supportive husband,” said Liz VandenHeuvel, supervisor of clinic office operations at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “I think we’ve eased up on having a super tidy house, as (the) pandemic helped us recognize there are more important things in life.”
Her husband, she said, has always figured out how to balance his work and child care if she’s needed for something at the hospital.
“We are really blessed that we were both able to keep our jobs, and both of our employers were flexible with us,” she said.
No matter how hard at times, Diemer insisted on keeping her optimism.
“The greatest challenges have been recognized and remedied by our fantastic community, at least for the diner,” Diemer said. “Quite literally, every time we helped someone out and thought it might leave us a little short, someone from our community would come in and give — donations, encouragement, prayers — I took them all and relished in the beauty of our community.”
Brosterhous took the opportunity to reevaluate priorities. “The quarantine life has reminded me of the importance of community and that it is our jobs, as individuals, to engage and do what we can to enhance our community as the whole.”
Those who had flexibility with work schedules and the ability to work from home acknowledged how much luckier they were than those without those luxuries.
However, that doesn’t mean it is easy to work from home while caring for young children, or work from home while supervising kids who are remote learning.
The ability of children to entertain themselves, to do school work independently and to comprehend why mom is home but not giving them the attention they want varies dramatically by age and by the individual child.
“Trying to engage in a virtual meeting while maintaining the safety of two young children isn’t sustainable. I felt like I was failing at both jobs, and that was really hard,” described VandenHeuvel.
“Initially, it was difficult for my children to understand that just because Mom was home, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t working,” said Lindsey Reznicek, a mother of two and communications specialist for UCHealth. “Setting boundaries helped. When the office door was closed, Mom was working and couldn’t be interrupted.”
And for moms of kids on the Steamboat schools’ hybrid schedule, the logistics of finding care for the remote learning days was brought up frequently as a significant obstacle.
“The biggest challenges have been the three different school schedules with hybrid learning,” said Sarah Clemmons, a mother of two who works in professional development at the hospital.
Once Warnke returned to the classroom last fall, she had to figure out how to find care for her own children for half the week. And despite having been very connected into the community for decades, it was really hard, she said, with the added-on requirements of keeping everyone healthy and safe and making sure they were accomplishing their school work.
While the balance of kids, work and a household amid a pandemic is enough stress for any mom, the additional layers of worry about potential negative impacts on children perhaps cuts the deepest.
When schools and day cares did reopen, there were heart-wrenching decisions to be made about whether it was safe.
“When you have a kiddo, you join a different club,” Hall said. “One full of responsibility, love, fear, respect, pride and hope. This pandemic has put all of that to the test, whether you are a working mom or a single dad.”
The major milestone of sending a child off to kindergarten looked a lot different for VandenHeuvel than she imagined.
“It was really tough sending my 5-year-old to her first year of school with all the mitigation protocols they needed to use,” she said. “When I read them for the first time, I burst into tears. I think it was over the part about removing any shared toys from the classroom. I felt like this whole wonderful kindergarten experience I’d imagined was being stolen from her.”
For Warnke, it was her 6-year-old she is most concerned about.
“I feel like the long-term effects academically on her are going to the be the greatest, and that makes are really sad. Kindergarten and first grade are such a critical time in terms of reading. My fear is she’s gotten behind in that area — because I was her teacher — and I cannot teach reading.”
Emily Gerde, a mother of two and holistic healer described how devastating it was for her 7-year-old son when he couldn’t play hockey.
“And my 1-year-old is not getting proper development because all he sees is masked faces so I wear a shield so he can properly develop his social and emotional skills,” she said.
“My kids rolled with the punches, as most kids do, but it wasn’t without tears on both sides, the kids and us adults,” Brosterhous said. “We all just want what is best for them and COVID has robbed them of some precious time that they need with their friends, extended family and their teachers.”
Hall lamented, “I truly feel the sorriest for our kiddos in this time. I apologize to my kids very often and tell them how sorry I am that they have had to grow up so fast and navigate all of this at such a young age.”
Despite all the juggling she’s been doing, Warnke said it isn’t the moms who are the true heroes.
“The true stars in all of this have been the kids,” she said. “Their resilience, grit and humor. I know things are not great for them right now. But in the end, this will have made them stronger and more adaptable. People always say kids are super resilient, but now we get to see that in real time. They are the true rock stars of the pandemic.”
The broader national implications of how the pandemic will impact gender roles, women in the workforce, and the decades spent fighting for equal wages and opportunities for women and working mothers remain to be seen.
Last September alone, 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce, four times more than men. There are many things about the Yampa Valley that differentiate this community from those national trends — though local comparable data is not at this time available.
Kara Stoller, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber, noted an ongoing effort to help employers better understand the challenges of child care in Routt County and to encourage employers to find ways to support working families. That may be a silver lining of the pandemic, Stoller said, in out of necessity providing parents with more flexible hours and the ability to work from home.
But Stoller also expressed in concern about how women who did leave the workforce re-engaging. And she warned against holding onto the notion that women can do both without more support.
“I think it’s a phenomenal opportunity for more flexibility to come into play,” she said. “But there are concerning mental health struggles happening because of the mindset that women can do it all. There needs to be some down time and mental breaks for parents.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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