With the closing of day cares, schools, and offices, professional parents had to create work space at home and navigate working full time while parenting and overseeing virtual school.
Three ACES members — Steve Bien-Aimé, Kristen Lewandowski, and Katelyn Witt — share their pandemic experience, along with some tips.
Assistant professor of communication at Northern Kentucky University
My wife (and fellow ACES member), Alyssa Appelman, and I became new parents during the pandemic in 2020. We both teach classes and research. We taught primarily online for much of the 2020–21 school year and so we all spent a lot of time in the same house.
Freelance editor in Washington, D.C., with a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old
Since my oldest was born, I have worked three days a week and stayed home with my kids two days a week. I primarily work with nonprofits, and have a special interest in public health and medicine.
Copyediting client manager at J&JEditorial in Cary, North Carolina
In addition to my 2-year-old daughter, I live with my husband, two cats, and our Great Pyrenees pup.
Steve: Ha! Adjusting to life as a parent is challenging, especially during the COVID-19 era. I think something that was unexpected was keeping the extended family, namely grandparents, in the loop. We are utilizing the technology to make sure that we’re keeping Samuel connected to family hundreds of miles away, but it does take time and a concerted effort to do so.
Kristen: Our youngest was born in March 2020, so I spent the first part of the pandemic on maternity leave with both kids. Once day care reopened, we still weren’t comfortable sending the baby, so I squeezed work in during morning and evening hours and nap times, and also turned down some freelance projects. We have also kept the kids home for a month or two during each COVID case surge, and I’ve been their primary caregiver during those periods.
Katelyn: I actually received a promotion shortly after the shutdown happened, so my responsibilities changed pretty drastically. I went from being a senior copy editor on a few scientific journals to being a client manager for one of our departments. This came with a lot of added responsibilities. The pandemic brought about 100% remote work for our company, so we had to figure out how to manage employees and maintain the quality of our work, training practices, strong company culture, etc., all online.
Steve: Sleep and taking care of yourself suddenly took a backseat to taking care of a newborn. Now as a toddler, Samuel is more mobile and independent, which in some ways makes things easier and in other ways becomes more difficult.
Kristen: For six particularly rough weeks during a recent COVID surge, my husband and I split childcare and work on an almost hourly basis: I worked 8–9, 12–2, and 4–5, and took care of the kids from 9–12 and 2–4. I’d then work for a few hours after the kids went to bed. I used to be someone who would take on any project or find a way to make almost any deadline work, but parenting during the pandemic forced me to adjust my expectations for what is reasonable to do in a day.
Katelyn: The biggest challenge for me was setting healthy boundaries between my work and home life. When the physical space became the same, they began to blur together.
The working-parent struggle definitely isn’t new—being at work thinking about your child and feeling distracted and then being home with them thinking about work. So, basically, feeling guilty 100% of the time. But this is so much harder when you are working and can actually hear your child laughing and playing in the other room. Likewise, because my computer was always within reach, I found myself often feeling anxious about all the work I needed to get done, and I had trouble shutting off work mode to relax and enjoy time with my family.
Steve: I’m still working that part out. LOL. The biggest thing is to try to limit the working hours to ensure consistent time for us to be together as a family of three, and time to catch up with my wife when Samuel goes to bed. Though the entire household falling asleep at 9 p.m. is a common reality here.
Kristen: I am lucky that my schedule never goes above 30 hours per week, so even with the toughest crunches, I was able to work in the mornings or evenings and keep my weekends free for down time.
Katelyn: Finding time for yourself is really difficult! I usually take advantage of my daughter’s nap time and try to align that with a break for myself. Everything is quiet, and I step away from my computer for a bit to eat and do something I enjoy. I’ve found that this hour makes me feel recharged and more able to tackle the rest of the day.
Another thing I do is take our dog for a short run or walk when my husband gets home from work in the evening. I love this half hour to myself! I’ll listen to music or a podcast, move my body after sitting in front of a computer, and get some fresh air. It also serves as a way to mark the end of the day and transition into winding down with my family for the night.
Steve: I thought our lives were structured. Now with a kid, we have to be extremely intentional about how we spend our time. We also have a much better understanding of being flexible when a new meeting comes up or someone gets sick. We have to build in more lag time for various endeavors. Also, scaling back work or spreading out assignments over a longer time period is a continued work in progress.
