COVID-19 Update

COVID Cabin Fever

Family at home
Brian Harris watches his son, Rory Harris, 5, during a videoconference with his kindergarten classmates at the kitchen table while his daughter, Lucy, 10, looks up from an assignment provided on her iPad.
Photography by Lisa Intrabartola

It’s the night before my third week at home as a teacher/parent/Rutgers public relations specialist. My husband, Brian, and I are at the kitchen table—our house in shambles after a rainy weekend with our 10-year-old, Lucy, and our 5-year-old, Rory. I look at the mess and tell myself it doesn’t matter; it’s not like we’ll be entertaining anytime soon. 

Brian is on his laptop looking up our son’s kindergarten lesson for tomorrow and trying to come up with a new “Question of the Day.” It’s a small part of Rory’s morning routine that we are preserving because it reminds him of the teacher and classmates he misses so much.   

I’m on my laptop, scanning my fifth-grade daughter’s emails and my own, then toggling between Google Classroom and each of her teachers’ homepages on the school website. I’m trying to figure out whether she’s turned in all her assignments, what she should be working on next, and when her upcoming virtual meetups are scheduled. Before homeschooling, I rarely had to check up on Lucy’s work. But with so many places to look for assignments, it’s easy for one to slip past us. 

“Tuesday looks like it’s going to be a perfect storm,” I tell Brian. Lucy has three class meetups that day. I have a conference call with my team at Rutgers Today, which is the news service at Rutgers, and one of my twice-weekly virtual COVID-19 town council meetings later in the day. (I’m a councilwoman for Clinton, New Jersey.) If we have the same technical difficulties that nearly derailed my daughter’s Zoom meeting last week—one computer without a mic and the other without a camera—we’ll be done for.

“Better take the school up on their offer and get her Chromebook tomorrow, just in case,” I say. The school emailed earlier in the day to let parents know they could pick up the mini laptops our children use in school.

After squaring away the school schedules, I open up the clips. Everyone in my house knows about “the clips” from our new morning mantra: “Not now, honey. Mommy needs to finish the clips!” I used to tackle this detailed daily summary of media coverage of Rutgers in the quiet sanctuary of my office at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. Now, I start editing them late at night and wake before my children to finish compiling them. But someone always needs mommy before it’s completed.

After getting in a few hours of work while the kids are sleeping, eating, or dressing, I get them started on their assignments for the day. Luckily, Lucy is able to work largely on her own, but Rory is learning to read and needs constant guidance. I can plan, stick to a color-coded schedule, and read coping tips ’til next fall, but none of it will make teaching my kindergartener while also working physically or mentally possible.

Two days into my solo stint teaching and working from home, Brian returned from work to find me near tears and losing my temper. I was failing miserably as a PR specialist, a teacher, and, most importantly, as a mom. That’s when he changed his schedule. With the restaurant that he manages open only for takeout and delivery, he reduced his hours and now stays home until later in the afternoon so he can be Rory’s primary instructor. I scramble to get most of my Rutgers work done before then, stepping in as needed to help Lucy, settle disputes, make lunch, and troubleshoot technical issues. 

Juggling distance learning for two and my workload from home, even with two parents, is still a struggle, but I know we are among the lucky ones. We have health care, the ability to work, children who are miraculously learning and thriving through all of this, and one another to depend on. Taking on each day as a team is the only way we are muscling through. Too many mothers don’t have that same level of support. So, we try to stay present and focus on the beautiful moments—dance parties, weekend breakfasts in bed, and hours spent reading and snuggling—and not the meltdowns that come from hunkering down with your family during such unsettling times.