What The Hell Just Happened

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Our Pandemic Year: An Oral History Of Parenting Through COVID

How 25 policy experts, lawmakers, artists, domestic workers, and entrepreneurs got through year one.

About two months ago, I started talking with women about what the pandemic has been like for mothers. I spoke with politicians, domestic workers, actors, journalists, and entrepreneurs. Some studied the child care system in the United States professionally or ran nonprofits that supported subsets of mothers. Some had businesses that had taken off during the pandemic. Some had been forced to pull back from their work. They’re not necessarily a representative group. The majority were able to work from home full-time, which is true of only 42% of the U.S. labor force, and even those who didn’t at least had the bandwidth to talk to a reporter. The nature of the crisis, though, is that whatever the circumstances, almost everyone has been impacted.

Amid the isolation of pandemic parenting, these conversations were often, for me at least, profoundly comforting. There were so many commonalities, and these offered a way to start stitching myself back into the world. For many of us, year one of COVID-19 laid bare the weaknesses in our existing child care system. For those who think about that system full time, the collective experience of mothers during the pandemic is a blaring alarm, and a window of possibility to change American child care for the better.

March 2020: Stay-At-Home Orders, Overnight Unemployment, Panic Purchases

Olivia Joy Taylor, Colorado, who has a pottery business and a 3-year-old

In the beginning I remember a real sense of panic. My wife is a drill sergeant in the Army, and we were living on an Army base in Texas where security was raised to the point that we couldn’t have anyone visit. Our son is also autistic, so we’d been going to some sort of therapy almost every day, but the specialists all shut down. We were literally alone. Our only store was the commissary and there was a fistfight there over toilet paper. It was hysteria.

Lyz Lenz, Iowa, a writer and mom of two kids, 9 and 7

My kids were on a spring break with their dad, my ex, when the pandemic hit. Before they got back, I’d purchased a nice coffee maker and a giant f*cking trampoline. I was like, OK, they’ll go feral for a while. They were going to be fine, but I needed to do my job. Because I needed money to feed them. I emailed their teachers asking them what were just the most essential things. It wasn’t received super well by the third-grade teacher. We’re one of two co-parenting situations in the school. I’m the only single mom who works full time.

Michelle Nash, Florida, founder of 7 Days of Play, a site that offers educational activities for children, and mom of three kids, ages 5, 4 and 2

I thought, How is the world going to do this? I was in over my head. We couldn’t even go to the park. Meanwhile, I was looking at my friends who had no children and they were learning a second language and doing online yoga. People were saying there were going to be a lot of COVID babies. I was like, anyone getting pregnant right now doesn’t have children.

Michelle Buteau, New York, actor and comedian with 2-year-old twins

I started buying all the things — screw it, we’ll never have company again, we might as well turn the house into an Ikea showroom for kids. I Pinterested so many toddler meals, it was like I was the Black Martha Stewart.

Lauren Kennedy, Massachusetts, co-founder of the nonprofit Neighborhood Villages, which aims to improve access to affordable child care, and mother of two, 5 and 3

In Massachusetts, a majority of the state faced this abrupt stop to child care infrastructure, which not only put parents in dire straits but meant child care centers lost their revenue. The result has been entirely predictable: Women forced out of the workforce.

Ai-jen Poo, Illinois, co-founder and executive director of National Domestic Workers Alliance

As the stay-at-home orders were coming down, domestic workers, the majority of whom have children themselves, suffered dramatic losses in jobs and income. In March, one of our members held up her phone to the Zoom screen to show that she had 1 cent left in her bank account. It was the exception and not the rule for employers to continue to pay.

Laura Gonzalez, Washington, a domestic worker with a 14-year-old

In March, one of the families I’d been working for as a nanny said that since I couldn’t come, they couldn’t pay me. The second said they would pay me part-time while the order was in place. But it went on and on. I only received pay for two months. Luckily my partner was able to keep working, but he’s in another state. I took a lot of care of [our] son. We’d cook together.

April-May 2020: Zoom Work, Zoom School, Screen Time Bonanza

Amy Westervelt, California, journalist and podcaster who has two kids, 8 and 5

My husband works as a consultant and basically, from one day to the next, all of his work went away. So I hustled up a bunch of work, and then he got a contract that required he be out of town four days a week. For several months I was waking up at 2 a.m., working until 9 a.m., dealing with the kids’ homeschooling until 2 p.m., and then catching up on work in the afternoon. Finally I hit a wall. I had to sleep.

C. Nicole Mason, Washington, D.C., president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women's Policy Research and a mom of 11-year-old twins

When the schools closed, the expectation seemed to be that women would work 40 to 50 hours a week and do virtual learning. I’m very fortunate that I could work from home, but I am a single mom and I have meetings all day. It turned out my daughter was taking walks down the street.

Georgia Mavrookas, Texas, vice president of community marketing at Bumble, who has two kids, 6 and 4

I was on a conference call when my son comes over and says, “Look, Mom! I got a haircut.” Then I look at my daughter. Her hair is cut to her scalp.

