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Isolation, Acrobatics, 'Mommy Networks': Motherhood During The Pandemic

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

On this Mother's Day, we, of course, want to honor and celebrate moms everywhere. And we also want to recognize how hard this past year of pandemic motherhood has been for so many moms. So we invited three mothers to share their experiences with us, to tell us about the challenges and rewards of this past year.

Lynn Steger Strong is a writer and mother of two speaking to us from Portland, Maine. Last October, she had an essay published in Time magazine titled The Pandemic Has Meant I'm Rarely Away From My Children. Am I Still More Than a Mom? Lynn, welcome.

LYNN STEGER STRONG: Thanks so much for having me.

PFEIFFER: Also part of our trio of mothers is Miriam Valdovinos, an assistant professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work. She became a new mom shortly before COVID hit. She ended up connecting with two other mothers of color in academia, and together they wrote a paper on mothering during a pandemic based on letters written to their children. Professor Valdovinos, welcome.

MIRIAM VALDOVINOS: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

PFEIFFER: And our third mother is Reverend Sheree Thompson, a minister in Inglewood, Calif. She also works for Herbalife Nutrition California and has an 18-year-old son in college. Reverend Thompson, welcome.

SHEREE THOMPSON: Thank you so much. I'm excited.

PFEIFFER: Lynn and Miriam and Sheree, the three of you come from very different professions, different parts of the country, your children are different ages, so you might be having very different pandemic experiences. Would each of you give us an overview of what your past year has been like? And, Miriam, since you're the newest mom, would you start us off?

VALDOVINOS: Sure, absolutely. My son is now 15 months old. He was born four weeks before we had our shutdown here in Denver, Colo., where we reside. And it's been quite interesting, very - not the type of isolation I was expecting. Most of my family is in Southern California. So when you think about some of the support that we receive as new mothers from our family members, from aunties, grandmas or cousins, sisters-in-laws, I didn't have that.

PFEIFFER: Sure. So, Miriam, you've had a newborn. And, Sheree, your son was approaching high school graduation when the pandemic began, the other end of childhood. How was it for you dealing with that stage of motherhood during a pandemic?

THOMPSON: You know, the most amazing part of it is you get to kind of see your kid become an adult in a very, very short period of time. What I was most fascinated by was my son's resilience, that though he was disappointed because, you know, graduation and prom, and they do senior night at Disneyland - we waive all of that in front of their face. They push them through that last semester. And to see those things kind of disappear - you know, and really what I found was that my son developed this grit and this resilience to push through. But I'm also just really hypersensitive to his emotional well-being because though he powered through, it was like, how are you feeling in the midst of all of this? How are you processing this?

And so it was difficult because I can't fix that. I couldn't orchestrate anything for him. I could just remind him that he had the strength to get through this and that this was not a forever moment. This was not all of life. This was just a moment. And he has so many more amazing moments that are ahead of him. And then bigger than that, it was, what can we do right now to make this moment something?

PFEIFFER: That's interesting. Sometimes you have to say, buck up, kid. And other times, you say, it's OK to feel bad. That's really important. Lynn, I understand your kids are both in online school now. How has that learning experience been for you?

STRONG: (Laughter) It's been a learning experience. It's funny because I'm a teacher, but I teach grad students, which is a much easier job than elementary school. And now I keep thinking about what it was like to have a newborn and how physical that is and how much I've returned to that sort of constant physical awareness of my children.

PFEIFFER: Just because they're always there?

STRONG: Because they're always there, and because, you know, their needs are always top of mind. When is the snack? When is the lunch? But also, is my 8-year-old actually on school, and has she snuck onto YouTube again?

PFEIFFER: (Laughter). You know, even in non-pandemic times, child care often becomes a mother's responsibility. The pandemic has made that so much harder, balancing kids and work and child care. For you, Miriam, how did you juggle your work in academia with a newborn?

VALDOVINOS: There were moments that, you know, just trying to find a space where I wouldn't be interrupted or I wouldn't be distracted was difficult. My son has been - we don't have outside child care, so it's been the responsibility of my husband and I to take care of him here in the house. And so just trying to balance like when - like, I felt sometimes I would have to, like, change hats. Like, when am I his mom right now to make sure that, you know, he's taken care of, he's, you know, diaper change, clothes, you know, or food et cetera, and then when am I putting on my hat as a professor, as an adviser, an instructor for my students? And so I think that it - like, these acrobatics that I felt like I've had to do at times were interesting just to navigate and, yeah, and not lose it, honestly.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter) Did you ever lose it?

VALDOVINOS: Of course, right? I mean, there's times where all - I just needed to cry, right? It's like, I needed to let go of whatever frustration or just tiredness. You know, there were times when my husband would look at me like, you need a nap. Just go to sleep. (Laughter) And again, trying to do that with you know being on the tenure track, knowing that, you know, there's all these things that don't necessarily stop.

