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Back to School 2020: How Can We Do It Better?

August 26 2020 – Kathryn Wepfer

Tired mom working at home with kids in background - photo by Ketut Subiyanto
Tired mom working at home with kids in background - photo by Ketut Subiyanto

For working moms, 2020 continues to be a roller coaster of challenges.  While many of us can appreciate the opportunity this pandemic has provided to strengthen our family bonds, there is no denying the last few months have been incredibly hard.  Back in the spring when the pandemic hit, we scrambled to simultaneously be full time parents and full time employees, fumbling through our first Zooms and navigating our initial attempts at virtual learning.  I vividly recall my last evening out with girlfriends a couple of days before total lockdown hit.  We went to see a female comedy show at the Kennedy Center, and as we stood outside after the show, we wondered what lockdown would be like.  We talked about our stocked pantries and how we’d be fine because our kids would be happy eating beans and rice for days.  We didn’t yet comprehend the way our lives would be completely turned upside down in just a few short days.  We were in the naïve “Before Times,” focused on groceries with no understanding of what it would be like or how long it could last. 

After we slogged through the spring, we faced the challenge of summer vacation – the panic of no school or camp to entertain kids, and the realization that the virus wouldn’t be going away anytime soon.  To make it worse, we felt the heartbreak of missing the summer trips and traditions that lift our souls in normal years, giving us much needed rejuvenation. 

School girl sitting in front of a computer

Now the next season is upon us:  back to school, though this will be far from a normal school year.  Some of us have already made the impossible decision about sending kids back to daycare, and many of us are now in the process of thinking through the return to school.  We’re deciding between two flawed options: sending our kids back to school or daycare, with the increased risk these contacts pose, or choosing to keep our kids at home and managing the simultaneous learning and working from home.  It’s a terrible choice for parents to have to make, and likely one we never expected to need to make.  After spending the last 5+ months juggling fulltime work and fulltime parenting, many moms have reached a breaking point.  As one mother recently described to me “never did we entertain the feasibility of simultaneously working at home full time and taking care of a 3-year old. If we had to maintain this long-term, my husband's company - a start-up - would shut down.  My work - a non-profit with a staff of just six - would likely suffer irrevocably.”

Mother working at home with son beside her

It can feel like a lose-lose situation and cause a lot of unneeded stress for working parents, particularly for working moms.  Even those with the most flexible work arrangements and the most supportive employers are finding it difficult to face another season juggling both roles.  One of my working mom friends recently decided to send her kids back to daycare, though it was not an easy process.  She recalls “I agonized over sending the kids back to school. Tears, phone calls to the doctor, daycare, friends for counsel. I was worried for my babies and their health. I was also worried about what would happen if they didn't go back - to our work, sanity, and marriage - but most of all, to them. I knew that they needed to be there for the socialization, play, and real contact with other kids. It felt like the most impossible decision in a year of truly impossible decisions.  At the end of the day, we read all we could and decided it was a relatively small risk to their health and that we just couldn't do it anymore. We couldn't both work full-time, be teachers and caregivers, keep the house running, and have anything left for ourselves and each other.”

It felt like the most impossible decision in a year of truly impossible decisions.

If you’ve navigated this decision process, kudos for reaching a conclusion – it’s not an easy decision to make or to feel satisfied with.  As my friend experienced, “I almost changed my mind countless times in the week leading up to sending them back. Part of me knew that despite the stress, those 3 months we spent at home with the kids was a gift...and one that I might never get again. I would miss seeing them every minute, catching every conversation, game, and milestone.  My husband had to drop them off the first day because I couldn't bear to do it. And then suddenly...the house was empty. I had a full cup of coffee in silence without a single interruption. I got more work done that morning than the entire previous week. I took a walk by myself, listened to a podcast, and felt human again. The kids came home happy as can be, and all felt right in the world, or as right as it can be right now.”

Some of us are lucky to have options for our families this fall, while others may be dealing with the absence of any good options.  Wherever you find yourself right now, the path forward is going to be a challenge, with “normal” still a long way ahead - so how can we make this next COVID season better than the last one?  And most importantly, how can we make it a better season for us as working moms? 

I want to offer some insight from my friend Randi Braun – an executive coach focused on women, and the founder of Something Major – who says that self-care is not just a critical component of our back to school plans, it’s an imperative for us as working moms.  In her article Effective Self Care in a COVID19 World, Braun emphasizes that self care isn’t a selfish indulgence, but rather needs to be prioritized. It helps us to show up as our best selves, not just for us but for other people as well, and Braun challenges us to reframe self-care as an act of service to ourselves and to others.  Some of us may feel it’s an impossible time to accommodate any sort of self-care, but Braun urges us to find small ways to take care of ourselves, even if it’s taking a 60-second break between calls.  Put self-care time on your calendar everyday as a way to commit to the practice, she recommends,  and look for meetings or tasks to actively cut out of your day to free up time for self care.  “One tip I recommend is choosing one thing in your life you will say “no” to and one thing you will say “yes” to every single day to take care of yourself. Try doing this exercise each morning and actually writing it down: they can be small things like “no, I will not fold laundry today” to make 15 minutes for something else.”

One tip I recommend is choosing one thing in your life you will say “no” to and one thing you will say “yes” to every single day to take care of yourself.

Sign that says "self care isn't selfish"

In the process of developing or refining your own self-care practice, I recommend using Braun’s self-audit  Surviving or Thriving While Remote? A Personal Audit For Working Parents as a quick way to approach this next season.  Here Braun poses 6 questions to help us manage our time optimally, to adapt our mindset and expectations during this crazy time, and to set self-care priorities for ourselves. It’s a practical, quick check-in to help us start off the school season with a refreshed perspective. 

For more great tips from Randi, check out these resources…

Here’s to our next challenge, fellow working moms.  It’s going to be hard, but let’s make it a little better for ourselves than the last season.  We owe it to ourselves.


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