Candace Valenzuela, Texas, former nominee for Congress and mother of two, 5 and 2

I set up our bathroom to be the office, with my laptop on a shoebox and a green screen to obscure the fact that I was 4 feet from a toilet. My mother-in-law or someone helping out would then bring my [youngest] in and I’d put the monitor up and nurse. One time at an event hosted by Nancy Pelosi, my 5-year-old snuck up behind me and was dancing with a quarter he’d gotten from the tooth fairy. Speaker Pelosi was enchanted. I was, of course, horrified.

Amy Westervelt

I had to moderate a panel for an event from deep inside my closet. It was the only place I could hide from my kids for long enough.

Jane Keltner de Valle, New York, style director of Architectural Digest, co-founder of children’s skin care company Paloroma and mother of two, 2 and 7

Obviously all the rules about screen time have been thrown out.

Nell Diamond, founder and CEO of Hill House Home and mother of a 4-year-old and 4-month twins

I found out right before the pandemic I was pregnant, and I tend to get hyperemesis. Plus we saw so much growth with the Nap Dress. During the spring, when our nanny wasn’t coming, I couldn’t have done some of the stuff I did without letting our son watch shows. I can’t hide how much he knows about Paw Patrol.

Michelle Nash

I used to get so much help from my parents. Overnight, that was done. I didn’t see my parents for months.

Nicole Lynn Lewis, Maryland, founder of the nonprofit Generation Hope, which supports college students with children, author of the forthcoming Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families, and mother of four, 21, 11, and “two little boys that we call Tornado 1 and 2”

All of the students we serve in Generation Hope are not only young parents but also college students, and 90% have jobs. Many work as domestic workers, in grocery stores and hospitals, or are janitors. During the pandemic, about 30% lost child care. If they had a partner who was home at night, they could sometimes lobby for a graveyard shift, but if you have to be up for class the next morning, when do you sleep?

We decided to bring mental health providers on to our staff about two years ago. In the past year, there has been about a 30% uptick in requests.

Lauren Smith Brody, New York, founder of The Fifth Trimester, a resource for new mothers going back to work after having a baby, and mother to two kids, 12 and 9

When all of this exploded, my husband was at work 16 hours a day — he runs an in-patient psychiatric unit in a hospital. Then he got COVID. We went from having a pretty even partnership to me doing everything domestic. Meanwhile, every speaking partnership I had planned for the year was canceled. I was like, was my job even real? It brought up every feeling of impostor syndrome I’ve ever had.

June-August 2020: Protests, Climate Emergencies, Parenting Through “Compounding Disasters”

Lyz Lenz

I think every parent has a story about how this has changed their kids’ sense of the world.

Nell Diamond

This summer, I started thinking about the fact that I was the youngest person my son had seen in so many months.

Denise Vasi, California, founder of the wellness website Maed and mother of two kids, 6 and 1

The Black Lives Matter movement accelerated difficult conversations with my daughter because I’m a woman of color and we’re a mixed family. She was asking, who is George Floyd? Why are people protesting? And I can’t even take her to the park so she can exert some of her energy.

Lyz Lenz

When the protests were happening, I brought my kids to one. I’d been like, "Wear this mask! Don’t talk to people!" And now we’re in a crowd and I’m explaining police brutality. My son was like, “This is really tough stuff.” Then in August, our town was hit with a derecho. We had no power for nine days. At one point, I was at a neighbor’s house doing an interview on my cell phone and washing underwear in a plastic tub as our kids played in fallen branches. I thought, This is what it’s like to parent in compounding disasters.

Nancy Mace, U.S. Representative in South Carolina and mother of two, 14 and 11

I got very sick with COVID and it took three months to recover. I’m still struggling to catch my breath right now as I’m walking.

Sarah Chalke, California, actress with two children, 11 and 4

Some days I think, "Oh, we're nailing this." Others I’m like, "We are definitely not nailing this." For my daughter it's a quarter of her life. She said to me the other day, "Mama, can you call the world and ask when Coronavirus will be over?" I didn't respond. That's the hard part. Not having any of the answers.

Olivia Joy Taylor

This is normally the age where we’d be encouraging exposure with peers — autism presents in so many different ways, but for my son, his social interactions are pretty strained. At therapy, the one time Lucas came to face to face with another kid, the therapist had to pull them apart. I hate with all that I am that because of the pandemic, he is not getting a fair shot.

Sarah Chalke

You have to be everything for your kid — their parents, their teacher, their confidant, their peer, their best friend.

Buffy Wicks, California State Assembly member and mother of two, 4 and 7 months

I had my daughter July 26 and went on leave, but I knew there was going to be this final push of bills at the end of the summer because in California, if you don’t get them passed by midnight on Aug. 31, it's like a Cinderella story — they turn into pumpkins. My daughter was 4 weeks old, we were breast-feeding, and I’d had a C-section, but when I found out maternity leave doesn't qualify for remote voting, I decided to go and bring her.

