A Mom’s Life

How the pandemic changed the work-life balance for moms and why it’s still a struggle

BY PARIS GILES
FIRST PRINTED IN THE
MAY/JUNE 2022 ISSUE

When asked once on a talk show about becoming a mother, actress Mila Kunis spoke of thinking that the love she had for her parents and for her husband was the zenith, before being smacked in the face by something she’d never felt before. My own mother once said something like, “You could never begin to understand.”

The easy joy of bedtime snuggles and the general fulfillment of watching a little person take shape aside, motherhood can also be dizzyingly hard. For working moms, parenting while also holding down a paid job adds an extra layer of complexity, from figuring out child care to defining “work-life balance” — and the pandemic has only further complicated things.

Waterford mom Lyndsey Sleek-Ristich, a social worker for Oakland County Schools, had her first baby, daughter Emerson, in April 2021. She got three months of maternity leave, but Sleek-Ristich says, “I was not physically (or) mentally ready to go back into the workforce after three months.” So, she took an additional six months off under the Family Medical Leave Act and returned, remotely, at the end of February, which she says has been an adjustment. “I don’t have time to decompress after my work day,” Sleek-Ristich says. “You know, like the drive home was my time to like turn on music, decompress and process so that when I come home, I am the best version of myself.”

According to a Pew Research Center study conducted at the end of January, at that time, roughly 59% of U.S. workers who said their jobs could mainly be done from home were working from their residences all or most of the time. And, of those, the majority were working from home by choice versus necessity — a flip from the start of the pandemic. Most of the respondents (64%) said their teleworking arrangement made it easier to balance personal and work life.

Day care troubles

For Sleek-Ristich, though, she says working from home requires that she don multiple hats simultaneously. She thinks some separation between home and work could be nice. “Right now, it’s just kind of all mashed, you know? Because you’re focusing on work, but then you go upstairs and it’s momhood, and then you see dirty dishes and laundry. And you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s time for lunch.’ It’s all blended.” That said, she’s still concerned about COVID, because the nature of her work would require her to go into people’s homes. “Are they vaxxed? I could wear a mask but …”

She says she and husband Dave have discussed day care for Emerson. When we speak, the current arrangement has her parents and in-laws trading shifts, looking after the baby while the couple works from home. Day care is expensive, she says. Still, with some rearranging, they could afford it, but here too COVID is a concern. Like other parents, they’re having to weigh the benefits of socialization with other kids against the risk of Emerson being exposed to the virus and bringing it home.

Roseville couple Toni and Stephanie Schepke did choose to put their twin boys, Lennon and Aherlow, in day care. The boys were born in January, and Toni says she was surprised, and often disheartened, by all the rigmarole that can be involved in finding the right day care.

Toni has been working from home since 2018, and Stephanie works half days at her family’s butcher shop, and so they only needed part-time care, but finding a place that wasn’t crazy expensive (or sketchy) and would accommodate their schedules proved tricky.

“I think I had expectations of like, we would call and we could tell them, ‘Hey we need these hours,’ and we could pay for the hours,” Toni says. Instead, some places only offered full days, or had minimum per week hour requirement, or carried set weekly rates.

For middle-income parents who may not qualify for state or federal tuition assistance, similar to the Schepkes’ experience, finding day care can be a time-consuming and expensive endeavor.

“I really wanted to create a space where we could be more transparent about struggles that we face in motherhood that we may not always want to talk about.”

An April 2021 study conducted by Public Policy Associates, Incorporated —  a public policy research, development and evaluation firm headquartered in Lansing — found that 75% of child care centers surveyed in Michigan charge up to $6.24 per hour for infants and toddlers (the most expensive age group). So, if you need day care that covers a 40-hour work week, you may be shelling out about $250 a week, or about $1,000 a month.

It’s also worth noting that access to quality care is a concern for many parents, specifically those of Black and Hispanic children. According to that same report, more than 60% of those little ones live in places with limited access to child care.

In the end, it was a familial connection that helped Toni and Stephanie get the boys into a quality day care center. Toni takes them in the mornings, and Stephanie picks them up when she gets off in the afternoon and is on baby duty until Toni finishes work.

“I’m fortunate enough to work from home and I can step out and help her, but, you know, it is distracting. Like today, she came home and they were fussy, and I was in the middle of a project,” Toni says.

A tireless role

Even though she works away from home, Stephanie says with two new babies on the brain, it’s still hard to detach mentally and shut off mommy mode. “You’re distracted no matter what. And going to work, no matter how much coffee you have or anything like that, you’re still exhausted.”

The women say their relationship makes for a powerhouse partnership, though. “We joke with our heterosexual friends because we have two moms to take care of the babies, and they have a man,” Toni says with a laugh. She carried the twins, and even though it was Stephanie’s first time even being around babies — “I had never changed a diaper,” she says — the women contend that something instinctual switched on.

Toni says, “What was wild to me, with myself but even more so with her, was the motherly instinct that just took over. Watching her with them right from the get-go in the hospital, you would think that she had the babies.”

Credit it to natural inclinations of societal expectations (or a bit of both), but there is a clear division of labor along gender lines. A Pew report found that, in 2015, moms in the U.S. spent an average of 15 hours per week on child care and 18 on housework. Compare that to American dads who dedicated seven and nine hours, respectively, to these tasks. And the pandemic only worsened this disparity.

Oak Park mom Amanda Keys welcomed her second baby, 2-year-old Preston, in February 2020, just weeks before widespread stay-at-home orders were handed down. “It was already a really difficult time, emotionally. But then a pandemic just added so much more, because it was that support that was lacking,” Keys says.

On the rare occasion that she was able to connect with other moms and share some of what she was experiencing, she found that they too were itching for an outlet. So, she formed the Hot Moms Tribe in response, an initiative that’s part movement, part members community. And that’s “hot” as in honest, open and transparent. “I really wanted to create a space where we could be more transparent about struggles that we face in motherhood that we may not always want to talk about,” Keys says. They host workshops and discussions, meet for dinner and the like, and just generally come together for conversation and support.

During her day to day, Keys is a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, working from home. Preston’s grandmothers help keep an eye on the toddler Monday through Thursday, and Keys tries to structure her Fridays so that she doesn’t have Zoom meetings, and when she’s on break from school, 9-year-old Paige is a huge help.

Keys says as she’s gotten older and as a second-time mom, she’s much more intentional about centering her own identity and about striking that balance between her personal and professional lives. “I feel like I can only be the best mom when I can be whole as an individual. I think being ambitious, following my dreams (and) doing things for myself only makes me a better mother. Because then I can pour from a full cup,” she says. And budgeting her time so that she’s present with her kids is also a priority. If it’s family night, then it’s family night and emails can wait until morning.

As for Toni and Stephanie, they’re looking forward to getting their twins on a set schedule and down for bed early in the evenings so that moms can enjoy some alone time. “Still trying to put (our relationship) first as well is a big priority to us,” Stephanie says.

Sleek-Ristich thinks it’s harder for this generation of millennial moms who are having babies later in life, after they’ve gone to school, moved up in their careers and established a life outside of motherhood and domesticity. Many are uninterested in giving up that part of themselves and are instead trying to figure out how to “have it all.”

“It’s exhausting,” Sleek-Ristich says. “So, I’ve just tried to embrace the chaos and the mess and just say, ‘You know, hey, my baby’s alive. So, I’m doing it.’”

Read More Stories from the May/June 2022 Issue

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