Adapting Roles: Part 3

By Emily Blobaum, contributor & Emily Barske, associate editor

Editor’s note: This story, focused on work-life balance, is part three 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.

While some have called work-life balance a myth for years, the lines have become even more blurred with many in the workforce doing their jobs from home during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Forbes writer Brianna Wiest captures the challenge perfectly: “First of all, you’re at home all day. If you don’t live with anyone else, this can mean you’re isolated, and perhaps with little additional stimuli to keep you motivated.

“On the other hand, if you do live with a partner or family, it can be even more challenging to set firm boundaries, focus with children in the house, a list of chores to accomplish, and the feeling that you might just want to hang out on the couch for a few more hours.”

Beyond the mental health challenges magnified by the pandemic, domestic violence advocates and law enforcement are seeing a steep increase in calls. “No one can leave,” Kim Foxx, the chief prosecutor in Chicago, said in an interview with the New York Times. “You’re literally mandating that people who probably should not be together in the same space stay.”

These same challenges were articulated in the Business Record survey conducted for this series. Here are just some of the ways respondents described work-life balance:

  • “You’ve heard ‘the struggle is real’ … now it’s ‘the JUGGLE is real.’ Balancing full-time parenting and full time work is mentally exhausting. Everyone needs you all the time.”
  • “Seeing that some people are ‘working’ from home, or just staying at home and still getting paid — and our family members have to go to work.”
  • “So hard to find time to decompress.”
  • “I am incredibly fortunate to have a job, but I find myself over compensating by over working out of some guilt. It’s also difficult because you don’t get up and go home so I find myself working longer hours than normal.”
  • “My work has increased while my wife’s work stopped completely. We are both at home but stressed for different reasons.”
  • “Definitely missing my co-workers and helping them to stay strong and positive.”

“[I’m] finding that I fill my days with work-related functions as opposed to recreational/personal activities because there are very limited options outside of the home. Sort of a ‘well, I might as well work’ mentality.”

“If you are feeling overwhelmed or out of control, think about the next best thing you can control,” Elizabeth Dixon writes in Psychology Today. Polk County Health Services, as well as many other organizations, has a variety of resources on its website for coping with the mental health strains of the pandemic. 

Tips from the National Institute of Mental Health include taking care of your body, taking a break from the news, making time to unwind, connecting with others, setting goals and priorities, and focusing on the facts.

IN THEIR WORDS: Kristen Corey

Kristen Corey’s work centers on women’s equity. Her perspective is on the behalf of herself and not her employer. She and her husband, Shawn, have two kids, ages 6 and 7. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

There is a phrase I have often repeated to myself throughout my years of state employment. Working for the state, sometimes we have more resources, other times we have less. And so I find myself repeating, do what you can with what you have at the time it can happen. I think that’s been true throughout this pandemic. 

After we switched to teleworking full time, my husband was also scheduled to work from home. And so we were lucky in that way, where we have both of us at home helping and trying to coordinate schedules. I’ve worked with my boss and we basically agreed that I would work from 4 a.m. to noon every day. My husband has typically taken over with home-schooling duties in the morning. He’d start home-schooling them around 10 a.m., work until about noon. When I get off we have lunch. He has work meetings in the afternoon. We switch on and off that way. 

But the situation right now is that he has been in quarantine for the last 2½ weeks in our basement because he’s had some COVID symptoms. That’s changed things quite a bit for our family. He wasn’t able to qualify to get testing initially because he didn’t have bad enough symptoms. Then this last Friday he had spiked to a higher fever and started having some trouble breathing and therefore qualified to have testing. We’re waiting for the results to come back. 

For the last 2½ weeks, it’s just been me. It’s waking up at 4 a.m. to get all of the work that I can get done squished into that four-hour period before my kids wake up. Then I get everybody breakfast when they wake up. I have to get my husband breakfast too, so I set that outside his door and knock to let him know he’s got food. And then I go back to work. 

The age my kids are at, they don’t understand what’s going on. They don’t get it. They don’t get why their dad is in the spare bedroom and why he can’t come up to them at night and give them a hug. My youngest has been really struggling with that. That’s been hard to explain. I definitely think my kids are going to have some pretty real memories of this time. 

