by Maggie Dyer Cusack
When life as we knew it changed, and schools, universities and daycares shut down “for 2 weeks” I like many moms transitioned into a work from home, daycare at home, stay at home role I never had any intention of living. “For 2 weeks”, I was to care for my three young children keeping them alive, fed and entertained while also working 3 days a week as a now “virtual” school-based SLP and teaching a now online course at a local university. I took crash courses to learn Zoom, learn effective virtual course management, and learn how to keep students engaged. I re-imagined final assignments, progress monitoring and my interpretation of “too much” screen time for little minds. As 2 weeks morphed into 2 months then schools and universities announced they'd be closing for the remainder of the year, I realized that my role as working professional mom was going to look very different from what I ever intended it to be. And so began what my husband and I now refer to as “my pandemic life”.
When I look back at the beginning, I am struck with the sadness and anger I felt to give up my identity as a working mom. I found myself asking why I had to be the one to stay home, to make a shift, to plead with managers and coworkers and other families to change schedules and meeting times. Why couldn't my husband stay at home? Why couldn't I go and hide in the upstairs office, why couldn't I go find a Starbucks parking lot or some other WiFi enabled refuge...and the truth is my husband tried to make it an equitable transformation. He tried to stay home; tried to navigate a world where we worked and lived and schooled and ate and played and tantrumed all together in less than 1500 sq ft. It lasted about a week, and he was on a call with someone in a foreign country, talking about distribution charts, and logistics models when our then 4 year old had the loudest, most emotional breakdown of the month, and I lost my bananas. Soon the whole house was yelling or crying or stomping, and my typically patient husband came storming down the stairs to figure out why the house was vibrating from noise, everyone was crying and he had to excuse himself from an international video conference. And so I was left to manage the schooling, the working, the cooking, the emotional adjustment, the snack giving, the whatever else we trudged through until my school year finally ended and we could start our summer- the whole reason I took a job in a school district. It was ugly. It was filled with sadness, rage, and anxiety. I missed deadlines; disappointed and frustrated college students I was teaching; and shifted expectations more than I could track. Finally however, the school year ended and I felt like I could breath even just for a few minutes.
Our summer was filled with time outside, distanced visits with grandparents, and beach trips. We again shifted our expectations for everything from summer play dates, to grocery store trips and walks to the ice cream place. Overnight trips to the beach we'd taken for years were replaced with day excursions and waving at family from a distance. My kids became bad asses at wearing masks, staying away from people who weren't, and playing with each other. I stuck to a schedule to make sure we got outside, broke the rut of staring at screens, and I stayed somewhat on track of keeping the house livable and the food edible. We walked to the playground on most mornings, made use of local trails, and waved at every neighbor who passed by our gates. I still yelled, the kids still cried and I still handed out what felt like 40 bazillion snacks a day. We eventually let our guard down, and started sleeping over with my parents and mother in law. In August we decided to join a local swim club, and we went everyday to soak up as much normal (while keeping our distance) as we could.
As the summer wound down, as a family and as a mom there was a big decision that needed to be made. Virus numbers were only getting worse, and there seemed to be no end in sight. I needed to decide if I'd be returning to work, where we'd send our kids for care, and if needed what a leave of absence for me or my husband might look like. Initially we'd signed the younger kids up for daycare, our oldest up for Kindergarten enrichment as well as public school. As my anxiety sky rocketed, and deadlines for leave applications loomed, I made the decision to not return to work. I was able to take advantage of a union negotiated leave that would grant me unpaid time off for the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year. I also declined an offer to teach a new course at our local university.
At the beginning of September 2020 I started my new official role as a pandemic stay at home mom. I set out to provide learning experiences for my preschooler, enriching experiences for my toddler, and foster a love of learning for my Kindergartner. As became a theme I adjusted my expectations, shifted the schedule and tried to hold tight as emotions continued to evolve. I tried to remember that I was doing something I'd never done before. Much like early motherhood, this would take learning and grace, time and patience. I've cried, yelled, screamed and felt bitter. I started medication and therapy to work through my anxiety. But I think most importantly, I've learned to recognize that I am incredibly lucky to spend all of this time with my kids, watching them grow and navigate their pandemic lives. My family is not negatively impacted by my pandemic life in terms of finances, food security or the ability to return to work. I am blessed and when I remember grace and patience I can almost by thankful for this shift.