A year ago, they hunkered down for two weeks, max. That would be enough time to flatten the curve, they thought — everyone thought.
But then two weeks turned into a month, two months, six months. A new school year began. The holidays came and went along with the turn of the new year. Now, having marked a year since work-from-home and eLearning became the new normal, working parents of school-age and younger children, especially, have felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that now makes them part of a survival club they never hoped to join.
Five parents in Greenville County shared their experiences with us — from juggling a newborn with severe reflux while two working adults maintained some modicum of professionalism on Zoom to trekking cross-country with teenagers who eLearned for nine weeks.
All of their experiences are unique — differing family dynamics, industries, stages of life — yet all express, in no uncertain terms, how difficult the previous year was, and how the ongoing pandemic has shaped their parenting.
New mom and licensed therapist Lindsay Hill summed it up: “There’s no right choice here. This whole year is about adaptability. We’re not doing this perfectly.”
Self-employed entrepreneur, running and triathlon coach
“I hate this pandemic in so many ways. It also was a blessing for us in many ways.”
Jennifer Arends is a mom of three — a grown son, 23, and two teenage daughters, Addi, 15, and Avery, 17. She and her husband, Gregory, co-own a residential construction business, Palladium Homes, that took off during the months when people were home discovering all the things they wanted to change about their houses. Arends also coaches athletes, and lost 90% of her business as races and events were cancelled. She’s OK with that.
What she wasn’t prepared for, and is still processing, was the sudden death of her mother several weeks into the pandemic after also juggling the need to share work-from-home space with two high school eLearners whose boredom became her job to manage.
Her mother’s passing, unrelated to COVID-19, came just after the Arends family had spent a few secluded weeks with her at her beach home; virtual learning afforded them the chance to do school from elsewhere.
“We would have never spent that much time with her otherwise,” she says.
That loss, along with a few other tragic deaths of the girls’ peers, led the Arends ladies on a nine-week cross-country trip of a lifetime.
“The loss of their grandmother and friends made them realize we should be spending time together,” Arends says.
Avery, flexing her debate skills, made the case for a semester of virtual learning while on the road, allowing them to take the trip they’d always wanted to. Arends said, “No way.” At first.
“Why am I fighting my teenage kids on this?” she asked herself. “I don’t know many teenage daughters who want to spend that much time with their mother. I should really embrace this.”
So she did.
Over nine weeks in the fall, Arends and her girls traveled through 31 states, visiting 19 national parks, and clocking 10,000 miles, all the while relying on hotel Wi-Fi for the girls’ schooling.
Virtual learning wasn’t without its difficulties, and Arends is still working to get her youngest daughter back into in-person school to help with some learning challenges that became more acute without classroom structure. The girls missed their cross-country meets and horse-riding groups, and were literally thousands of miles away from their friends.
“It was a trade-off and an adjustment when we got back,” Arends says. “But it kept their minds occupied and may have eliminated some frustrations.”
And, she says, despite the challenges she wouldn’t change anything about their choices.
“The whole year gave a new perspective on what’s important in life for a lot of people,” Arends says. “We need to be seizing on things that are more important than bringing in more money. All of our focus shifted.”
Read more about the Arends’ great adventure at motherdaughterofalltrips.com.
Tory and Mike Pennington
ESOL teacher, Greenville County Virtual School, and business development manager, Young Office
“We would not be the parents that we are without COVID. We are literally a team. We haven’t missed anything. We heard him say ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada.’ We saw him take his first steps.”
Tory Pennington gave birth to the couple’s son, Summit, on April 2, after months of preparation for a substitute teacher to take over her then in-person job as an ESOL teacher. Once school facilities shut down mid-March, all of that work became irrelevant. Home suddenly became the workspace for both Tory and Mike, as well as the place they would simultaneously grow into their roles as parents.
“Teaching has always been No. 1 for me, and I would put [my students] above myself most days,” Tory says. “Trying to balance both being a mom and a teacher in one space every single day — it’s hard to put a word to it. You feel like you’re failing one or the other. You can’t be both at one time.”
Mike is in the business of outfitting office spaces, and with the sudden shift for many companies to no physical offices, selling office furniture and design became increasingly difficult. Mentally, that became yet another challenge to overcome.
For a while, the two parents shared a workspace, playing hot potato with Summit, who suffered from severe reflux, while coordinating virtual meeting schedules.
“It’s impossible. The baby’s trying to grab the book you’re reading to your students, and then your internet goes out. What are we even doing?” Tory says.
In July, the couple contracted COVID-19, creating further health, mental and emotional complications.
Tory then made the decision before the new school year to join Greenville County Virtual School and needed to formalize her teaching environment. They researched YouTube game setups to make her capabilities as high-tech as possible.
