Help for Telecommuting Moms Exhausted by Quarantine Inequality
Constantly recalibrating my family’s needs to keep everything running while working my job from home isn’t sustainable. Here’s how I changed things.
When the first stay-at-home orders rolled out at the start of the COVID pandemic, my first thought was, “We got this.” I plunged into merging my work life with my home and my kid’s school lives. As a child psychiatrist and life coach, I was able to move all of my sessions online and work from home.
When distance learning started in the spring, I believed that my 5th and 7th graders could get through a day’s work with “light” support. We created a routine that fit everyone’s activities. I was optimistic that we could manage with a little planning.
For my privacy, I planted a noise machine outside of my office. I even hung a scarf on my door to warn when not to be disturbed.
Within a few days, cracks appeared in my plans. There were my kids’ calls for “tech support” and check-ins to make sure everyone was staying on task. Even when secluded in my office, my brain kept wandering to what everyone in the house was doing.
I tried to organize/plan/shift my family into a new normal. I struggled in a way that my husband, who often works from home, did not.
I eventually found ways to bring more mindfulness to the dynamics that were at play and found ways to help myself move beyond them. I’ve also coached other women in changing these patterns. The rest of this article describes some of the patterns you can look for, and gives you an exercise for exploring alternatives to being constantly depleted and overwhelmed.
An “Aha” Moment
My difficulties reminded me of a conversation with a friend during a lunch date a couple of years ago. (How I took the luxury of in-person lunch dates for granted!)
My friend mentioned how mentally exhausted she had been for the past few weeks. With a husband and two middle-schoolers, she was constantly attending to someone’s physical or emotional needs. Her husband was a great parenting partner, but he didn’t seem to feel the same parenting pressures that she did.
The conversation had started something like this:
Friend: “Even though we both have a lot of work to do, it seems like I’m always driving the bus. I have to direct everything that happens, or it doesn’t get done. Sometimes, it’s just too much.”
Me: “Doesn’t it seem like some moms and dads just do it differently? Even with dads who are super helpful, they’re not always aware of what’s going on and what needs to happen in the home.”
On top of all of our other roles at home, moms are constantly “fine-tuning” the family. The pandemic has made this even more clear in my own home.
What COVID Taught Us
No question, the COVID pandemic has intensified the work and family life gender gap. Around the world, women’s work inside and outside of the home has made them more vulnerable to the economic, physical, and mental toll of the pandemic.
When the workplace moved into the home, the boundaries between home and work life blurred for everyone. But for many of us working moms, boundaries dissolved completely. The pandemic pulled the curtain back on the persistent gender-related parenting differences.
Friends, patients’ families, colleagues, the stories have a common theme. Parenting during COVID has pushed many parents to their mental and physical brink. But moms have disproportionately experienced a disruption in their work and home lives since the first stay-at-home orders were put in place.
Parenting is hard and when COVID hit, it seemed as all of the difficulties were amplified.
Initially, I did feel that my family was prepared. My daughter’s school quickly put a distance learning plan in place. I counted myself lucky that I was able to transition my psychiatric and coaching practices to all virtual sessions. I thought my kids were old enough to work with “light” support, allowing me to see patients from my home office.
Unfortunately, things did not hold together so neatly.
Curious about what other working moms were experiencing, I did a little digging. Some women’s academic careers have stalled, while their male colleagues and spouses have seen their productivity bloom. Often the default parent, women are having to navigate additional parenting demands and work demands with less support available outside of the home.
Keeping it From Boiling Over
It goes back to the conversation I had with my friend and a similar conversation with another friend during the pandemic.
“It’s because as moms, we are constantly calibrating our families,” I told my friend’s tiny phone screen image. “Calibrating” our families isn’t unique to COVID, but it has intensified.
A mom is like a human GPS. The Global Positioning System satellites calibrate the clocks on our phones, computers, and in our cars. We go through our days confident in the timekeeping mechanism that we set our lives by because all of our devices keep checking into this central system.
