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Challenge: Stretched Too Thin

The working mom’s survival guide: Pandemic edition

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At the risk of echoing the boatloads of journalists and bloggers weighing in on the impacts of COVID on women, can I just say WTH?

I presume most people can recognize that any additional work on the home front most often falls to women. As a working mom I’ve accepted this to some extent. My husband, Imran, owns and operates a catering company, and my corporate communications work is remote and affords more flexibility. It makes good sense for me to take on many of the extras.

I’ve also accepted that this thing called the invisible load is very real. It’s my mental ticker that tracks dental appointments, birthdays, who needs new shoes, burnout on my team at work, soccer days, the last time we had sex, and other details of our lives that require planning. It’s draining, but it’s part of being a modern-day mom who wants to have it all…

…or maybe my acceptance is actually a coping mechanism to avoid becoming totally unhinged.

And now this global pandemic is piling on additional burdens. I’ve realized I massively underestimated the value of a playground, a date night, dinner out with friends – they were my lifeline when things felt too hard. Remote learning has nearly put me over the edge. At any given moment I’m flipping between teaching kindergarten math, presenting to executives, and washing poop out of Spiderman undies. My mental stamina is shot.

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COVID has created a swelling storm of anxiety, and it’s forced me to do some hardcore reflecting. I’m not a bystander in my life, but I needed an action plan so I can feel whole. I want to feel like a good wife and mom, but not at the expense of nourishing my passions or being good at my job. I want to come out on the other side without unraveling my career, damaging my son’s academic experience, straining my marriage, or diminishing my emotional well-being.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve Googled “how to survive the pandemic as a working mom,” desperate to find the hack that will offer some relief. Advising me to make time for self-care isn’t cutting it, so I’ve created my own working mom survival guide: the pandemic edition.

1. Press the reset button at home. COVID has spurred a whole season of change. People are picking up new hobbies, taking time to slow down, enjoying the outdoors more. Likewise, I’m using this time to reframe my own expectations so I can feel like I’m nailing it instead of sheepishly doing my best. No one is forcing me to plan the perfect fall activities or mop the floors every Saturday. Where is this need to coordinate weekly family memories coming from? Society? My friends? Instagram? Instead of retaining a mental inventory of items in the refrigerator and having an uncluttered dining table, I want to be the mom who spontaneously sets up a tent in the living room and makes pancakes for dinner (because the fridge is empty and the dining table is piled with junk). That sounds more like me.

I also need to own the fact that some of my stress is self-induced. I have a caring husband and a good feminist ally in Imran, and I have no right to feel like I’m drowning if I won’t even give him a chance to help. I don’t think he completely understands the invisible load moms carry, but he believes it exists and tries his best to provide relief. The challenge for me is tolerance when something trivial falls through the cracks or things aren’t done my way. I’m committed to working on it. Join me.

Pro-tip: Do something once a day that – pre-pandemic – would have given you mom guilt. Examples may include extra screen time, bribery, or serving cereal for dinner.

2. Stop pretending at work. We all have a work persona we like to put forward, but some days my persona was a stark departure from my reality. Having to support my son’s remote learning blew my cover, and I started embracing it. I’m late to calls, I forget to brush my hair before video conferences, and I’ve done more multitasking from the toilet than I care to admit. My instinct is to pretend it’s all under control, nothing to see here, but that’s a direct violation of the “bring your authentic self to work” mantra that I’m passionate about. Some days my authentic self is too worried about my children’s mental health and how our catering business will weather the pandemic to put my all into a status meeting.

So I started sharing. Or maybe over-sharing. Instead of a polite apology for being late to calls, I reveal that I’m late because my kid is melting down after two hours of trying to learn by watching a screen. I ask people how they’re doing and encourage their candor by telling my own self-deprecating story of a recent ball I’ve dropped. These small acts have been met with relief and genuine gratitude for my “realness.” This pandemic is hard for everyone, and we need to “not be afraid to ‘show it all,’ even when the picture isn’t all that pretty.” You might be surprised by the sense of community it creates, which we need now more than ever.

Pro-tip: Use a virtual Zoom background to hide children, piles of laundry, or scantily clad spouses.

3. Tell the kids to ask their father. My boys could be sitting on Imran’s lap while I’m in the next room, but their impulse is to ask me for a snack. “Go ask your father” used to be my passive aggressive way of telling my husband to get off his butt. But it serves a deeper purpose. Our kids are growing up in a world where the standards for being a good dad are laughably lower than the standards for being a good mom, but we can do our part at home to chip away at gender disparities… while also giving me a breather. I’m the default parent simply because I’m around more, but the boys should be reminded that dad can prepare meals, give baths, and read bedtime stories. In fact, I’d argue his infinite patience makes him better suited to take on many of the traditional mom jobs. My subtle hints of “go ask your father” are almost always met with an enthusiasm and willingness from Imran, and it allows me to save energy and space for being a caregiver and a fun parent.

Pro-tip: Get yourself a mug and/or a wine glass, and raise it as needed.

Look, I recognize the division of labor in the home will never be even, but the beautiful result is that we each bring balance and a distinct magic to our family. I’ve also had enough lessons in resilience to know, good or bad, all seasons change and this pandemic shall pass. In the meantime, to all the working moms out there: solidarity!

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