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Parenting in the COVID-19 Era: Work-Life Balance Turning into Whack-A-Mole

As a mother of four young children (ages 9, 7, 4, and a 9-month-old), my pre-COVID-19 life normally encompassed a great degree of daily chaos. Whether it was getting them dressed and ready for breakfast, shuttling them off to school, picking them up from different extracurricular activities, or overseeing their homework, these daily activities were frequently accompanied by tantrums or simply non-compliance. While I love spending time with my children at home, I also enjoy my profession as an assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery. Besides managing a basic and translational research laboratory, I mentor my trainees, and teach courses for graduate and medical students. Pre-pandemic, when I was not mentoring or teaching, I could usually be found in my office writing manuscripts or grant applications, or meeting with collaborators about research progress.  

Whereas previously I might have regarded myself as having some kind of work-life separation based on the physical distance between my work and home, that gap completely disappeared during the shelter-in-place. My current time schedule feels more like a day-long game of whack-a-mole to complete one task while other deadlines emerge almost instantly. While helping my older children log into their remote learning meetings and assisting them with their homework, I might respond to urgent emails about research or teaching. Work-related Zoom meetings sometimes get interrupted by my children’s complaints about poor Wi-Fi connectivity, IT issues, and requests for snacks or toys. More time at home also equates to more messes to clean and more meals to prepare. Starting from morning breakfast to the nighttime book reading, my new normal now encompasses homeschooling my children, meeting virtually with trainees about research progress, teaching a graduate course virtually, and managing the remote learning meetings of my two school-age daughters, all while juggling housekeeping and nursing in between these activities. Without remote learning demands of their own, my toddler and infant seem entertained by the constant bustling of Zoom meetings and activity around the house.  

Whereas previously I might have regarded myself as having some kind of work-life separation based on the physical distance between my work and home, that gap completely disappeared during the shelter-in-place.

In the midst of this chaotic lifestyle, I am grateful to have a job and am appreciative of the essential workers who put their lives at risk to help others.   I am fortunate to have help to make life during sheltering-in-place somewhat manageable. Family members nearby help watch over the infant or help with the older children’s homework.  This assistance enables me to have a few hours of dedicated time for work productivity each day. This time helps me maintain a semblance of normalcy where I can think creatively about research ideas, prepare research grant applications, and advise my trainees in their research. In these uncertain times, I am thankful for all the time I can get to “lean in” to my professional career, sparse though that time is.  

When I think about the unique experience of having our lives carry on under the same roof for an extended period of time, I become acutely aware of the elements of daily life that get missed in a conventional workday. Like a fly on a wall, I become a witness to my older daughter learning about scalene triangles and lines of symmetry for the first time from her teacher. Or I get a glimpse of my girls practicing the steps of a new hip hop dance routine for their physical education class. It is a special treat to eat lunch with my children every day, to give unlimited hugs to my infant, or to read a book to my toddler before his afternoon nap—things that I normally would not be able to do if I were not working from home. Additionally, I witness my husband’s resilience to work-related stress as he plays with the children after a long day of virtual meetings. These experiences reveal how transparent our lives have become to one another.  

Generational Differences in Parenting in the COVID-19 Era

Growing up in the ‘80s in an Asian household in New York, my mother stayed at home to watch over my four siblings and me while my father worked physically demanding jobs to provide for the family. The roles of each parent were very distinct. My mother was responsible for most childrearing responsibilities, as well as all the cooking and cleaning. My father worked hard to provide financially for us but was less emotionally available. This arrangement seemed to make sense to me as a child, but these days I find myself noticing that it probably would not have adapted well to COVID-19. After all, my parents rarely co-shared any of their parenting roles. My father would be resigned to cooking instant noodles or hardboiled eggs, if my mother was out grocery shopping, rather than learning to cook himself. Conversely, my mother never considered pursuing a career of her own. 

If COVID-19 had struck when I was a child, most likely sheltering-in-place would have meant my father resting at home, while my mother continued her role of cooking, cleaning, as well as taking the risk to shop for groceries. I should note that even my parents have rearranged their respective roles since I was a child—after taking his retirement my father has become more proactive in housekeeping and cooking basic meals.  The COVID transformation seems to be hitting the domestic sphere at a time when it has already been undergoing its own transition.

I definitely get the sense that, compared to the family structure in which I grew up, the structure we have established is more resilient during the COVID-19 crisis because of the blending of parental roles.

I definitely get the sense that, compared to the family structure in which I grew up, the structure we have established is more resilient during the COVID-19 crisis because of the blending of parental roles. In these past few months in which we have been sheltering in place, my husband has been more than happy to shop for groceries, wash the dishes, or feed the baby. The internet has certainly helped, but surely one side of this is simply who feels responsible for any particular arena of domestic chores. My partner and I are able to home-school the children and teach new educational concepts to supplement their remote learning. 

The time at home also calls on, and rewards, our creativity in entertaining the kids, whether it is cooking with them or camping out in the living room – here, too, it is clear that this creativity is required from both of us. My husband spends a great deal of time interacting and playing with the children until their bedtime, even if it delays his own bedtime until the wee morning hours to complete unfinished work. My husband will gladly change poopy diapers, play tag with my hyperactive toddler, attend parent-teacher conferences, and make pizza from scratch—things my father would not have done when I was growing up. While I appreciate co-sharing the parenting responsibilities with my partner, I have come to realize that the eroding distinction between “motherly” and “fatherly” roles goes beyond simply who does what. It’s not just about responsibilities, it’s also about care in a broader sense.

That we can expand our care in this way, has to do with how much of that labor can be outsourced via the internet, which enables creativity and automates what for my parents would have been extremely time-intensive chores. We can rely on Amazon Prime free shipping and supermarket delivery services to keep our fridge stocked. Door Dash and other meal delivery services make it easy to feast on our favorite dishes any time. Not to mention that remote learning via Zoom helps our children learn and remain socially engaged. The internet is our lifeline in pandemic mode; but it can function in this way because on the other end of that line are human beings unable to rely on these lifelines.

As our nation is slowly beginning to re-open, I keep wondering whether we will ever reach pre-pandemic normalcy again, and indeed what that normalcy would look like.  The COVID-19 crisis has challenged some aspects of my parenting and professional roles, but it has also put into perspective the things that are most important to me. With resilience and flexibility, I believe that I can maintain a fulfilling family and work life. I am ultimately grateful for this strange but unique time with my partner and children. But given that the equitable distribution of labor within my family relies on labor outside of the family, I do wonder what returning to normal will look like. 

Ngan F. Huang, PhD, is assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford.