Parenting in a Time of COVID

Next week marks the one-year anniversary of NIH shifting to maximum telework in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like employers and employees across the country, overnight we needed to adapt our entire enterprise and reinvent our jobs in the virtual workplace. Coincidentally, next week is also when with a deep breath and a big hug, I send my six year old back to school in person, masked up and excited to meet his 1st grade teacher in person for the first time. So it seems like a good time to reflect on what the past year has been like, juggling the demands of serving in the leadership of a government agency square in the middle of COVID response with the needs of two young children during this nationwide experiment in virtual schooling.

Over the past year, I have gotten expert at the hand-over-the-mouth side conversations with my kids while muted on videoconference. There are good days and there are bad days. Like when my already prone-to-anxiety fifth grader gets hysterical because there are technology glitches and is panicked he’s missed something. Or when my first grader breaks down into tears because he’s had to sit in front of a computer for hours and is confused by something being asked of him. Inevitably, these moments occur when I’m in the middle of a critical meeting. I’ve accidentally come off mute while in the middle of alternately yelling at and bribing my children to behave so I can just pay attention to this conversation. I long for five minutes to just pay sole attention to the work I am doing and not have to think about snack time or lunch options or whether trombone is starting to whether a Chromebook is charged. I struggle to feel smart and competent as either a mother or as a professional when the unrelenting demands of one are constantly competing with the other.

Much to the entertainment of my colleagues, I have found my six year old does best when I am working nearby, which means he is constantly in the background of my WebEx or Zoom – fidgeting, coloring, doing jumping jacks – as I try to provide intelligent advice on agency policy with a song about counting frogs in one ear. I have been caught frozen in moments of indecision, as my children come running up in hysterical tears for help with one thing or another, but I have an upcoming item on the agenda to speak to. And that’s the curated account – not delving into the darker moments when I break down in tears or lose my temper because I reached the limits of my emotional wherewithal and snap at my kids in a voice I barely recognize as my own. Or those days when I have trouble caring about what’s going on at work or just turn my children over to electronic devices for a moment of peace. I worry all the time that having my children continually visible in my workspace, demonstrating my constant state of distraction, will cause my (primarily older and male) colleagues to take me less seriously.

The media has offered extensive coverage of how truly difficult this balancing act has been, the disproportionate effect it is having on women or individuals whose jobs do not support telework, such as healthcare workers or front-line service providers, and the agonizing choice faced by many parents struggling with impossible dilemmas of keeping themselves or their loved ones safe from a deadly disease while trying to do what’s best for their child’s well-being and education. The wrench the pandemic has thrown into the everyday tension of work-life balance just doesn’t affect women, of course. In my own household, my husband has taken on more childcare responsibilities than ever, as the pandemic has increased my workload, and a recent Pew study seems to indicate this is happening all over the country1. But evidence has long shown that women bear a disproportionate burden of household and dependent care responsibilities2, and the early data on the negative impact of the pandemic on the productivity of women in science is truly alarming3. There is recognition across the biomedical enterprise that the long-term impact of the pandemic could entail a devastating setback for women and others with dependent care responsibilities, and there are a lot of discussions of strategies to minimize that risk.

In a world currently experiencing staggering loss of life and economic misfortune due to COVID-19, my challenges pale by comparison. My family has been able to stay safe, we are healthy, we are employed… and yet still it is a struggle. Even as it feels like hope is on the horizon, in the form of vaccine and falling hospitalization rates and opening of schools, we must recognize not just the toll the past year has taken on working women and parents, but also not lose sight of the bright light the pandemic has cast on this balancing act. The challenge of balancing work and caregiving doesn’t go away just because it isn’t visible on Zoom. We need to create an environment that feels safe for caregivers, particularly women, to talk about their real-world dilemmas and ask for help or just feel empathy from their peers, without feeling like revealing this diminishes us as professionals. I thought long and hard about writing such a personal blog post, but I worry that by not talking candidly and honestly about how difficult juggling this all is, I am serving as a bad role model. The working mom dilemma exists in the best of time, as author Amy Westfield describes it “We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.”

I am not going to end this blog post with a pithy solution that diminishes the complexity of the problem or suggests I personally have this all figured out. The next few years will undoubtedly be dominated by a “lessons learned” conversation about COVID 19, and I plan to use my seat at the table of scientific leadership to make sure we haven’t squandered a crisis for women in science.  I hope other leaders, both men and women, will do the same.




