child jumping on furniture

“Good evening Park Elementary School families. This is Principal Kyle. I have been informed that…” 

Every phone call began the same. It was my son’s elementary school announcing another day off, this time due to a 30 percent chance of rain. Rain meant eating lunch indoors, a violation of school reopening guidelines. 

I have come to dread these calls. 

For working parents, every day is a day waiting for the other shoe to drop. Our local school board has announced reopening plans only to reverse them the night before school starts more times than I can count. Even brief reopenings are punctuated by urgent calls to pick up a child who displays even a hint of symptoms. 

In a recent interview with Rachel Martin on NPR, incoming Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said reopening schools involved more than just turning on the lights and unlocking the doors. (I know a lot of parents who would settle for that.)

“This is about recovering and making sure we’re providing that important social-emotional development and support that our students need after experiencing a trauma like we just faced,” he said. 

Trauma. When I heard him say this, my eyes filled with tears. 

It’s been a full year since my kids left school for what would become an early start to summer break and the end of public education as we knew it. The trauma for kids is evident. It’s taken a toll on parents, too.

That’s not news, as evidenced by the steady cadence of distressing articles by parents and about parents during the pandemic.

But the very reality that this isn’t news, should be news. Parents are still juggling two full-time jobs, one in their chosen profession and the other as a substitute teacher.

Last August, I began writing on this topic. For reasons that should be obvious by now, it has taken me months to finish the piece. Here’s what I’ve learned and why it matters.

It’s never quiet 

“There is never quiet in our house,” says Cristina, an accountant in the Bay Area who requested to use her first name only. “Sometimes the kids are in the other room doing jiu jitsu because they need to get out their energy. It’s hard, because they’re doing age appropriate child behavior.”

She oversees virtual school for her boys, setting up her laptop within earshot of their desks. Every few moments one of them interrupts with a question, breaking her train of thought. Even when her husband is available, mom is the default. 

All of this is happening while she closes out the fiscal year end for several clients. Some days she has to check her notes just to remember what occurred in a meeting the same day. 

“I feel like my brain is swiss cheese,” she says “I have no idea what information will stick and what will fall through the holes. We both feel like our working memory is deeply impaired.”

Cristina and her husband often stay up until past midnight to get a few moments of peace and quiet while the kids sleep. As a result, they both feel exhausted the next day. 

She wants people, especially those without kids, to understand that parents are under an inexplicable amount of stress right now. “Start with understanding that you don’t understand,” she says. 

Guilt is our life

Parent guilt was a thing before the pandemic. Now it’s prevalent. It’s basically the feeling that we’re not doing enough as a parent and that our kids will probably end up in therapy because we screwed things up. 

The pandemic amplifies this because we legitimately aren’t doing enough. We can’t. It took a village before. Now we’re on our own, and we can see our kids suffering. 

Jess Hobbs, Community and Events Coordinator for Vyond says she feels guilty about her inability to both parent well and do her job well. Her stress has jumped 10 fold since the start of the pandemic. 

“I stress that my kid gets too much screen time, and I feel that I need to use it to distract for important meetings. I can’t do my job to the extent that I would like to. I just don’t have the energy or bandwidth,” she says. 

“I’m in a constant state of trauma. I have no breaks and absolutely no time for myself. I am not doing well but also can’t fall apart.”

She says COVID shines a light on the inadequacies of our childcare system and the disproportionate weight on moms. 

“This was all happening before the pandemic,” she says. “But now we can’t hide it.”

This is hard on dads, too

“Many people don’t acknowledge the work fathers put in these days,” says Dan Bailey, President of WikiLawn Lawn Care. 

He wishes his childless colleagues understood that he is not just going to foist responsibility off on his wife to make a last-minute meeting with them when he’s getting my kids ready for bed.

“It isn’t her job. It’s a shared role between us and if it’s my turn to take care of the kids, I’m going to do it,” he says.   

James Shank, a talent management consultant with MassMutual concurs. “As a same-sex couple, our roles as parents are perhaps even less defined by traditional gender expectations than other couples,” he says. 

For him and his partner, the pandemic has required an ‘all hands on deck’ mentality to handle increased family demands while still being successful at work. 

We’re anxious about our careers 

Working parents also understandably fear that our inability to focus solely on our work and perform at the same level as our peers will cost us in terms of advancement, responsibility, and pay.  

“I’m so tired. I know I’m not doing my best,” Cristina says. She worries that competing priorities will compromise performance reviews for her and other working parents. Others who don’t have the same responsibilities are able to take on new projects and responsibilities and excel in their positions, she says.

For parents who take a leave of absence, the costs may be even higher. What happens when you return from leave to find that your position or workload has been redistributed to others? A growing number of moms are crying foul play and suing their employers for how they’ve handled the pandemic. 

We can’t go on for much longer

Science journalist and mother of two, Tara Haelle thrives in chaos. But after months of virtual school, parenting, and working through a global pandemic, she had reached a breaking point.

“I didn’t appreciate how hard the crash would be, or how long it would last, or how hard it would be to try to get back up over and over again, or what getting up even looked like,” she says, in an article published on Medium

“In those early months, I, along with most of the rest of the country, was using “surge capacity” to operate,” she says, drawing on the research of psychologist Ann Masten, PhD.

Surge capacity is the ability to expand capabilities in response to sudden or more prolonged demand. It’s a term borrowed from medicine and disaster response. But natural disasters occur quickly and then are over, even when recovery takes time. 

“Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely,” Haelle says. 

We didn’t choose this 

When most of us had kids, we anticipated paying a significant portion of our income toward child care for the first five years or taking a career pause to care for them. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel: free public education. 

“We went into this feeling like we were in an agreement,” says Amri Kibbler, co-founder and Chief Experience Officer at HeyMama

“Now all of the roles have completely been cast aside. All of our support systems and structures no longer exist and we’re all just trying to navigate that.” 

Nevertheless, COVID has changed the way we work, and for some parents that’s a good thing, Kibbler says. It has pulled the veil back on our lives as parents. Before the pandemic, we would shush our children, pushing them out of view of the camera. A child walking on camera was a viral sensation. Now it’s commonplace. 

“We no longer have to hide that we have children and that we need our assistance during the day,” she says. 

“I do hear from moms, it’s been a breath of fresh air that we’re able to actually admit that we’re parenting during the day and that this is something that deserves our attention.” 

The subtext here is that people are increasingly recognizing the tremendous workload that goes into parenting and the challenges this creates for working parents. The glimmer of hope is that this translates into a more equitable workplace in the future that recognizes our lives outside of work. 

For now, we’re not holding our breath. And we’re not answering our phones.