As an ESOL teacher, Tory is working with students for whom English is their second language, and as much interaction with her as possible is necessary for their academic success. The virtual format has been highly successful for her, she says, and she feels like she’s found her niche.
“I couldn’t do my job at all without constant contact with family,” she says. “I’m more connected than I ever have been. I can be on the screen with a kid and hear their parents. It’s changed who I am as a teacher.”
Meanwhile, Summit moved to daycare, allowing Tory to regain some control over her teaching environment, but then a major COVID-19 spike in the daycare through the holidays sent Summit back home for weeks.
“It’s really hard,” Mike says. “Everyone is working with some kind of inhibitor, and no one’s at max capacity.”
Private dining coordinator at Augusta Grill
“I could sit here and cry, and I’m sure I did cry because of stress, but I’m still, 5 minutes later, going to have to get at it.”
Whitney Schultz belongs to an industry that, some argue, has been the hardest hit of any since March 2020. Juggling all of the admin responsibilities of keeping a well-loved restaurant afloat while also providing eLearning support for her two daughters, Katie, 10, and Lily, 13, should not have been as difficult as it was, she thought, a year ago. After all, she’s one portfolio away from a degree in education.
“You would’ve thought that I would’ve had a leg up, but it was still such a nightmare getting them motivated,” she says.
While the restaurant was mostly vacant, she would pack the kids up and bring them with her into Augusta Grill while she kept the books and ordering straight. She didn’t anticipate, however, that her middle schooler — usually the rule-follower she never worried about — would stop completing weeks’ worth of assignments in response to how emotionally taxing the whole situation had become. Getting Lily back on track became another full-time job, on top of the multiple others Schultz was already handling.
The mental toll on the girls as the shutdown and seclusion wore on was difficult to navigate.
“We were also kind of naive thinking, ‘This will be over in a month,’” Schultz recalls. “I kept accidentally lying to them that it would be over. ‘Don’t worry. It will be fine.’”
The girls went back to in-person school on the Greenville County School District schedule, but it’s still not “normal.”
“I had told them it would end, and it didn’t. It’s been so much for them,” Schultz says.
Mental health therapist, M.Ed. LPC, co-owner of Travelers Rest Counseling Associates
“Giving birth in the year 2020 is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m raising a baby in captivity like a zoo animal. All of my hopes and dreams for motherhood went out the window.”
Lindsay Hill wears multiple hats that provide her a unique perspective on what is happening both inside her home and in the world. As a mental health therapist working with families and children, she’s entrenched in the difficulties they continue to face. As a new mom as of January 2020, she’s had to navigate postpartum life largely unsupported by her personal community.
“I couldn’t call on friends and family to help,” she says.
Trying to process her new identity as a mother while also helping patients created an overwhelming challenge.
Hill was back to working full time when the pandemic hit. Her sessions went fully virtual, which cost her some patients, but suddenly being virtually in each others’ homes provided context for her clients’ lives she never had. They also got to see her baby, and even on occasion, she’d have to “stealth-pump” because a session with a female patient would land during a time she would otherwise feed her daughter.
Hill’s husband works on the night shift at BMW, so in many ways, Hill was pandemic parenting alone, especially through the nights of breastfeeding and little sleep.
“I felt utterly abandoned,” she says. “At my lower moments I felt like I loved [my daughter] more abstractly. It was so strange. It felt unreal.”
Possessing the strategic tools to help herself navigate this, she had to remind herself of the things she’d tell her patients.
“As a therapist who does parenting stuff, we could not screw this up,” she said about the pressure she and her husband felt to get it all right. “I had to remind myself, parenthood does not call for perfect parenting. We have to have the courage to be imperfect. I try to talk the talk and walk the walk. I don’t even want my daughter to have a perfect parent, and she grows up thinking that parents have to be perfect.”
When schedules aligned her husband would do what he could to help.
“There were moments I’d sit and cry. ‘I’m not OK, and I have no idea what you could do to help,’” she recalls saying to her husband when he’d ask what he could do. “Generally as a mother, especially if you breastfeed, you’re the one who has to figure it out. Every day felt like I was not doing a good enough job.”
Her daughter is 14 months old now, and Hill continues to make choices to protect herself and her loved ones. No one outside of her immediate family has met her daughter, and that is heartbreaking, she says.
This unprecedented parenting environment, however, isn’t without its benefits, she says.
“Right now it kind of is like the house is on fire,” she says. “At some point, this will end, and we will have learned to adapt. It happened, and our kids got an early jump on learning how to adapt to really hard things. It’s not like we wanted this. But it’s also not a bad thing for your kids to see you struggle.”