Posted by Dr. Carrie D. Wolinetz, March 8, 2021

Comments (16):

    Authentic and honest Carrie. Thanks for sharing! Something you said in another venue resonates – let’s not waste this crisis. This applies not only for science and public health but also rethinking work and family and the elusive balance (which in my view should be renamed to achieving joy or happiness – as balance implies evenness which isn’t attainable at least day to day).

    Thank you for your openness about your high and low points in facing the challenges of being a working parent during the pandemic.

    Thank you for sharing and bringing this issue to the attention of others. I started during the pandemic at NIH, with children in virtual learning, and I often think that my colleagues as you mentioned, will take me less seriously. I never got the chance to meet them in person and to build a relationship with the team. For the longest time, I didn’t feel part of the team. For that reason, I always have the burden to try to overperform and show that I am a valued member of the team, and that in itself, to overperform, adds more stress to my already stressed day. It then becomes a cycle which quickly burns me out. And for that reason, I can’t overperform – for my mental health and well-being. Instead, I need to have the grace to do my best each and every day.

    Thank you for keeping it real and sharing your highs and lows. Sharing is caring and I appreciate your honesty.

    Thank you so much for your honesty and for sharing. Even though my children are older, this really resonates. For many of us, the burdens of elder care have similar disproportionate impacts, especially as our older relatives and neighbors, the most vulnerable, have needed more help than ever. I have seen women across the board stepping up to this plate and adding this ball to their already complicated juggling act. I have not seen this highlighted in the media and in discussions about the need for help and support. Similarly, women disproportionately bear the burden of helping family, friends, and neighbors deal with loss. We have now reached the point where so many have experienced a personal loss. That emotional support of others takes a toll as well, even if we are not directly impacted.

    I had tears in my eyes while reading your amazing blog post here that so accurately describes what many of us are experiencing. Thank you for your courage to share such a personal story. I’m still pretending that I can work like I don’t have children and raise my kids like I don’t work. I’m almost encouraged to clear my calendar for the rest of the day, take leave and spend this half-day with my kids. Almost.

    Pretending that we’ve juggled everything with a smile doesn’t help us create a more supportive environment…telling your truth is meaningful leadership and helps us all feel less alone. Thanks for sharing this.

    Thanks for sharing. It’s helpful to know that I am not alone and that others have similar experiences and concerns.

    Thank you so much for this. I thought I was the only one that struggled to “feel smart and competent as either a mother or as a professional when the unrelenting demands of one are constantly competing with the other.” I have wanted to call my boss everyday and propose a demotion because of my dwindling confidence in myself as a professional. While I share your gratitude for the security of a steady paycheck and healthy family, I’m struggling so hard over the fear of going back to work.

    Couldn’t agree with you more. How does the world benefit from Having two parents working full time with grueling commutes and having to have kids in daycare 55+ hours a week! If we can spare the environment some emissions and folks some sanity, let’s do it!

    Jessica – I wanted to share my story with you because maybe, being home for a few years or taking a step back isn’t such a bad thing. I was home with my young children for several years. I had never imagined I would be a stay-at-home mom, but my 2nd child was unique and was miserable when I was not around. It was a completely different life and I loved it. I can’t say it was easy to come back and see how far my colleagues who stayed in the workforce had come, but I have some of the best memories of my life from my time home with my kids. There are plenty of people who could fill my role in the workplace, but I am the only mom my kids have. No one else can do that job. There were affordability choices (we stayed in a small condo, rarely ate out and took vacations close to home or with family members) but we made it work. And it was exhausting – child care is physically and mentally demanding in ways that are very different from work. I’ve been back in the workforce for 3 years. I love my job and still have that balance with the family. I did sacrifice my career, but I feel like what I gained was important. And I’m working in something completely new and different now. I don’t think this new pathway would have been open to me had I stayed in the workforce because I would have been too far along in a different career area. My kids would have been fine either way, but for me, it was an amazing experience. I’m not saying that everyone should do this or even consider it, but I wanted to share my story to let you know that there are women who make this choice and it turns out ok in the end. You and your family will be fine no matter what you and your family decide.

    I think it is incredibly important and helpful to had leaders like you share stories and experiences like this. I have started to feel that pursuing that leadership path is just not compatible with also being the mother and partner I would like to be, and you’ve given me a little more hope to not give up just yet.

    It’s such a candid and heart-felt blog post! As a man, the challenge of being a female professional and also a caregiver makes greater sense to me now! I’m glad you are able to cope! Stay strong!

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