This story is part two of a four-part series.
The first month of sheltering in place wasn’t too stressful for Cheasty Anderson. The pandemic was scary, but she was told the best thing to do was to stay home, so she did.
Her job slowed down for a few weeks while her employer figured out how to manage work remotely. Her husband’s job did, too. School also relaxed for her 6- and 7-year old daughters, as the district ironed out a remote-learning plan.
To distract themselves from the news of the virus, the family spent a lot of time outside.
“The weather was great; we were biking,” Anderson said. “It was kind of this little bubble of idyllic life in the middle of a scary pandemic.”
But then that bubble burst.
School started to be more structured. Anderson had to keep her daughters on task, helping with Zoom calls and troubleshooting tech problems. Her husband’s job got more demanding, so they were forced to have a frank conversation.
They acknowledged he made more money and could support them if she quit or lost her job.
“So we made the choice that because my husband’s earning potential was so much higher than mine that I would be the one primarily responsible for the kids,” Anderson said. “Every morning, he goes to the attic and [works] in relative privacy, and I would be downstairs with the kids.”
Child care has been an issue for working parents since the pandemic began – whether they depended on school and afterschool programs, day care centers or other family members. With these options off the table, parents are finding it extremely difficult to also work.
Anderson said she’s had consistent child care ever since her first daughter was born – through day care and then later through school. In the summers, the kids went to various camps. That allowed Anderson to spend her days doing work she loves as the director of immigration policy and advocacy for the Children’s Defense Fund. But when school closed, the girls were stuck at home. Grandparents weren’t an option, either.
Now, Anderson had to figure out virtual school, while also trying to stay on top of her job. Often, it took a back seat, because she barely had enough time to write an email.
After a few months, she hit a wall.
“When school was wrapping up, and we’d been doing this for a while, there was just some sort of mental health crisis building in our family,” she said. “Just depression and anxiety feelings, you know? I took a week of staycation … and I felt like I had collided with a brick wall in terms of energy. All I wanted to do was sleep, but of course I couldn’t because I had to be with the kids, right? But at the end of that week, ramping back up to work again was just painful.”
Anderson said things got a little easier when school ended. The girls could play and didn’t need a strict schedule. They probably watched a little too much TV, she said, but she didn’t feel too bad about it.
When she started getting sample schedules from the school district about how e-learning would look in the fall, she knew her days would get stressful again. It was time for her and her husband to have another tough conversation. She decided to take three weeks off work at the beginning of the school year.
“I may extend it for four weeks; we’ll see how it goes,” she said. “Then after that time, I’m going to go back to my boss and be like, ‘OK, this is what my day looks like, this is how many hours I can put in and I’ll do whatever I can, but my priority has to be getting my kids through the school year.'”
A tricky position
Anderson said she knows she’s in a privileged position. Her employer is supportive and has offered other employees who are parents additional paid time off.
She knows, though, that she might be able to commit only five hours a week to work, which means she won’t be involved in projects she finds important.
“I’m good at my job,” she said. “It’s relaxing to do it, because I know what I’m doing and there are clear answers and clear steps to take.”
And that feels good, she said, when so much is unknown and new these days.
“When I’m doing my work, I feel like I’m in control,” she said.
One day last spring, she couldn’t get her kids on a Zoom call and just started crying – and laughing at the same time.
“It was so incessant and the pressures felt so high,” she said. “It was emotionally really stressful.”
She knows stepping back from work will help relieve that pressure on weekdays. But she’s also worried if she works fewer hours it could put her out of a job. The Children’s Defense Fund relies on grants to help pay her salary, and many of those grants require the nonprofit to meet certain goals.
“I worry that because my position is grant-funded, if I take too much leave and my colleagues can’t keep the ball rolling enough to meet the grant deliverables then we’ll lose grant funding,” she said. “And then how do they keep me?”
She expects she’ll end up working late at night when her kids are in bed. For now, though, she’s not focusing on what could happen with work – she first needs to get through the start of virtual school.