As schools transitioned to online learning due to the pandemic last March, adults in many households had to make tough choices quickly. They had to decide who would stay home with the children. Who …
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Part 1: In this report, mothers share how they navigated the past year during COVID-19 challenges and restrictions. In Part 2 next week, we will talk to students about how their routines with friends and schools changed drastically and how they adjusted.
As schools transitioned to online learning due to the pandemic last March, adults in many households had to make tough choices quickly. They had to decide who would stay home with the children. Who would oversee online learning and childcare, especially for children 12 and under?
Studies show most of that responsibility fell on moms. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women ages 25-44 were three times as likely as men to stop working during the pandemic to address childcare needs.
Kristin Orlowski, a UCHealth behavioral health expert in Highlands Ranch, said the data is not surprising. For moms, it is always about the children and taking care of them, she said.
“Moms have been given the responsibility of handling the brunt of the work,” she said. “Dealing with that has been a real issue for a lot of moms this year. You have working moms and you have the single moms really taking on this heavy load.”
Keeping careers intact
For single mom Deborah Freeman, there was no deciding who would stay home. The responsibility to take care of her three daughters was solely on her shoulders. However, Freeman faced the added stress of maintaining a career and paying bills while making sure her daughters were meeting academic standards along with providing emotional support as needed.
Freeman is the owner of the Just Between Friends (JBF) children’s consignment franchise in Douglas County. She holds two major sales events a year at the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Castle Rock, which accounts for most of her annual income. After a divorce, Freeman invested in the franchise to make a living and be at home as much as possible with her children.
With the spring show canceled in early April last year, Freeman said she was in limbo for weeks while seeking a center to accommodate the size of her event. She found a place in Lone Tree and moved the show to June. She made less money, had fewer consignors and fewer shoppers.
“It was a real struggle because during a pandemic there is no way to understand consumer behavior,” Freeman said. “There was no information or data. You just had to rely on relationships you have formed over the past years.”
Eight weeks later, Freeman hosted another sale, but like the last one, the revenue was down.
Freeman said she is more optimistic about 2021 but still faces an uphill battle. She has scheduled another show at the Douglas County Fairgrounds this spring, but due to limited open dates, it falls on Easter weekend. Like 2020, Freeman said there is no way to predict consumer behavior.
Serving on the board at Sky Ridge Medical Center, Freeman also hosts the annual Bumps and Babies event for expecting moms, which was canceled in 2020.
Shannon Eklund, an executive assistant for the Town of Castle Rock, said she is proud of the career she built and did not want to consider giving it up.
Knowing that more than a million moms had to leave careers and jobs in 2020 to take care of children is “heartbreaking,” she said.
“It is interesting how much really falls on moms,” said the mother of three. “I worked so hard for so long on my career. I am just glad to have had the support system around me that allowed me to keep going. Being a role model for my kids is super important.”
Parker mom Jenna Jackson was nursing a brand-new, in-home fashion boutique business when the pandemic hit. The Parker resident said she did not want to give up the work she had been doing for more than two years, but started asking herself if she should continue.
“I remember last March when everything was so scary,” said the mother of four. “I didn’t want to show clothes to people because I felt like there was way more important things happening in the world. I was trying to be respectful to people and deal with my family and home.”
Eventually, Jackson said she found out her online women’s fashion and accessories boutique was an outlet for other moms.
“They wanted a distraction,” she said, “they wanted to shop while the kids ran around the house going crazy.”
For Susan Nats in Highlands Ranch, she and her husband Tim had just opened a Tropical Smoothie franchise one week before the major shutdown. Nats, a mother of two high-school sons and two college-aged daughters, said she had to put her children to work to make sure the business survived through the first year of the pandemic.
Nats said the need to keep the business running kept the family together and gave them all something to do.
If anyone was prepared for the challenges of homeschooling, it was Eklund. Her two teenage daughters and preschool son were in good hands as Eklund was homeschooled he entire childhood.
“I grew up in the wood-burning heat of the mountains in Montana,” she said. “When the kids came home, I thought, ‘I got this.’ I am blessed to have good, patient, understanding kids.”
