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This article is the first in a 3-part series on motherhood in the pandemic. 

Have you ever seen one of those movies where mom goes out of town for a few days and all hell breaks loose at home? Or caught hold of a viral news story about how mom’s early morning work event inadvertently leads dad to drop off one of their daughters at school in her underwear as he struggles to manage mom’s exhaustive list of morning tasks and duties? Yep, that sounds very 2020. And even though it was a rough year for all of us, mothers need their share of the credit for helping hold the world together. 

Just imagine a year without them…

Working mothers. Laid-off mothers. Mothers working frontline jobs in healthcare, risking their lives and the lives of their families to help COVID-19 patients. Single mothers. Teacher-mothers simultaneously helping their own children with classwork at home while also teaching their students online. Essential worker mothers who have been forced to decide between leaving their kids at home unattended or putting food on the table. Mothers in academia who no longer have the time or energy to publish. Mothers in early childcare who risk their lives to help with other people’s children while their own kids are engaged in online learning at home. 

For maybe the entire history of civilization, working mothers have been the glue that held our families and our economy together. And if you don’t believe me, just take a look back at 2020.

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My story…

I first remember hearing about the spread of the novel coronavirus in America in late February 2020. One of my coworkers burst into my office to inform me that the first death had been reported in America. At the time, I was working as an evaluator for a university program that allowed undergraduate students to participate in immersive service learning in communities, every summer, all across the globe. So, as soon as the first death was announced in America, we started paying close attention.  

Day after day, we would repeatedly check the COVID-19 Dashboard run by Johns Hopkins. It felt like the one thing we could consistently rely on in the face of increasing anxiety and uncertainty about what might happen next. What would we do with our summer programs? How would we deal with the socioemotional needs of our students if they found out we were canceling the one program that brought so many of them to our university in the first place? How would this affect our own jobs and incomes? 

By early March, the university was developing a plan to transition faculty and staff to full-time remote work, and students to virtual learning. Around that time, COVID-19 also started appearing in North Carolina. The IT team was working hard to ensure we each had access to the Virtual Private Network (VPN) and necessary shared drives, and within a week — as confirmed cases and fear both rose dramatically around us — we were asked to clean out our offices and not return until further notice. 

At first, it was all good. 

I was used to working from home in my previous roles and found that I could be much more productive without the constant interruptions of being in an office. Since I no longer had to report there at all, my morning routine was faster and more simple. I could easily manage making breakfast for my family and getting my daughter dressed for school by 7 am, so that my husband could drop her off on his way to work, while I took my son to his school downtown. 

By 7:45, I was back at home, logged into the VPN, and working comfortably from anywhere in my house, usually in an oversized sweatshirt, joggers, and slippers with a messy bun. At 3:45, I headed back downtown to pick up my son and could devote the rest of my evening to assisting with homework, cooking dinner, spending time with my family and, finally, having a little me-time before bed. 

But things quickly took a turn . . . 

I don’t think any of us were really concerned that the virus might actually take a toll on North Carolina, at least not in the beginning. The way it was initially reported, the virus seemed connected only to nursing homes and only on the West Coast. We couldn’t imagine that, here in America, this virus wouldn’t be conquered or contained before there was widespread transmission across the States. Well, at least not until it started taking over in New York. 

When it became obvious that younger people were certainly not immune to contracting or dying from this virus, my husband and I started stocking up on masks, disinfectant, hand sanitizer, and anything else we could find that might help to protect us from the unknown. We watched in horror as our local supermarkets ran out of hand soap and cleaning supplies — things we had once taken for granted — while businesses shut down all around us, and our Governor ordered us to shelter-in-place. 

That dreaded email from my son’s private Catholic school came early the following week, stating that administrators had decided to shift Spring Break from mid-April to mid-March in an effort to prepare for virtual learning. I was only mildly concerned about dealing with a sullen teenager who had been looking forward to a week in San Francisco but much more concerned about balancing my work with his school. How could I possibly move in and out of staff meetings while also ensuring that my 14 year-old son, who is on the Autism Spectrum, was logged into his classes, fully engaged, understanding what he was learning, receiving the help that he needed to be successful, meeting with his speech therapist and psychologist, and eating enough throughout the day?

The task proved more than difficult during the weeks that followed, but we managed it together. I was in the midst of a massive longitudinal data analysis project, and still, I had to become Superwoman at home. Whenever my son’s husky voice exclaimed, “Mom!,” I would toss my laptop and sprint to his room, my short legs scaling the stairs two at a time, like I was on my way to save a life. That week, I reprised my former role as classroom teacher, became a tech guru helping my son to navigate glitches, and likely could have won a title for the World’s Quickest Chef, whipping up meals in between meetings whenever my growing teenager announced he was hungry again

My evenings grew longer as I started logging in again to work some more after I helped my son with homework, prepared and finished dinner, played dollhouse and dress-up with my toddler, folded laundry, emailed my son’s teachers to check in on his progress or ask for modified assignments, and prepared the kids for bed. 

But frankly, those nighttime hours were the only time I had to catch up on work that had fallen through the cracks or taken the back burner to my roles as mother, worker, teacher, chef, best friend, cleaning crew, and household supervisor. Sleep became relatively nonexistent…

While most of my Xennial friends and I have somehow managed working through the pandemic and caring for our younger and school-aged children, despite daycares and schools mostly closed for an entire year this month, that management has been anything but easy. There certainly is no “work-life balance.” And now, we realize that we are part of the 9.8 million working mothers in the United States who are suffering from burnout

It feels like going a year without sleep.

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This article is the first in a 3-part series on motherhood in the pandemic. Read part 2 here. A Year Without Sleep was written by TDM consultant and data scientist Oriana Leach. To learn more about what your business can do to celebrate Women’s History Month and support working mothers within your organization, download our free Women’s History Month Programming Guide

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