PFEIFFER: And, Sheree, since your son is high school age, he's probably more self-sufficient. But how did you handle working and mothering at the same time this past year?

THOMPSON: The way that I managed through it all is honestly, I had a 24-hour Zoom call with my mommy friends. Like, we literally - on Mother's Day last year, we turned on a - we do a weekend retreat the weekend before Mother's Day. And because we couldn't go anywhere, we decided to do a Zoom thing. And it was little things like, you know, putting on makeup - because who had gotten dressed in the last few months, you know? - and little fun things like that. And so...

PFEIFFER: It lasted literally 24 hours? Anyone could come and go during that whole day?

THOMPSON: Yeah. That was the whole weekend, is that - in the middle of the night people were chatting because we have moms who are on the East Coast. And so they'd get up, and I wake up and hear a little chatter with them on the Zoom. It was so cute and so fun. And so Monday came, and we were all like, so what are you doing? Like, can I get some co-workers?

PFEIFFER: What a great substitute support system. And, you know, getting through this pandemic for mothers has often meant finding a support system when the usual ones are not there. Family can't visit. You feel uncomfortable maybe going into some of your neighbors' homes. Lynn, what's been the biggest help to you for support during this time?

STRONG: I mean, I think actually probably what felt at the time like the worst thing that happened during COVID ended up being the best support, which is that my husband got laid off. He was working in construction, and he was going into work every day 10 hours, sometimes 11 hours a day if you include his commute. But then he got laid off, and he was home, and he was able to help. And that shifted everything for us. You know, I mean, he was - we were really lucky he was able to get unemployment. And he was able to be my teammate again. And that really - again, what felt like the worst thing became the best thing.

PFEIFFER: Sheree and Lynn and Miriam, you all know that being a mother can be emotionally and physically tough in a way that's not always recognized or acknowledged. And a pandemic adds even more challenges. What is something about being a mom during COVID that each of you want people to know? And, Sheree, would you start us off?

THOMPSON: Sure. I think that the - so this - I'll put my Reverend Sheree hat on. I'm a fan of looking at every moment as an opportunity to grow. And so this has been a growth year like no other. Everybody grew in some way. You got to know yourself in some way. And it's like, don't miss that. Don't miss the you that emerged in the midst of this year because it's going to help you mother even better because now you know yourself more. Now you know your children more, and you know your spouse more. Like, there's some good that has come out of all of this, and we have to be able to cherry-pick and find those good things and not focus on what fell apart and what we lost and whatever that thing is. And not to discount those losses, but there's also the good that we have to be able to bear witness to and get that there was good in this year, that we can move forward and in a magnificent way.

PFEIFFER: What a great, optimistic perspective. Miriam, is there a COVID mothering revelation you want to share?

VALDOVINOS: I feel like the pandemic sort of forced me to slow down in some ways, even though there's a lot happening. Enjoy the - if it's the crying or the laughter or the dancing and, you know, all those moments I feel like if we were in our, you know, just before pandemic mode, I probably would - you know, I would find excuses to say I'm so busy, I need to, like, run and do this, or I'm responsible for whatever and forget about being in that present moment with my child.

PFEIFFER: And, Lynn, is there's something about being a mom during COVID that you want to share?

STRONG: Yeah. I mean, I think it's something maybe I already thought about a lot but felt is just in sharper relief now, which is just that every feeling holds its opposite inside it, too, you know? And that, like, for every moment that I sat on the kitchen floor or in the shower or every other place that I could hide in my apartment and cry, there was a random "Trolls" dance party when there wouldn't have been otherwise. Or I overheard my daughter say - the other day I overheard her tell her teacher that she feels like the luckiest person in the world because she always has books to escape into. And that would be charming regardless, but with a mom writer, you can - I melted, you know? I mean, I think...

PFEIFFER: Right. Music to your ears.

STRONG: Yeah. It's been impossibly hard, and it's been impossibly kind of incredible to know my kids this intimately and this constantly. And it's so hard to - whenever I talk about the one, I want to talk about the other because it's both at the same time. You know, in the same way when you're holding your baby and they're throwing up for the seventh hour, you're also thinking I'm holding my baby, you know? Like, that's what this year has been. You're thinking, oh, my God, you really need another meal? And you're also thinking, oh, my God, I get to make you another meal, you know? And that has just - that has never been clearer to me, I think.

PFEIFFER: Lynn and Miriam and Sheree, thank you so much for talking with us about this. You were all wonderful, and I hope the next year is better or at least good - as good as this year in the ways that - in the little ways that this year was good. That's Lynn Steger Strong author of the novels "Want" and "Hold Still," Miriam Valdovinos, an assistant professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, and Reverend Sheree Thompson, a minister in Inglewood, Calif. Thank you so much to all of you.

VALDOVINOS: Thank you.

STRONG: Thanks for having us.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.