From the start, Eklund said it was all about setting priorities, having structure and understanding boundaries. However, she joked there were still days where she was in a Zoom meeting while her 5-year-old son practiced ninja kicks loudly in the background.
“With my preschooler, it was not about preparing him for Harvard,” Eklund said. “We made play dough, worked on the ABCs and numbers. With my daughters, we found hobbies and stayed focused on structure. I had been pushing for more autonomy with my kids anyway. This really helped that.”
While her daughters adapted well to online learning, Freeman said there were still moments of depression, anxiety and stress for each of them, which range in age between 11 and 14.
“For us, it was very much a one day at a time situation,” she said. “We had some missed milestones and missed moments. We just had to find a way to continue.”
Jackson said last spring when schools were canceled, the teachers tried their best, but virtual learning was not organized well for all her children, which range in age between 7 and 16.
“I essentially had a kindergarten dropout,” Jackson joked. “At 6 years old, he was just too little. My kids struggled online. They made it through, but a lot of (the curriculum) was thrown together.”
Jackson said in the fall, teachers had more time and virtual learning went a lot smoother.
In organizing regular school days, Jackson said she created a program that became known as the “Lunch Lady,” posting videos of her cooking lunch each day on social media. The series became popular with family and friends as her kids started participating, creating meal lists and rating the homemade dishes.
Jackson said she did a 40-day series of homemade lunches that pushed her family to eat together every day.
“No matter what everybody was doing, they knew that noon every day was lunch time,” she said.
A focus on self-care
As the pandemic restrictions stayed intact through the summer, several moms said they started realizing the importance of self-care.
Freeman said one day she got up and realized she had gained weight, rarely put on nice clothes and was hardly ever wearing makeup anymore. With a focus on herself, she began putting more effort into her appearance and lost 30 pounds.
“I decided it was important to do something every day for myself,” she said. “I wanted to get more sleep. I wanted to get the energy to continue taking on whatever comes. I became very cognizant that just because my kids were home, I did not have to do everything. I knew I couldn’t fall into the trap of always trying to be super mom.”
Jackson said it was all about alone time. She realized months into the pandemic that it was OK to make dad cook dinner while she spent hours relaxing in a warm bath.
Orlowski said while 2020 posed a lot of mental-health challenges for all family members, she is not surprised moms figured out how much their own care mattered in a year that posed a lot of challenges.
“This year changed a lot of our lives and mothers started realizing that self-care matters,” she said. “Without self-care, moms can’t take care of all of those around them. Without true self-care, especially in a pandemic, it can lead to serious burn out.”
By mid-summer, Eklund said she became very aware that self-isolation can be a good thing. With a sister nearby, Eklund co-isolated with her, providing breaks and relieving each other when needed.
“I realized it is important to put a priority on myself,” she said. “The cards for me were stacked nicely. Not for a lack of trying — that’s for darn sure.”
Positives in a year of negatives
In the end, Jackson said she loved having her family home every day. She loved the closeness the year brought with family nights, cooking lunches and being together. She also loved the slowdown.
“Before we had the shutdown, we were constantly going,” she said. “We were driving kids to school, taking them to athletics. I really did enjoy the break from all of it.”
Orlinski said it is important for moms to take away the good parts of the year. It is also good to learn some of those lessons and instead of just forgetting them and going back to old habits, to consider carrying some of those new routines forward.
Freeman said she did more projects with her daughters, noting that a lot of it involved painting the bathroom three or more times, or designing a mural on the glass doors.
Together time became important during the pandemic. Freeman said she got back to having family dinners to talk about the day, laugh and enjoy each other’s company.
“It may not have been a perfect dinner, but it was perfect as long as we were having dinner together,” she said. “I worked on being present. It is still a struggle. Really, it was a struggle as a single mom even before COVID. On any given day, you feel like one of your kids is getting the short end of the stick.”
Eklund said she was already close with her son and daughters and the pandemic helped that continue.
“We have always been able to just find a way,” she said. “What works for one may not work for the other. I have been lucky all around. If it seemed like we needed to just get out of the house, I grabbed my computer, and we went to the park. It was super fun.”
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