My daughter has an anxiety disorder. Through this process, my son has also presented a lot of similar symptoms with anxiety. Trying to maintain my own sanity around work, and just being level and not show my worry in front of them and then explaining to them in very real terms of what a pandemic is, and what this means for not just them, but most of the other kids in the country are going through the same thing — I try to explain to them that they’re not alone.

Before the pandemic we were like, we are not getting our kids tablets. They are way too young. And then quickly we were like, maybe we’ll relax that a little bit. We didn’t really have the money to do it. But we said you know what, this is going to go on a credit card and we’re going to buy tablets because otherwise we have no idea what we’re going to do. We didn’t have any materials from the schools at first. So we ordered a bunch of workbooks that we could find online. We were trying to figure out what was age-appropriate and what they should be learning at this point in time as a kindergartener and first grader. Pretty much from 8 a.m. to noon the kids eat their breakfast and they’re on some sort of electronic device. They watch some sort of educational TV or YouTube or Netflix. I feel bad saying that, but I don’t really have any other options. We’ve been going to a local park to feed the ducks. They look forward to it, but outside of that they really haven’t been anywhere since early March. 

Before my husband went into quarantine it was getting a little bit easier. It was becoming more normal and we had a schedule figured out. With my kids’ anxiety, they do better with a schedule. They like to know what we’re going to do at 9 a.m. and how long we’re going to do it. We had kind of gotten into a groove. Now it’s very different. I basically crumpled up that schedule and threw it away because it’s really hard to have any kind of schedule right now. 

I’m responsible for absolutely everything. The emotional stability of the family, trying to keep them in the loop about what’s going on. The education of the kids, keeping up with school. Now they send us Google Slides to do a lesson plan from, so I’m figuring how to make all of that work. Plus cleaning, sanitizing everything I can think of. Working eight hours a day, sometimes more. Doctors’ appointments. Taking care of our cats. The yardwork. We’ve had several appliances break down, so fixing that. I’ve become really handy. My husband generally does a really good job helping around the house. Doing laundry is pretty even. He’s a much better cook than I am, so this has been an interesting time for everybody. I would say I probably took on about 60% of the work and he would do 40%. Now it truly is me about 99% of the time just because of our situation. 

It’s been very stressful. Thankfully, I’m an introvert and so the transition away from people has been in some ways more relaxing because I’ve had time to process a lot of things. But the massive amount of stuff that I am now solely responsible for and then also trying to be present at work and present for my kids and now emotional support for everybody here in the house has been really stressful. I’ve dealt with anxiety throughout most of my life, so I definitely have a lot of anxiety right now about everything. Finding ways to cope has helped. I love to write. I’ve been writing poetry. There isn’t a lot of free time in the day, but when I do have five minutes where a thought comes into my head, I just write it out. My brother’s wife lost her dad throughout this and I’ve had friends that have lost loved ones. Normally I would go to those funerals or be able to comfort a loved one, but it all looks so different now. Getting that sadness out on paper is what I’m really writing about. 

When I think about a typical workweek, it’s easy to see that there will be a Friday and there will be a weekend and you’ll be able to do something a little bit different then. In all of this, the days blend together in a lot of ways. Even though I may not be logged in on my computer on the weekend, there’s really not a lot of change in what we do. We are doing the same thing every day. We’re going to feed the ducks every day. At this point, I’ve had enough with the ducks. 

Getting up in the morning and knowing that today’s very likely going to be no different, you’ve just got to take it one day at a time. But that does require some mental strain to coach yourself. It’s hard. There are days when I wake up and I think, I do not want to do this. Trying to be strong for everybody, keeping my spirits up for the kids, it’s draining. I know I’m not the only one going through that and there are people in much worse circumstances. At this point I’m happy to have a house, food, a job and that my kids are healthy. In a lot of ways I am very privileged and I’m thankful for what we have. In a two-parent family, I feel extremely privileged. There are many people that are not in that boat and are trying to figure out how to make this work with one parent. I can’t even imagine how stressful that is. 

We’re all in this together in some ways. We’re all facing similar struggles. To get through hard things we have to advance together and do things for the collective good. The realities for working parents are very real and child care is a huge issue. Without these supports, it’s borderline impossible for parents to work and not only take care of their kids but make sure that they’re educated and engaged.

This interview was conducted while the Coreys were awaiting COVID-19 test results. The test came back negative.