I was feeding her in my office a little before midnight as an important housing bill was being voted on, so I ran with her to the floor. I think the reason a photo of that moment went viral is so many parents have experienced a version of that situation. We don't have broad-based parental leave. We don't have affordable, quality child care. It's a testament to our failed public policies on these issues.

Carmen Winant, Ohio, artist and professor with two children, 4 and 3

Some nights, when I’m going to sleep, I feel like the next day there will be a point when my children will be crying and the dog will be whining and my email will be dinging, and physically, I just won’t be able to do it. But here we are. We pull ourselves out of bed and we do it.

September 2020: And Then So Many Of The Schools Didn’t Start Again

Lauren Kennedy

For a lot of my peers, one of the crushing blows was when schools didn’t reopen.

Joann Lublin, author of Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life

According to an analysis published in The [New York] Times [by economist Ernie Tedeschi], there were 1.6 million fewer mothers in the labor force this fall than would be expected without school closures, whereas there was no statistical relationship between fathers leaving the workforce and schools being closed.

Michelle Nash

Our casinos were open before the schools. Meanwhile, because everyone was looking for things to do with their kids, 7 Days of Play turned into a massive full-time job. I was just trying to squeeze work into the cracks.

Amy Westervelt

A functioning society hinges on women being selfless and nurturing. But then at the same time, those traits are not valued in our society in general. It doesn’t make rational or economic sense.

Laura Gonzalez

Now I’m working 30 hours a week, but that means my son is home by himself. I’m always calling, but I worry. I started going back to school because I was worried I couldn’t help my son with his schoolwork.

Nancy Mace

I’m a single full-time working mom and I often talk about the challenges given that kids haven’t been in school in a year. They need to be in school. Yet we have states not prioritizing teachers getting vaccinations.

C. Nicole Mason

If women ran the country, or were accurately represented, there would have been a different response.

Amy Westervelt

People without kids also need to give a sh*t about this. It cannot just be mothers whose whole problem is we don’t have time.

Jamie Mizrahi, California, stylist and co-founder of Kit Undergarments, mother of two, 2 and 8 months

There have definitely been times when I’m breastfeeding, feeding my son lunch, trying to take a call, and trying to put on iPad for someone to be distracted. The nicest and the craziest part is that it’s not like I’m the only one.

Lyz Lenz

We all cried a lot about math. And my daughter almost failed gym — I’m not going to email the school daily to tell them what physical activity my kid did; that’s stupid as hell. But we’ve learned things, too. My daughter and I started a podcast, and I learned chess so I could play with my son.

Emily Baldoni, California, co-founder of Amma, a motherhood-focused retail company and community with two kids, 5 and 3

There have been positive moments. Yeah, maybe my kids are fighting a lot, but they’re also becoming best friends because they’re spending so much time together.

Winter 2020/2021: It Catches Up To Our Relationships

Denise Vasi

My busiest work season is through the holidays, but in October my husband, whose industry had been shut down, got the opportunity to push forward on a project and left for Mexico for two-and-a-half months. I spent the last months of the year really driving myself into the ground.

Laurel Angelica Myers, California, co-founder and COO of Prima, a wellness startup, who has three kids, 5, 3, and 1 month

Even though my husband and I have pretty equitable parenting, the burden of figuring out how to make it work falls on me. Say school’s going to be virtual for a couple weeks — I make all the Zoom links, I get the kids on the calls.

Emily Baldoni

I work but my husband is the breadwinner, so there was never a question the kids situation would 100% be on me. We were able to retain part-time child care, but my mama guilt was always setting in. If they cried while I was working, I’d go to them. And I’d be getting frustrated with my husband working in the guest room. It was also challenging for him to have deadlines while the kids were screaming. That stress we were both feeling was a breeding ground for resentment.

Michelle Nash

As much as it’s been an adjustment to have the kids home all day, working from home has been more of an adjustment for my husband. But that’s also stressful for me. If he’s on a call and they’re screaming, now I have to worry about that, too?

Nina Renata Aron, California, writer and mother of two, 12 and 9

I’m divorced and lucky to have a reliable co-parent, so while when I’m with my kids I’m on my own, I also have two days a week that I can work and recharge. Most of my friends in partnerships are kind of dying without that. With the divorced moms I have talked to through this, it’s like a secret society — we’re just like, thank God we’re divorced.

Lauren Smith Brody

Through my work, I hear a lot of women express guilt [that the balance of responsibilities in their family don’t reflect their values]. But even for heterosexual couples who came into parenthood on equal ground, our larger cultural and economic imbalances incentivize choices that favor dads being more likely to stick with their careers.

C. Nicole Mason

Pre-pandemic, many women had internalized the burden of care and, myself included, suffered in silence. We’d been told, “Oh, there’s a trick you can learn to help balance it all.” But there is actually not a trick that will solve this problem. What the pandemic has allowed us is the space and opportunity to say, “Hey, maybe there are structural and institutional problems. And maybe it doesn’t need to be that way.”

Where do we go from here? Experts explain how the COVID crisis can be a once-in-a-generation chance to fix child care.