Similarly, you calibrate your family, staying aware of their activities, giving feedback, and making adjustments to keep the family functioning.
Calibrating shows up in all the little things you do to keep the peaceful, smooth running of your family machines.
It’s making sure the 10-year-old ate breakfast because hangry ruins everyone’s morning. It’s reminding everyone to “Please put your dishes in the dishwasher, because no one wants to look at a sink full of dirty dishes,” or asking Dad, “Can you make sure that the 13-year-old is off of her device because really, a few brain cells to start the school year with would be a good idea.”
Calibrating is also taking everyone’s emotional temperature and guiding everyone’s behaviors to keep the ship steady. It’s the small reminders that you don’t even realize you give until you don’t. (See the mile-high pile of dishes in the sink.) This calibrating is behind the well-intentioned question many partners ask moms, “What do you need me to do to help?” In your head, you respond, “Can’t you just help without me having to tell you what to do?” Because to figure out what they can do and explaining it to them is more calibrating—more work.
Calibrators know when an imbalance is on the horizon and instinctively jump into action to keep it all together.
This happened even before COVID. But for moms working outside of the home, school and childcare often meant that it was mostly limited to non-work hours. You could compartmentalize.
So Why Does This Matter Now?
The mental energy that goes into a constant awareness of what is happening in the home, making micro-adjustments to keep the family moving along and reprioritizing our own activities, is energy depleting.
One reason that having my kids at home all day felt so different was because of my constant awareness of their presence. When safely tucked away at school, my thoughts of them rested on the back burner. My focus settled on work and other projects that fill my “non-momming” time.
I didn’t anticipate front-burner awareness of two other humans 24/7 and initially, I didn’t know how to incorporate this into my work life.
It wasn’t just the quantity of responsibilities that shifted. The mental time and energy previously focused on my work now shared the stage with the happenings on the other side of my home office door.
Even when my kids worked “independently,” knowledge of their presence simmered on the front burner. They sat their right along with seeing patients, writing, and managing the tasks of running my practices. But I only have two front burners, and things get pretty crowded.
I realized that unlike when they were in school, I was constantly worrying about what they were doing at that moment: “Are they doing school work on their device or making TikTok videos?”, or “Are they showing appropriate ‘Zoom etiquette’,” and “Did they eat lunch?”.
The impact of kids learning from home isn’t just a physical childcare issue. It’s accepting that the finite bucket of attentional juice that you have to spread around now has to cover your kids’ physical presence on top of work.
This constant attention to their day, no matter how hard you try to compartmentalize pieces of your day from theirs, is distracting and energy-consuming. For many of us, work productivity has become a casualty.
This persistent awareness meant that I was constantly leaving my work cave to check on them. I needed to get them back on track when they derailed.
However, getting them back on track typically got me off-track. Sometimes jumping back in was smooth; other times, there was no regaining the lost momentum.
Checking-in went beyond what they were doing but also in how they were feeling. I was fully aware of the toll that “sheltering-in” and distance learning was having on my tween and teen girls. It has been hard on all of us.
Many moms have found themselves trying to accommodate for the mental and psychological effects of the pandemic on their kids. This often means more breaks in the workday. More derailments. More starts and stops. All of this, energy-depleting.
A lot of moms calibrate reflexively. It’s as if someone has a giant reflex hammer. When things start to go off the rails in your home, you get a whack on the back and jump into action.
This balancing is important and needs to happen. It reflects how attuned many moms are to their kids. We often sense them whether or not they’re physically present.
However, moms seem to disproportionately experience this level of attunement. During the pandemic, it’s left many feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and exhausted.
These continual adjustments meant frequent pivoting in how I approached my work. Some things just weren’t going to get done. This wasn’t just an acceptance of a lost day. This was a reframing of what my job could look like while the pandemic continued.
For many moms, this has shown up as lost work hours or missed opportunities to take on a new project. Some have lost their jobs under the unrealistic expectation of managing it all at 100%.
Your productivity might be spread across several different areas. Unfortunately, you might be feeling inadequate in all areas instead of success in any.