IN THEIR WORDS: Howard Tempero

Howard Tempero is an experience architect manager at Accenture. He and his wife, Megan, have four kids. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Luckily, our organization is already set up to work remotely. So this has been an easy transition to work. But mentally, it is a challenging place to be. My official home office is our laundry room. 

The model of work-life balance has shifted on its head and turned over sideways. It has completely changed, simply because we’re almost leaning more on the life and family side. We’re in a situation where even though we’re with our family, we also need our personal space. Before, you found that space in commuting to work. You had time to mentally think through your day and the challenges you might have had that morning or frustrations with your boss, whatever that might be. There were those pockets of time where we were able to meditate. That has completely flipped over. Now, there’s so much family time. 

We have four kids ranging from fifth grade to a senior in high school. We have a graduating senior who’s not having those senior moments. I have two other kids who are in transition years. My youngest one is moving from fifth to sixth grade. And then my eighth grader is moving from junior high to high school. 

I’m trying to be empathetic. I say I feel for you, but it’s hard to relate. I can’t say I’ve gone through this. I don’t want to say get over it. I tend to be that nagging parent who says, Hey, bring your dishes upstairs, because I feel like that’s part of my role to help. I’ve definitely let up on the gas on that a lot. I’ve changed that to be trying to get more hugs, and saying I know this is hard. I’m sorry. My interactions with them are much less about, Please do this to more of Hey, how are you feeling. All I can say is that soon it will get better. Sometimes I just have to say that this really sucks for you. Being there for the kids is sometimes very difficult. The challenge is getting them to talk back. I do try to ask open-ended questions. If I get them at a good time, I might get a decent conversation. Other times, I’ll get I’m playing my Xbox, leave me alone. 

My wife’s exhaustion has also started to hit me, especially with her mentally having to be there for the kids when they all leaned on her a lot more. They were all feeling very lost. I began to realize how much she was in the kitchen. Before, everyone would do their own thing for breakfast and no one was really around for lunch. Now, everyone wants something three times a day. I began noticing a lot of dirty dishes on the counter, so I started doing those. I sat down with her and I said, Maybe we can work out a schedule where I do some of the meals and you don’t have to worry about it. We’ve balanced that better. Since I work in the laundry room, I said that I’ll do all the laundry. Ironically, though, there isn’t as much because everyone’s wearing pajama pants and they’re wearing the same pair multiple times so the laundry load isn’t as big. Before, I would say I gave maybe five or six hours a week to typical housework. Now that I’m home, I’d say it’s doubled.

The other thing that’s been really interesting about this is that my wife doesn’t really understand totally what I do. She has said to me multiple times, You’re on the phone all day. I thought you were kidding when you said that. I can hear you downstairs and you’re on calls nonstop from 9 to 5. I said, I know, that’s what I do. It’s exhausting. 

My own mental health ebbs and flows. I’m a pattern guy. I love patterns. I drive the same way to work every day. I have the same coffee. I live by some of those pieces, and all of that has been disrupted. This is a period of broken patterns. Patterns of familiarity are completely inconsistent. That drains me mentally. There’s also all these additional mental struggles and pressures on top of everyone. My parents are in their 80s and don’t live here. I’m concerned about them going out. I always have that in the back of my head. My in-laws live a stone’s throw away from where we live. Every Sunday we go to Gateway Market to get them stuff. I think it’s more the mental concern of infecting someone. It can be really exhausting. 

I have a lot of worries. With work, it’s if we experience layoffs. I’m a regional lead for our team. There are struggles right now with finding consulting work. Losing a job in this environment is a very scary idea to even think about because what else is there? I worry about what these kids have lost and how far they’re going to be behind when it comes to learning. I worry about how this is going to impact our greater community as a whole. I don’t believe the norm will be what it was. I have good days and bad days. On bad days I try and find something else to work on. 

We had a really old woodshed that we tore down on my birthday a few weeks ago. I brought all the kids out and said, You’re going to love the concept of demolition. You’re going to go in there and kick the walls. They loved it. My fifth grader said, Dad, this is your best birthday ever. A couple of weeks ago, my older two sons and I constructed the new shed. One of the things that really helps with these mental frustrations is to find something physically tangible you can work on. I think that’s why a lot of people are doing housing projects or fixing things. You feel like you’re doing something else.