Adapting Roles: Part 2

By Emily Blobaum, contributor & Emily Barske, associate editor

Editor’s note: This story, focused on parenting, is part two in the “Adapting Roles” series looking at family and gender issues amid the pandemic. Topics for the series were selected based on a survey conducted by the Business Record about the most challenging work-life balance issues due to coronavirus.

If it takes a village to raise a child, and that village is suddenly off-limits due to a pandemic, parenting gets a lot tougher, a survey respondent articulated.

“Current conditions separate us from our ‘village’ … teachers, school lunches, coaches, nanny, grandparents, house cleaning,” the respondent wrote. “We have realized just how much we relied on our ‘village’ for the fragile work-life balance we had struck pre-pandemic. Additionally, there is a range of loss that is experienced by each of us. Finding the time and the space to keep tabs on the emotions that surround all of the sudden change is challenging, too. Essentially, every need for our family of five has fallen to my husband and me — there is increased gratitude for the prior support network.” 

Parents may feel this strain differently depending on whether they currently work, and if so, what their job is, income level, family status and gender identity. For two-parent families, the division of duties may play a key role in how each parent feels things are going. 

Among heterosexual couples, 66% of women say they have been mostly responsible for child care during the pandemic — roughly the same share as in typical times, the New York Times found in a survey it conducted. However, studies have shown that major changes to domestic routines have the potential to create different ones that may be more equitable. If both parents take leave after a baby is born, for example, they share more of the work in the long term, the NYT reported.  

What local experts have to say

In a recent “Lifting the Veil: Life Interrupted by COVID-19” discussion hosted by dsm Magazine, sister publication to the Business Record, experts tackled the topic of mental health for parents during the pandemic and provided some tips for those who are struggling. 

Dr. Amy Shriver, a pediatrician at UnityPoint in Des Moines, suggested a mnemonic device for families to relieve stress: “CC 1-2-3.” The first C is connection, and the second stands for coping. The 1 means to take “one moment to feel and to forgive.” The 2 stands for “two eyes for seeing, and two arms for holding.” And for 3: “What are three ways you can show your children you love them every day?” 

The situation can be a bit trickier for those co-parenting, said Christina Smith, president of Community Support Advocates. Her No. 1 suggestion is to “focus on what you can control.” Smith also addressed single parents: “Don’t try to be everything to everyone,” she said. “Your No. 1 role is to be a parent.” 

The community at large can step up and assist parents, said Suzanne Mineck, president of the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation. Parents are missing their support networks, so “how are we going to … play our role in noticing, protecting and inspiring each other? Simple acts of feeding or comforting or guiding our kids — that’s what makes a strong and resilient community.”

Panelists emphasized using resources available for help. Calling 211, ext. 8, will get you to mental health resources through Your Life Iowa. Organizations like Polk County Health Services, Please Pass the Love, Healthy Children and Reach Out and Read provide valuable advice as well. 

IN THEIR WORDS: Erin Olson-Douglas

Erin Olson-Douglas is the economic development director for the city of Des Moines. She and her husband have three kids, ages 6, 8 and 10. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I think for working parents, it always has been a very tailored and carefully crafted balance of doing a lot of things, every single day. The pandemic conditions that so many of us have found ourselves in unravel that so suddenly. Working motherhood has always been sort of guilt-ridden. And this condition puts that under a microscope, minute to minute. 

Our kids have put the connections together between what they’re feeling and what’s happening in the outside world. There haven’t been a lot of questions, but there have been moments where it has sunk in that this is unprecedented. They’ve gone through stages of accepting what’s going on. Our oldest really felt it. He’s at a social age but he’s not at an age where he can really engage in social media. So he really felt like something had been taken away from him in not going back to school and not being around his friends. I think it was really a sense of loss. It was frightening for our middle daughter because I think she understood enough about what was going on. She was worried and afraid. And our youngest is our rebel rabble-rouser, and I think it just brought out the worst in her, not having the schedule and understanding of what was next. It affected all of them differently.

They each have their own teachers and their own circle of friends. They each had coaches for recreational activities. They had a piano teacher. They had a nanny that picked them up from school every day. We figured it out one time several weeks ago when we were feeling especially spread thin, that there was somewhere between 60 and 75 hours’ worth of time each week that our kids spent with other people. So I guess that makes more sense as to why we feel pulled in a lot of different directions. 

Our kids are kind of on their own. I don’t consider myself to be a helicopter parent. But at the same time, they’re young kids and they need not only love and attention, but supervision. It’s really challenging to try and conduct the balance of work and parenting right now. 

Really, there isn’t a balance. Our solution right now has been really, really, really long days that start at 5 a.m. some days and go to midnight because the work hasn’t slowed. I work from about 5:30 a.m. to 8 or 8:30 a.m. The kids are getting up between 8 and 8:30 a.m. My husband or I will help them with breakfast. Meetings are from 8:30 a.m. to noon-ish. Whichever one of us is off of a call or a meeting, we try to help our kids with school assignments, finding something productive to do or course-correcting on mischief. Generally we’ve been able to one-off, one-on. In a family of five, we each have a day of the week where we decide on who prepares lunch. There’s been a lot of peanut butter and jelly. Then its cleanup and maybe a little outside time. We go back to work until 5 or 6 p.m. depending on the day. One of us tries to peel off by 4:30 or 5 p.m. and do something with our kids. Then we make dinner, hang out with the kiddos. Our kids are generally in bed around 9 p.m. and then we catch up on emails, the news and work stuff that’s unfinished. 

Every experience is so real for the person and for the family that is dealing with it. From extreme loneliness, to boredom, to just an overwhelming onslaught of demands. For working families for whom the work has not stopped, I think generally work has either sped up or slowed down. It has not remained constant. The work that my colleagues and I do with the city, it’s sped up and the demands are just unbelievable. That’s the only way to put it. I don’t mean it as a complaint, that’s just the reality. 

I’m really overwhelmed. It’s the uncertainty that just kills me. Going back to the notion of carefully crafted arrangements, I don’t know how to craft those anymore in a way that is safe and helpful and makes the most of our precious time with young children. I don’t know where this is all headed. I really miss the collegiality of my work environment. I have great work colleagues, and I really miss that. I miss looking forward to soccer games on the weekend, gatherings with my extended family and summer vacation. I miss looking forward to all of the everyday things of life.

Yet there are silver linings about this. As much as it has been a real struggle to balance the work and the family, it has also been a time for reacquainting with family. It’s my hope that doesn’t get lost in a new normal.

If this reporting spurs a story idea or if you’d like to share your perspective, contact emilyblobaum@bpcdm.com