Why Does This Happen?
I have a theory about why this happens, not necessarily based on rigorous research, but from fairly consistent observations and conversations over the years.
Decades ago, as more women started working outside of the home, the evolution of our professional roles outpaced the evolution of roles in our homes.
Even when moms work 40+ hours outside of the home, coordinating and doing tasks at home typically falls on the moms’ shoulders.
OK, so there is some evidence to back this up. A recent survey shows that in married or partnered heterosexual homes, women still perform the majority of “traditional” household tasks.
These patterns of being aren’t just how we think about what we do, we store these patterns of reacting in our bodies. It’s in how we physically react when hit with the giant reflex hammer. Shifting such patterns may require more than just believing that we need to do things differently.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. has been researching how our physical bodies remember for years. In his book, “The Body Keeps Score”, he explores how traumatized individuals’ physical bodies hold their trauma.
For these patterns to shift, parenting partners will need to mentally and physically change how they approach home and work roles.
Some might argue that men’s and women’s brains are different and so our approach to parenting is biologically wired. Even the small differences in male and female brain anatomy don’t explain the differences in parenting approaches. It’s more likely that environment and experience lead to the creation of certain neuronal pathways connected to certain behaviors.
Here’s the thing: accepting that there might be deeply ingrained differences in how men and women parent does not mean we have to be held captive by these differences.
The pandemic has forced many of us to reimagine how we parent and how we approach our careers. There’s no blueprint. We simply make the best choices we can at that moment.
Functioning as your family’s calibrator is just one of the challenges of pandemic parenting. When you understand how it shows up in your life, you have more choices and more control in how to respond. It also will force you to accept how “different” is showing up in your life right now. You’re going to have to be OK with this.
Three Things You Can Do Right Now
1. Be aware
Building awareness of our calibrating behaviors allows us to make better choices about which behaviors to engage in. When coaching working moms, I start with building awareness. Choice gives us greater control, allows for better decisions, and helps us become more efficient in how we manage our time and energy.
- In one column, make a list of the ways you calibrate your family. For example, “I frequently stop what I’m working on to see if the 15-year-old is on her phone.”
Acknowledging rather than denying the behavior helps us show self-compassion. Pandemic parenting is hard. I coach moms to give themselves a break and accept that at most times, they are doing their best. Acknowledgment also helps us think before we act. We can better anticipate situations that might occur and plan for how those disruptions may impact us.
- In a second column, for each item in column one, write how your behaviors impact you at that moment. For example, “Every time I stop to check the 15-year-old, I lose track of the project I’m working on and have to backtrack to regain momentum.”
Simple adjustments in how you respond to your family is a good starting point. However, adjustment of the whole family ecosystem can help everyone function better.
A calibrator might not be able to teach someone how to become an intuitive calibrator. However, parenting partners can understand that this dynamic exists and become more effective, better-balanced co-parents.
- In a third column, list alternative responses. For example, “I’m going to plan to check in on the 15-year-old every 45 minutes and I will plan natural breakpoints in my work for these times.”
In my own home, I started asking my husband questions about what he was paying attention to when he was home. We discussed how we could divide our shared attention more efficiently. In other words, we could share the responsibility of having our kids on our brains’ front burners.
I’ve had to accept that parenting approaches can be different, and to be OK with that difference.
Even if my husband is not intuitively a calibrator, his approach to supporting our kids is just what they need when he’s in charge. If he’s comfortable with his level of awareness, then I can be too.
I’ve also realized that work and home life just have to look different for now. I can’t expect 3–4-hour uninterrupted work blocks as long as we are all going to be spending the majority of time in this space.
I’ve taken a more realistic, proactive approach in how I divide tasks. I can only see patients when everyone knows I can’t be disturbed. However, I can do most of my administrative tasks with a 10-year-old sitting in my office working on math.
Most of all, I’ve given myself an extra dose of self-compassion realizing how messy and hard all of this is. It’s not where I thought we’d be a year ago, but here we are. We will make the best of this situation, with a ton of grace, and press on.