Kristen: Now that COVID case numbers are down, both of my kids are back in part-time day care, and I am able to work more normally again (barring the constant sick days with my youngest while we try to figure out what is a cold and what is potentially COVID).
Katelyn: Way earlier mornings and a lot more time at home! As a new parent, my days certainly don’t belong to me the way they used to. Oddly enough, I have much more of a structure to my day now. Having a routine somehow helps me maintain a sense of normal with all of the changes going on.
Steve: A great pair of headphones is a must! Tuning out “Sesame Street” or “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” would be difficult without quality headphones. Scheduling is key. Back-to-back meetings can work if someone else is watching your child. If you’re doing the primary caregiving that particular day, short meetings are best, because you can entertain an older kid with a PBS show or YouTube for 15 minutes. Then you can engage with your child while clearing your head. Be patient. Your child/children will figure out how to make themselves seen or heard during work calls. Embrace it. It will happen.
Follow the Golden Rule. If you’re asking folks to be patient with your family situation, then provide the same to your clients/colleagues/students. We’re all doing the best we can. The world needs a little more kindness.
Kristen: I communicate with clients almost exclusively via email, so this hasn’t been an issue for me.
Katelyn: I’m really fortunate in that I have a nanny who comes to help a few days a week as well as a separate room that I can close myself in during calls. When I’ve had to juggle work and the baby at the same time, I usually approach video calls with colleagues with total honesty. I’ll let them know that I have my little one with me and she may make an appearance. I’ve found that everyone has been genuinely understanding and flexible, and a lot of the time, they appreciate a cute little distraction and a peek into our nonwork selves. I’m also not ashamed to say I’ve relied on an episode of “Cocomelon” here and there to get me through a work call!
Steve: “Cocomelon” on YouTube has great content for kids. PBS programming is tremendous, too. Something else that has become helpful is rebudgeting to see how we could reallocate resources in order to create more time for work, sleep, or family time. For example, cutting back on some things allowed us to order groceries remotely from time to time. Saving two to three hours a week doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re scraping to find time, those hours are huge!
Kristen: When we’ve needed to lean on screen time, I’ve been grateful for “Cosmic Yoga,” “Story Time from Space,” Kanopy, and a rotating series of YouTube concert performances, along with some PBS Kids favorites. I also share an office with my husband, and between hearing his calls and hearing the kids downstairs, my noise-canceling headphones and Headspace soundscapes have really helped me stay focused.
Katelyn: Our nanny who comes a few days a week is my biggest resource—it wouldn’t be possible without her. For a while, my husband and I alternated childcare and work, splitting our days the best we could, but this got more and more difficult as my daughter got older and resulted in a lot of late nights working for me. We decided a nanny would be the best option for us in order to get the help we needed but still keep our circle small. Having someone that we could trust to help out ended up being essential for us to get any work done and still maintain some sanity.
Steve: You’re doing the best you can. No one is perfect and no two parenting experiences are the same. Be true to yourself and your values. Understand what works for you and your household and don’t feel pressured to do what you think society says you’re supposed to do.
Kristen: As a self-employed person, I’ve learned that it’s crucial to set firm work boundaries, especially with myself. I’ve also relied on the mantra “you can’t be here if you’re there,” which reminds me to try to be present when working or taking care of my kids to avoid being terrible at both.
Katelyn: If at all possible, I would definitely recommend having a designated space just for work so that you can “leave” this space and make the mental transition to home life/childcare.
Reminding myself that we are all adjusting to this “new normal” together. Remembering that and recognizing that we’re all doing the best we can has been a really effective mindset for me to maintain.
Finally, I try to imagine the alternative—going to the office every day and not seeing my daughter as often. As much as I need my space sometimes, I know that I would rather have the ability to take a short break and see her face, have lunch with her, and be there to snuggle her to sleep in the afternoon.
There’s no doubt we’re in uncharted territory as parents, and there are a lot of really hard days made harder by the situation we’re in, but it has ultimately resulted in time with my daughter that I may have ordinarily missed out on, and for that, I consider myself lucky.
Of course, these stories do not encompass the situation of all members, such as single parents or those taking care of their elderly parents. If you have a story to tell, we want to hear from you. Email email@example.com to learn more.
This article was originally shared in ACES quarterly journal, Tracking Changes Winter 2022.